I’ve had some ambivalence about Marvel Studios’ upcoming Doctor Strange movie.
As a comics reader, I’m a big fan of magical characters. That means Doctor Fate and various Justice League Dark related characters from DC, and Doctor Strange and compatriots in the Marvel universe. So I’ve always been onboard with a movie about the Sorcerer Supreme, and spent a bit of time thinking about what I wanted that movie to look like.
Back when all we knew about Doctor Strange was that it was happening, my dream for it was that—given the likelihood of the demon Dormammu being the antagonist—it would be a PG-13 horror movie. Making Doctor Strange a horror movie would be 1) awesome; and 2) a great way of further diversifying both the Marvel Studios brand and the idea of what comic book tentpole movies could be.
Then Marvel announced that Scott Derrickson, known primarily for his work making horror films, would be directing the movie. I heard that and I thought to myself, “Hey, I called it! They’re gonna make Doctor Strange a horror movie!” And there was much rejoicing.
But then we saw the first trailer, and it was immediately clear that what Derrickson and Marvel had made was not, in fact, a horror movie. Instead, it appeared they were going for a tone and visual style that was more—for lack of a better word—Inception-y.
This was, obviously, not what I wanted. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing; it just meant that Doctor Strange was going to have to do a little work to bring me fully back on board. Well, last night I went to the IMAX preview of 15 minutes of Strange footage and walked away thoroughly impressed.
Scott Derrickson was actually on hand (along with Kevin Feige) to introduce the preview at my theater in Burbank, and he said a few words about his inspirations for Doctor Strange.
Namely, Derrickson said that the truly stunning work from Steve Ditko’s time drawing Strange was the primary source of inspiration for the visual style of the movie. Watching the footage, that comparison to Ditko is at once readily apparent and woefully inadequate. The utterly whacked-out, multi-dimensional mind trip that I watched Stephen Strange experience in this preview defies simple written description.
Directly referencing Ditko’s work doesn’t really make my job any easier, either. You can look at a piece of art like this:
but to see images like that brought to life in 3D on an IMAX screen is something else entirely. Even referencing the Quantum Realm sequence of Ant-Man doesn’t do it justice (although that sequence does now seem pretty clearly like a proof of concept for Strange). I can tell you that I watched Benedict Cumberbatch soar through kaleidoscopic mindscapes, but I can’t accurately describe what it actually looks like. What I can say is that I’m pretty confident after just this small amount of footage that Doctor Strange is gonna walk away with the Special Effects Oscar come next February.
The incredible insanity of what I saw tonight highlighted for me what a smart job Marvel is actually doing with it’s marketing for Doctor Strange. They’re showing off the architectural manipulation (which we saw more of in the footage, and is cool, but is honestly the least interesting thing this movie appears to be doing in terms of special effects) because people have seen both Inception and buildings before, so they can wrap their heads around what they’re seeing in a thirty second TV spot.
Showing the bit where Strange’s fingers start growing tiny hands, and then the tiny fingers on those tiny hands start growing even tinier hands, and so on and so forth, until Strange is consumed by hands, and then the hands turn into his face, and then Strange falls into his own eyeball— showing that out of context in a commercial—would probably be an alienating image to a lot of people; I’m not convinced that it would actually help put butts in seats. Seeing it in the context of the larger sequence it’s part of, however, it works really fucking well. By the time audiences see it the movie has properly primed them for it, something that can’t be accomplished in a trailer or TV spot.
Beyond the radical effects, the Doctor Strange preview showed a movie that’s basically a Marvel movie. There were a few references to the wider MCU that I won’t spoil for you, and a lot more humor than you’re probably expecting based on the advertising, but it’s a Marvel movie so that shouldn’t really surprise you. It was all right in line with Marvel’s product. If there’s one thing that disappointed me about the preview it’s that they included the Stan Lee cameo. It’s not like they put a huge plot spoiler in the preview, but I still would’ve appreciated not seeing it until the movie was out.
I feel like I should also address the Tilda Swinton shaped elephant in the room. I know there are many people out there deeply unhappy with Swinton’s casting as the Ancient One, giving a part to a white woman that could’ve been played by an Asian performer. All I can say is that Swinton appears to be giving an appealing performance, which isn’t a surprise with an actress of her caliber. But the quality of her performance isn’t really the point, and I get that. If you’ve decided to sit Doctor Strange out because of Swinton’s casting, I don’t fault your choice in the slightest, and this preview probably wouldn’t have turned you around on that decision.
For me though, as disappointing as it is to see Asian actors continue to be underrepresented—especially in tentpole features—I was never planning on skipping Doctor Strange. At this point, I’m too invested in the MCU as a whole to skip any of Marvel’s movies or shows. So even though I was kind of on the fence about Doctor Strange going in to this preview, it’s not like I was gonna not see it. Now, though, after seeing things I’ve never seen in a movie before, I’m excited for Doctor Strange again. I’d seen some of this footage before at SDCC, but it didn’t really excite me the way I am now. Seeing it in 3D on an IMAX screen was very different from watching it from the back of Hall H on a much smaller screen that was probably a hundred yards away. It was thrilling, and I can’t wait to see the finished product.