Review by Curt Holman
The movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe follow the same narrative patterns so faithfully, they resemble paint-by-numbers kits. Fortunately for Doctor Strange, the series’ 14th entry, it’s as if the painter were a mad genius in psychedelic colors, tricks of perspective and black light effects. As an introduction to Marvel’s master of the mystic arts, Doctor Strange falls back on some familiar character tropes but delivers a dazzling vision of a magical multiverse, taking the images of the original Stan Lee/Steve Ditko comics books and running with them.
Benedict Cumberbatch is Dr. Stephen Strange, and at the outset of the movie, Strange is basically the Tony Stark of neurosurgery, an arrogant, wildly successful genius heading for a fall. Like Stark, Strange embarks on a road to redemption after a bitterly ironic physical injury. Where one of Stark’s munitions did a number on his heart, Strange suffers a car accident that causes nerve damage to his hands, leaving them too unsteady to perform surgery.
Unable to find a cure through traditional means, he follows rumors to Katmandu and an ashram-like compound called “Kamar-Taj.” The serene but mischievous leader The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) suggests that spiritual training can lead to physical healing. Strange scoffs until TAO knocks his astral form out of his body and sends him on a hilariously trippy jaunt across the universe and back.
Swinton’s casting has been criticized for whitewashing an Asian character from the comics. Hollywood has a famously poor track record for such decisions, but in Doctor Strange, Swinton’s performance transcends an easily stereotyped, one-dimensional role, blending moral ambiguity with sheer delight at what magic can do.
Director Scott Derrickson sets Doctor Strange at a headlong pace that feels a bit rushed, even for a film that’s almost two hours. Swapping his purring British accent for a raspy American one, Cumberbatch takes Strange not just from skeptic to believer, but also from sorcerer’s apprentice to a master magician who challenges orthodoxy. Rachel McAdams and Chiwetel Ejiofor make strong impressions in underwritten roles: McAdams a medical colleague and sometime love interest, Ejiofor a magical mentor with a zealous streak.
As Kaecilius, a former magic student turned renegade, Mads Mikkelsen stands out more than the one-note villains of, say, Thor: The Dark World and Guardians of the Galaxy. Although Kaecilius doesn’t get much time in the spotlight, Mikkelsen’s wry humor and deadpan charisma shine through even while skyscrapers are bending like pretzels around him.
Most of director Scott Derrickson’s prior film experience lay in minor occult thrillers, including a Hellraiser sequel. With Doctor Strange, he balances outlandish concepts with relatable comedy. The Marvel movies’ sense of humor may be their most reliable asset: We don’t laugh at the comic book adaptations for their ridiculous camp, we laugh with humanizing jokes amid bizarre circumstances.
Here, when the newbie Strange struggles to open portals from one location to another, he gives off sparks like an old-school sparking wheel toy. Strange’s signature cloak of levitation seems to have a mind of its own, reminiscent of the carpet in Disney’s Aladdin.
But the biggest set pieces boggle the mind, as if the design team was bitten by a radioactive copy of the Inception Blu-Ray. Gravity reverses itself, space folds in impossible directions, and time warps allow the magic protagonists to go “forward” while everything around them runs backward. And the effects function as more than eye candy: Clearly, Derrickson and his team put some thought into how magic works conceptually, and how to represent it visually. The results prove more heady and grandiose than, say, the wizarding world of Harry Potter, but you can still wrap your head around it.
Just as Guardians of the Galaxy took a foray into the “cosmic” side of Marvel lore, Doctor Strange makes an intriguing move into the mystic. And perhaps in future installments, the doctor can stray from the well-used formula.
Doctor Strange. B. Directed by Scott Derrickson. Written by Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill. Stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Rachel McAdams, Mads Mikkelsen. Rated PG-13.