Now listen carefully, and name the film. An arrogant genius is brought down to earth by a terrible accident that becomes the first step towards his reinvention as a superhero. You’re thinking Iron Man, aren’t you? Well yes, but no. What you just heard is the premise of Doctor Strange, the latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
To be fair, Doctor Strange is a somewhat different beast from the studio’s previous films – one with distinctive elements, particularly a unique and trippy visual aesthetic – even if it does seem awfully familiar at its core.
Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch fits comfortably into the role of gifted but cocky New York neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange, whose privileged, glamorous life screeches to a halt when a terrible car crash crushes both his spirit and his hands. Failed by traditional medicine, his relentless search for a cure takes him to the fictional Kamar-Taj enclave in Nepal to seek out the less conventional healing powers of a wise Yoda-like figure, the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who helps him harness great magic and educates him in the bizarre truths of the parallel multiverse.
Staying faithful to the blueprint of previous Marvel films – and frankly most films in the superhero genre – a chunk of Doctor Strange is devoted to Cumberbatch becoming comfortable with his new powers. But it’s the film’s visual audacity that truly separates it from other properties in the canon. Never shying away from the character’s psychedelic roots in the comics, director Scott Derrickson pushes for an entirely bold look and feel characterized by kaleidoscopic mind-scrambling visual effects, including stunning sequences of buildings and entire cities bending and folding in on themselves Inception-style.
It’s all particularly thrilling when experienced in IMAX 3D like I did; the colors popping, the landscapes literally coming alive. It’s a good thing Cumberbatch skillfully grounds the spectacle, delivering a smart and consistently funny performance as the reformed-but-still-smug titular hero. Bringing warmth and gravitas to the part of the mumbo jumbo-spouting monk, a bald Tilda Swinton steals virtually every scene she’s in. But both Chiwetel Ejiofor as her trusted second-in-command Mordo, and particularly Mads Mikkelsen as Kaecilius, the film’s villain from the Dark Dimension, never feel adequately fleshed out. The same is true of Rachel McAdams, grossly underutilized as a fellow surgeon and Strange’s ex.
Despite its hiccups, the film breezes through its less-than-two-hours running time and gives you enough reason to smile. The red Cloak of Levitation that claims our hero (yes, not the other way around) gets a few moments in the spotlight, including a bit where it takes on one of the villain’s henchman on its own. Benedict Wong, playing the earnest librarian at Kamar-Taj, is the secret sauce of this movie, offering some of the most genuine laughs through a mostly straight-faced performance.
In the end, Doctor Strange is entertaining despite its formulaic plot, but will need more than just good humor and snazzy CGI to justify a sequel. I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five.
It’ll be interesting to see what he brings to the next Avengers film where he’ll join the rest of the gang for what we can only hope isn’t merely another round of world-flattening destruction.