For all of the reality-bending wonder that is seen in Doctor Strange, Marvel's mystical hero would seem like an odd fit for the Marvel Cinematic Universe proper where so much has become homogenized and predictable. And to be fair, it does eventually fall into line like a good little magic soldier. But for a psychedelic, crazy fun chunk of it Doctor Strange is the freshest Marvel movie since Guardians of the Galaxy. It mashes up the metaphysical elements of Inception and The Matrix with a bit of superhero hocus-pocus.
It turns out Marvel's most creative movies tend to feature characters most people either have never heard of or don't care about. Doctor Strange fits into the latter category for me, and perhaps that's because I've never been prone to hallucinogenic drugs. The good Doctor was created back in the 1960s when such drug use was at a high (pun intended), but the character has struggled to find a place in the decades since. He is, in a lot of ways, like Iron Man, and played by Benedict Cumberbatch has the chance to become relevant in ways he never has before, just like Tony Stark before him.
The similarities with Stark begin with Dr. Stephen Strange's massive ego. A surgeon of great renown, with a sense of self-importance to rival Dr. Gregory House, Strange is more concerned with finding glory in his profession than in actually helping people. But he's also super cool, of course, if emotionally unavailable. He flirts with nurse Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), a former flame who recognizes his talents even if she's had it with his constant bravado. He could probably trade mixtapes with Star-Lord for all the vast music knowledge he rattles off in the middle of intricate surgery. His life as one of the richest, most sought-after people in all of Manhattan seems perfect until he gets in a massive car accident and loses the use of his hands. No more surgery, no more posh Manhattan penthouse, no nothing.
Stark never quite lost everything the way Strange does, but the insane measures both take to reclaim their physicality is nearly identical. At the word of former patient (Benjamin Bratt) who miraculously recovered from similarly grievous injury, Strange journeys to Nepal where he finds the mysterious land of Kamar-Taj. It's there that he's introduced to the one person who can heal his broken body, The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), although she turns out to be much more than a simple healer. It's here that Strange is taken on a journey of the spirit, taught to forget all that he knew before and, for God's sake, to tone down that massive ego. Humbled, he is introduced to what REAL magic looks like, not the stuff of parlor tricks and stage shows. His mind is expanded to take in the entirety of the universe and all of its potential. With the flick of the wrist, the Ancient One and her disciples, such as the stoic Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and loyal Wong (Benedict Wong), can traverse the world and reshape it to their will. Strange soaks up their knowledge like a sponge but also learns of a dire threat to the world, the evil Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who happens to be one of the Ancient One's former students.
Once Strange is thrust into an epic battle against Kaecilius the film becomes very familiar very quickly. The punches have a mystical glow about them, like they were all touched by the spirit of The Last Dragon. But it's still just a slugfest for the most part with the fate of the world at stake. Been there, done that as for as the Marvel Universe goes. But before that, director Scott Derrickson takes on one seriously wild ride. Prior to this, Derrickson's biggest film from a spectacle standpoint was a remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still. He's expanded his repertoire considerably since then. Strange's first step into enlightenment is having his astral form literally shoved out of his body, appearing as a ghostly (and quite stunned) apparition floating outside his physical form. That's followed by a trippy tumble across space and time that would make Terrence Malick jealous. It's unclear what in the hoary hosts of Hoggoth is going on but that bewilderment is part of the fun. As Strange is baffled by the gravity-defying, city-folding world around him so are we, and it's refreshing to have a Marvel character undergo that kind of experience. That said, his transformation from mystical novice to the Sorcerer Supreme, complete with the surprisingly precocious Cloak of Levitation, is very thin. Derrickson and co-writer C. Robert Cargil (the duo worked on Sinister together) have largely skipped over his progress to get right down to the action, which is disappointing because the journey is the best part.
While the film looks absolutely stunning, the best thing going for it is the cast. Cumberbatch, who always seems to gravitate to high 'n mighty characters, manages to differentiate Strange from the rest. It helps that he's such an imminently likable and watchable actor, able to make us feel Strange's loss after the accident, yet make us laugh as he makes Beyonce jokes with Wong. The most important thing Cumberbatch does is make Strange feel human, which is tough when he's surrounded by shooting stars, collapsing buildings, and giant space demons. The rest of the cast is equally superb. Swinton, looking like a stick of roll-on deodorant, is a natural as the Ancient One and it's hard to believe there was ever any complaint about her casting. Sure, she's not an old Asian man like in the comics, but so what? She embodies the pure wisdom and odd humor of the character, and that's what matters. Ejiofor's Mordo may be the best non-Avengers supporting character Marvel has ever had, but to go into more depth would reveal a solid twist comics fans knew was coming but others won't. McAdams, sadly, joins Natalie Portman in Marvel's "Why is she in this?" doghouse, and I won't be surprised if she gets fed up with the lackluster character development and bolts to do other things.
With Avengers references kept to a bare minimum for the most part, Doctor Strange feels for a time like it's walking a different path from the other movies. That path does eventually wind its way back to someplace familiar, setting up sequels and crossovers aplenty, but getting there is a head trip worth taking.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5