I’ll say this for Doctor Strange: It’s unlike any Marvel movie we’ve ever seen. And for the most part, I mean that in the best possible way. This new entry, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the titular Strange, is a weird, trippy, sometimes even silly departure from the conventional HEROES SMASH films that we’ve come to expect from Marvel Studios. Sure, there are some of the requisite punchy-kicky fights, but that’s not the heart of Doctor Strange. It’s heart lies in the strange and mysterious, in the wonders of the universe, and it’s an enjoyably bizarre ride getting through it.
Stephen Strange is a rich, arrogant, often obnoxious-yet-brilliant neurosurgeon, seeking only patients whose cures are out on the cutting edge of medical science, and whose cases will advance his legend. If he sounds a bit too similar to early-stage Tony Stark, rest assured that while there are obvious character similarities (down to an arrogantly snarky sense of humor), Cumberbatch’s portrayal is original and distinct enough to make that closeness quickly fade away. Strange is eventually in a horrific car accident that ruins his hands, making any future in medicine unreachable. He gets desperate, spending every last dollar on experimental and often risky treatments, to no avail, until his desperation leads him to Tibet, hoping that Eastern medicine can do what Western cannot. What he finds is something completely different, a collective of mystics and sorcerers led by The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who ceaselessly train in the magic arts while combating an encroaching darkness manifested by a madman former student named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelson) and his army of zealots. Strange becomes swept up in this new reality, training in the mystical arts and eventually coming to new realizations about the world — and worlds — around him.
It’s fun stuff, and director Scott Derrickson (Sinister, The Exorcism of Emily Rose) peppers it with plenty of stunning, belief-defying visuals. It’s those visuals that really make Doctor Strange its own creature — gone are the city-destroying explosions and massive armaments of prior Marvel movies. By placing the emphasis on magic and on the idea of traveling through a mindbending multi-dimensional universe, it opens the door to an entirely new type of film. It’s one part Inception, one part Magical Mystery Tour, maybe even a little Fritz the Cat thrown in for good measure. The effects are wild and colorful and hypnotic, making for something truly, genuinely unique.
Combine that with a briskly paced, energetic story that even if it doesn’t always make sense can always save itself by simply shouting “MAGIC!” and waving its fingers at you, and you’re in for a good time. Yet all of that does us no good without solid performances, and there’s where the film gets more complicated. Cumberbatch does an overall terrific job as Strange himself, bringing a strained humanity to his early sneering arrogance, taking an unlikable character and making him at least understandable. Rachel McAdams provides a steady, entertaining performance as Christine Palmer, another doctor at Strange’s hospital who grows increasingly infuriated at his self-centeredness. Mikkelson is just flat-out bonkers, with glittering crazy eyes and dialogue out of the cheesiest of cheesy comic books, but damn if he doesn’t just wrap himself up in the role and run with it. Tilda Swinton is … fine, I suppose, as The Ancient One. Without delving too deeply into the whitewashing of the character (who is actually Tibetan in the comic book), one would have hoped that bringing someone as uniquely iconic as Swinton to the table, there could have been something more exciting to the character. Ultimately, there really isn’t (save for one truly poignant scene between her and Cumberbatch towards the end). Similarly, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mordo, another of the Ancient One’s disciples, isn’t effectively utilized, downplaying his incredible acting talents in a performance that’s staid to the point of almost dull. The film’s unsung hero is easily Benedict Wong as Wong, a character that was (smartly) rewritten to become a powerful ally of Strange’s,
But really, the film is damn fun. I can’t even tell you if it’s the best of the franchise because it’s so different, it’s almost hard to compare. It wisely doesn’t incorporate anyone from the other films into its story (save for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference), saving it from feeling like it’s shoehorning subplots in to serve a larger master. Instead, it’s its own curious beast, an excitingly mysterious, far out tale of intrigue and magic and worlds beyond worlds, of a man grounded in reality who learns that reality isn’t even close to what he thinks it is. And just as Strange embraces this new and crazy universe, I was happy to do the same.