A '60s cult figure stuck on the periphery of the Marvel Comics universe for 50 years finally spins into orbit to command the world's attention in Doctor Strange, an engaging, smartly cast and sporadically eye-popping addition to the studio's bulging portfolio. Determined, among other things, to beat Christopher Nolan at his own game when it comes to folding, bending and upending famous cityscapes to stupendous effect, this action movie ostensibly rooted in the mind-expanding tenets of Eastern mysticism is different enough to establish a solid niche alongside the blockbuster combine's established money machines.
You'd normally expect to find the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor topping the cast of some thematically venturesome, aesthetically respectable British drama set discreetly in the recent past. But here these terrific actors are playing comic book characters in a film the majority of whose audience members may never have seen them before. Do comics-derived films really require thespians of this caliber when the effects and genre elements are their raisons d'etre? Well, no, but they unquestionably class up the joint by injecting wit, elocution, faces with character and commanding presence into material that needs all the elevation it can get to not seem entirely juvenile.
In fact, the defining attribute of Dr. Stephen Strange is arrogance, a sense of himself as the greatest neurosurgeon in New York, if not the world. He's a supreme egotist suddenly brought low when he drives his ferocious sports car off a twisty road and sustains such terrible nerve damage in his hands that he can no longer write or shave, much less handle delicate operations.
Encouraged to enhance his mind (better yet, his attitude) rather than obsess about imprecise fingers, the strutting figure rubs up against elements of the hippie ethos when he travels to Kathmandu. “Forget everything you think you know,” advises a mysterious man named Mordo (Ejiofor), as he welcomes Strange into a lovely lodge the likes of which would go for top dollar at an Aman resort.
But the real custodian of wisdom here is the simply named Ancient One, played with delightful light wit rather than dreary all-knowingness by a shaven-headed Swinton. Looking like some kind of exquisite alien rather than a leftover Hare Krishna, she, too, has trippy phrases at her disposal, addressing the newcomer's concerns by saying, “I know how to reorient the spirit to better heal the body,” and asking mysticism's core question, “What is real?” Strange, seeking immediate results, blanches at such evasively unscientific terminology, but soon submits to a “trip through inner and outer space” that, had a Doctor Strange movie been made in the late '60s, would certainly have involved a heavy serving of psychedelia.
Politically correct casting alarmists may stamp their feet about a white woman being cast as the supreme custodian of knowledge at a Himalayan retreat, which is, in fact, a thoroughly interracial establishment. But this is obviously nothing like Sam Jaffe playing the High Lama in 1937's Lost Horizon, and there's little doubt Swinton can speak perfectly well on her own behalf if any issues come up.
Despite his impatience and skepticism, Strange acquires sorcery skills at such a rapid pace that he's soon capable of manipulating space and time. This sends the film deep into the Marvel holy land of invented nomenclature, and here the most relevant presences are the Astral, Mirror and Dark dimensions. Non-specialists would not want to bet their lives on being able to identify which dimension the film occupies at any specific moment, but from a visual point of view the upshot is that Doctor Strange enters a dazzling zone in which whole slabs of the New York cityscape fold down, multiply and assume new configurations in ways that take their cue from Inception but go far beyond it in visual spectacle. At the same time, characters are able to pass through these zones as well as to reverse gears, so to speak, to go forward or backward in time. These are sequences, seen to outstanding advantage in 3D, that mind-trip-seeking audiences back in Doctor Strange's origin days would have called "far-out" but today's fans will simply deem "amazing."
Provoking all this time-and-space jumping about is the theft by a certain Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) of some key pages from The Ancient One's most holy text relating to entry into the Dark Dimension, something we're to take on good authority is not advisable. To his credit, director Scott Derrickson (Deliver Us From Evil, Sinister and, lest we forget, the ill-advised The Day the Earth Stood Still remake) navigates through the different zones with a fair degree of actual coherence, and delivers the entire package with evident ease and some flair.
The battle over the missing scribblings brings to a climax Marvel's latest origins story. Two brief end credits teasers give a taste of things to come, the first involving one of the key figures from The Avengers and the second suggesting hitherto hidden motives on the part of one of the characters who's just been introduced here.
Employing an American accent, Cumberbatch emphatically stresses the title character's arrogance, impatience and sense of superiority, which makes him a piece of work for The Ancient One and anyone else who tries to guide him. His brash genius pairs him as something of a blood brother to Tony Stark in the Marvel stable. Apart from Swinton, the other fine actors here can't do much more than lend their able-bodied presences to the proceedings, but these agreeably include Mikkelsen, who can now boast of playing villains in both the Marvel and James Bond worlds; Ejiofor, who will no doubt show his character's hand more amply down the line; and Benedict Wong as another key member of The Ancient's One inner circle.
Rachel McAdams, Michael Stuhlbarg and Benjamin Bratt have limited roles as New York associates of Strange's.
Production company: Marvel Studios
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt, Scott Adkins
Director: Scott Derrickson
Screenwriters: Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill
Producer: Kevin Feige
Executive producers: Louis D'Esposito, Victoria Alonso, Stephen Broussard, Charles Newirth, Stan Lee
Director of photography: Ben Davis
Production designer: Charles Wood
Costume designer: Alex Byrne
Editors: Wyatt Smith, Sabrina Plisco
Visual effects supervisor: Stephane Ceretti
Casting: Sarah Halley Finn
Rated PG-13, 115 minutes