The Quietly Radical Ending of Doctor Strange

Spoilers, inevitably: why the ending of Marvel's latest, Doctor Strange, feels just a little different.

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

This article contains massive spoilers for Doctor Strange.

In the run up the release of Marvel Studios’ 14th film, Doctor Strange, much has been made about how this one feels like a bit of a gamble. After all, Doctor Strange isn’t your average – whatever that is – Marvel hero. There’s no huge in-built audience here, outside of those following the Marvel cinematic universe religiously. Furthermore, Strange isn’t someone who puts on a suit, he’s someone who relies on magic, the metaphysical world, and the kind of powers that we’ve only seen glimpses of in the Marvel cinematic universe to date.

And, to a degree, the film lives up to that risky billing. There’s a horror-ish undercurrent to the movie. There’s a lesser reliance on zingers to bring some lightness to the film (if anything, the jokes hurt rather than help for a change). There’s barely an overt reference to other Avengers, save for one almost jarring namecheck, and the fun of the mid-credits stinger. It feels just a little different from what Marvel has been serving up.

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But for me, the rule book for Marvel movies – and broader blockbuster cinema in its current state – was most interestingly subverted in the final act of Doctor Strange. Because for once, a big comic book movie doesn’t lean in any way on yet another CG punch-up between fast-moving characters. In fact, there’s no punch up at all come the big, ultimate showdown. I could have gladly hugged all concerned for that, and believe that the little, quiet risk they took there deserves recognition.

I should be clear: I don’t have an aversion to a big fight ending in a film. I just like it to be well done, and to mean something. The last half hour of Joss Whedon’s original The Avengers movie was and is a euphoric celebration of what can happen when lots of characters with superpowers come together in a mighty scrap. Whedon, for me, nailed that. And while Captain America: Civil War ran it very close – that airport scene is a real gleeful highlight of the film – I don’t think another film has quite matched what Whedon achieved back in 2012.

But lord, it hasn’t stopped others from trying. Be it Batman v Superman and that weird Doomsday ending, the not really successful villain and final showdown of Suicide Squad, the yawn-some Apocalypse being fought by lots of X-Men, the Guardians vs The Galaxy or Iron Man against lots of special effects, the big punch up – or CG-fused battle – at the end of blockbusters just keeps on coming, in assorted flavors.

It’s not just restricted to comic book movies, either. An overwhelming majority of blockbusters are drawing to a close with the aid of their biggest CG showdown. Recent examples – and there’s no shortage – include Jurassic World, Star Trek Beyond, Ghostbusters, and Independence Day: Resurgence. It’s not to their advantage, I’d argue.

I get that films have to build to something, and I really like some of the films I’ve cited there. But it also seems sometimes as though there’s only one ending available in Final Draft’s big blockbuster finale template. Or that you need to defeat some kind of end of level boss to get to the others.

With Doctor Strange, I admit I feared the worst. As Strange finally finds himself – come the film’s third act denouement – in the dark dimension, ready to confront Dormammu, I had a flashback of sorts to the last act of 2015’s Fantastic Four movie.

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It had the ingredients: a weird “other” place, lots of swirling CG, a massive character it seemed impossible to defeat, and the stage set for Cumberbatch just needing to generate more magic than the other person. That, or to take advantage of a weakness dropped into dialogue at some point in the first hour of the film to fuel the necessary punch. The golden rule of undefeatable villains in movies, after all, is that they’re all defeatable, generally by hitting them with something physical.

But here, it didn’t happen. Instead, Doctor Strange outwitted Dormammu. Not a punch was thrown. He played his metaphorical cards, he didn’t resort to one flick of violence, and he still won.

To give the film credit, this approach runs through most of its battles. The main face off with the admittedly not great villain Kaecilius (Marvel villains, all these years later, still live in the shadow of Loki) was more about (not so metaphorically) shifting the world rather than smacking each other in the face. It felt more like a chase than a fighting sequence and again, I liked it for taking that path. But for the finale to actually build on that, rather than revert to type, is a quietly radical little moment.

It shouldn’t be, of course. There was a time when blockbuster movies didn’t religiously follow the usual final act template. Heck, I still remember Batman taking off his mask and gasping come the end of Batman Returns. He’s trying to reason with Catwoman, rather than having a big scrap? Remember those days? But it’s a sign of the times that it does feel so different that Doctor Strange has taken a more peaceful path.

It’s to the film’s benefit that it does so, I think. Dormammu goes through the usual antagonist playbook of course, finding cinematically expensive ways to kill Cumberbatch’s Strange. And he does. Yet it doesn’t work.

With a slight, slight nod to Back To The Future Part II and Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban, and a bigger wink in the direction of Groundhog Day we’re in timeloop territory here. Cumberbatch wants a compromise agreement. He’s there to bargain with his foe to save the world. Violence, tellingly, doesn’t work. It takes not trying violence to resolve things.

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Heck, it’s as if director Scott Derrickson, along with his co-writers C. Thomas Cargill and Jon Spaihts, are reinforcing the point as well as ending their movie. That this story can’t close until you stop trying to fight, and just have a chat instead.

I could have stood and applauded right there, in truth. Well, apart from the fact that I live in England, and we don’t do that. But it feels too long since we’ve seen this approach taken.

That said, there have been blockbusters in recent times that have circumnavigated the otherwise-obligatory punch-up ending – X-Men: Days Of Future Past springs to mind – but none I can remember hitting this issue so directly. In doing so, Doctor Strange concludes in a far more satisfying way to most recent films of its ilk, and sticks in the mind for being willing, in more than one way, to swim against the proverbial tide. I hope an assortment of Hollywood executives watch and learn.