One of my major Marvel movie frustrations is that I never got to see Doctor Strange in 3D. Though I specifically attended a press screening that was announced as 3D, Disney changed it to 2D by popular request. Because other critics whine and moan about that stuff, even as they’ll usually insist one should always watch a film as the director intended. But this deprivation made me all the more excited for Doctor Strange on 4K. Given the psychedelic visuals, would they pop all the more in the upgraded format? And as the most chronologically recent of the Marvel films to get the upgrade, surely it would be flawless, right?
Close. But not quite a full cigar.
On the whole, Doctor Strange does look great, especially in its opening sequence, set in a darkened room. The villain Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) enters in a hooded robe that keeps his face in darkness, but in 4K, it’s more than that. Small details are just barely visible, giving the scene the feel of actually seeing someone approaching in the darkness, and trying to make their face out. That’s creepier in its way than if it were just a straight-up unseen face. There are plenty more indoor scenes that benefit similarly from high dynamic range, with shades of color perceptible on costumes even in the deep shadows.
There are also scenes where the characters are more clearly separate from the digital backdrops, however. That one where Strange is stranded on the top of Mount Everest has never looked like the actual Mount Everest, and it still doesn’t – more than ever it looks like rear projection. And the scenes of cities folding and looping into kaleidoscopes, while still very cool, lack the tactility of that scene in Inception which does the same. Strange goes for a more liquid sense of reality flowing, as opposed to actual buildings being crunched into positions they ought not be in. This could be an aesthetic choice, but ironically makes the proceedings feel more dreamlike than apocalyptic.
In another key instance, the extra sharpness reveals details we probably weren’t meant to see. Take Stephen Strange’s apartment — the cityscape outside is now clearly a backdrop. How do we know? Look at the steam coming out of the water tower in the “distance” – it isn’t moving. Granted, as a reviewer I’m looking for things like that. If all you focus on in that scene is a small bit of static steam, the scene isn’t working as it should anyway. But it’s worth noting.
And then, yes, a couple of scenes feature what look like digital facelifts of the unintentional grain-scrub kind. It happens mostly to Tilda Swinton, where her skin looks unnaturally smooth in a way that even the nicest real skin does not, but also to Benedict Cumberbatch in one or two shots. It’s no deal-breaker, but an odd miss that suggests quality control was not done shot-by shot on the conversion. And perhaps if it were just Swinton it would fit – she could have magic skin manipulation powers, after all.
These are the nitpicks. But those aside, the overwhelming majority of the movie looks fantastic, particularly in interior scenes, and especially during the climax, featuring a wrecked Hong Kong moving backwards in time, and a dark dimension Strange must defeat with his wits. It’s obligatory in Marvel movies to have a grand-scale battle, but admirable that Strange (like his fellow dimension-hopping doctor, Who) wins by out-thinking his omnipotent opponent while embracing literal self-sacrifice again and again.
An opinion many fans commonly express is that Stephen Strange has the same story as Tony Stark. An arrogant genius loses everything and gets humbled, then uses his talents in a new direction to give himself super powers, of a sort. It’s true, but they are fundamentally different characters. Stark is an addict, and must struggle against falling back into the same patterns again and again. Strange is a scholar: once he learns a new thing, he doesn’t backslide into being a guy who doesn’t know it. With each subsequent appearance in the MCU, his power and knowledge has only grown. Stark covers his pain with humor; Strange with cruelty to friends who deserve better. And while Stark can and does become an absolute master of the thing he learns — Iron Man suits — there will always be more dimensions for Strange to discover.
There’s a lot in Doctor Strange that feels like it’s been forgotten. Are we ever going to follow up on Mordo’s post-credits turn to evil? Do people remember that Rachel McAdams and Benjamin Bratt were even in this? What happens to Kamar-Tajj now? We don’t know a lot about the sequel, but everything we do know points to it moving in new directions, with a non-Mordo villain, Scarlet Witch’s heavy involvement, and the formal establishment of a Marvel multiverse. Also forgotten in some quarters: the massive controversy about Strange’s “white savior” narrative and the casting of the Ancient One. Probably because Iron Fist subsequently made itself the far bigger target.
I’d never tell anyone what they do or do not have the right to be offended by. I will say I think Tilda Swinton is fantastic in the role of this particular Ancient One, who is obviously not the one from the comics. (And in movie continuity, not the first Ancient One, so she doesn’t rule out the comic-book version’s existence.) It’s standard-issue for her to play ethereal beings (The Dead Don’t Die most recently), so for director Scott Derrickson to just take that as a given and have her be so down-to-earth is an unexpected, wonderful choice. But even if that issue isn’t handled perfectly, Wong’s transformation from faithful manservant to sardonic partner is an example of how to get this stuff right.
Strange’s character arc is arguably more Batman than Iron Man. A wealthy, privileged outsider goes to the far east to learn from the best and become the ultimate version of himself. To the extent that he’s problematic, if he is, Bruce Wayne is too. But that’s up to the individual viewer.
What’s not in dispute is that, the occasional scene aside, this is the best-looking version of Doctor Strange you can own. No, it’s not perfect…but of the recent conversions, only Ant-Man is. This gets closer than most.