Visual effects are like magic. Through them, anything is possible and the only limit is your imagination. They are also a form of art, and one of the most underappreciated ones at that. It allowed Superman to fly and Tatooine to explode but one of the best examples of imaginative visual effects at work is 2016’s Doctor Strange.
The story sees the life of Doctor Stephen Strange- famed neurosurgeon – thrown into turmoil by a car crash that all but destroys his hands. Though surgery can save them, they may never stop shaking, so Strange goes in search of a spiritual healer who can supposedly heal any physical injury and finds himself in the company of sorcerers. As The Ancient One, Mordo and Wong assist him in his magical education, their reality is threatened by dark sorcerer Kaecilius who draws power from The Dark Dimension on behalf of its ruler Dormammu.
Half the story is told through astounding visuals which allow for creative fight scenes. Reality bends to the sorcerers’ wills with folding buildings, moving roads, and splitting sidewalks. The very first scene is one such fight and perfectly demonstrates how powerful these people are as well as what they’re capable of, without the need for auditory exposition. These masterful feats occur within a space known as The Mirror Dimension, which is a perfect copy of our reality, layered over the top of ours, but never interacts with it. This makes Kaecilius all the more threatening when he is able to conjure these effects outside of The Mirror Dimension, in our reality.
On top of these technical marvels are the designs of the sorcery and The Dark Dimension. The magic itself appears in the air as a line of bright orange light that emits sparks like electricity. The lines form symbols that act as a physical barrier when required, in a very clever and very pretty piece of worldbuilding. Meanwhile, The Dark Dimension is worthy of its name, devoid of light, but not without colour. The darkness is comprised of rich, deep purples, blues, and greens which allow for a sombre but visually interesting space. This is to say nothing of The Astral Plane, where corporeal forms exist, which provides the wildest, most bizarre scene in the entire MCU.
There is a ridiculous amount of worldbuilding at work here, though it never bogs down the story. Magic is a brand new concept for the MCU so it requires establishing but it also lays the groundwork for time travel and alternate dimensions. Of course, alternate dimensions have already had their first mention within the MCU during Ant-Man but this is the first time that the concept of a Multiverse is floated. There are mentions of branched timelines and The Living Tribunal, which will both become extraordinarily relevant as the franchise progresses. Avengers: Endgame is only several films down the line so it makes sense to explore the bare bones of these ideas here. It matches the story well and, bar Ant-Man, there isn’t another instalment where these ideas would sit so comfortably. As a result, Doctor Strange finds itself to be one of the most important films in this franchise, although several angles such as the villainous Baron Mordo are still to pay off.
There’s a lot of discussions to be had surrounding elements of Doctor Strange. Benedict Cumberbatch’s American accent for Strange is befitting that character’s surname and Mads Mikkelsen’s performance as Kaecilius is terrific if not a smidge underutilised. However, the largest conversation to be had is around the casting of Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One. Since conception, The Ancient One has been a Tibetan monk but to avoid falling into racial stereotypes it was decided that the role should be recast in the MCU as an androgynous Celt. It did not go down well, with accusations of whitewashing and China-pandering (since China is famously anti-Tibetan). These accusations are fair given Hollywood’s long line of whitewashed roles and The Ancient Ones’ non-racist portrayal in other media like the 2007 animated film Doctor Strange: The Sorcerer Supreme. The reasons given for recasting as still fair too, though it’s a decision that seems laced with cowardice to the extent that Kevin Feige would later state that it could have been handled better. With all that said, Tilda Swinton gives a powerful yet subdued performance which gives the character an air of mystery and a large amount of heart.
For once, the mid-credits scene aligns with a chronological viewing of the MCU. It sees Strange conversing with Thor who has come to New York with his brother Loki in search of their father Odin. This scene is ripped directly from Thor: Ragnarok and allows for a smooth transition between the two films. The post-credits scene is the aforementioned turning of Baron Mordo that, as of the time of this publication, is still to pay off.
Doctor Strange is a marvellous feat of visual effects work with mostly solid performances and a whimsically dark soundtrack. It’s an excellent blend of self-contained origin story and wider-universe worldbuilding that makes for entertaining viewing. It may be Strange, but isn’t that for the best?