Times are getting tough for superheroes—or for superhero movies, anyway. The popularity of the genre brings massive and escalating expectations, but with repetition (seriously, how many of these megabudget CGI sagas get released every year now?), those expectations can come crashing earthward. Doctor Strange, from the 1963 comic by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, marks Marvel and Disney’s latest cinematic foray into Spandexland and, on its face, it’s another origin story. But its face is the least interesting thing about it. Doctor Strange is deeply weird, visually and aurally trippy and all kinds of entertaining.
One of the movie’s true superpowers is Benedict Cumberbatch, an actor with an otherworldly vibe, a penetrating intelligence and a voice that sounds like it comes from the depths of the family crypt. Cumberbatch, who has already nailed another franchise role with the BBC series Sherlock, has another one right here: snooty, insufferably cocky, egomaniacal neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange. A Tony Stark type, he’s a scourge to his colleagues (like Michael Stuhlbarg, in a throwaway role and dubious wig) and fellow doctor and ex-lover Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams, charmingly grounded). Strange gets his comeuppance in the form of an especially ugly car wreck that leaves his hands permanently damaged and his psyche shattered. After many attempts, he gives up on Western medicine and, hearing about a miracle cure that fixed a shadowy, formerly paralyzed man (Benjamin Bratt), he seeks out a mystic healer—a maker of magic known as the Ancient One in far off Kamar-Taj in Kathmandu, Nepal, the home of a secret group of powerful sorcerers who protect the world from dark forces.
Enter the film’s second super power: Tilda Swinton, whose counterintuitive casting has many panties in a bunch because, unlike in the comics, she’s neither male nor Asian. For the record, we get the complaints, but come on—Swinton’s bald-headed, androgynous take on the guru-of-gurus role is just right. She’s spooky, persuasive, charming and not of this earth. The Ancient One exhorts Strange to “Open your eyes!” and blows his mind wide, wide open, sending him, and us, on a psychedelic journey from messed-up mortal to full-on sorcerer.
For once, sequences are designed for 3D and meant to be seen that way. Along the way, we’re entertained and shaken up by the raging hell-creature Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), some eye-popping visuals (yes, some of those folding cities do recall Inception), wild adventures through multi-multi dimensions and all kinds of arcane mythology. (Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth, Eye of Agamotto and Moons of Munnopor, anyone?) Strange’s journeys are only made livelier and more easily swallowed by the presence of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s powerful magic man Mordo, who gives the movie added gravitas and style.
Punctuated by Michael Giacchino’s nicely offbeat, ’60s flavored score (check out the harpsichord and sitars during the end credits), the movie is on the long side, but it’s a wonderfully strange magical mystery tour. It’s guided expertly by director-writer Scott Derrickson (Sinister) from the nimble, sly screenplay on which he is credited alongside with C. Robert Cargill (Sinister) and Jon Spaihts (Passengers). They help freshen up the overly familiar stuff and make the hocus-pocus digestible, friendly and wildly fun. Doctor Strange is Marvel’s most visually splendiferous movie yet.