After conquering with relative ease the earthly and interstellar realms, it’s time for Marvel to get mystical. The most obvious way to enter the most otherworldly of planes is through Doctor Strange, the only character of the ethereal branch to break into the popular subconscious (with the possible exception of Ghost Rider).
At first sight, Doctor Strange appears to be a risky bet for Marvel. The film is loaded with comic book arcana and introduces -quite literally- a whole new universe with its own rules and characters. Furthermore, Strange’s ties to the Avengers and their baggage are very limited, at least at this stage.
It is, however, a calculated risk. Strange follows the Marvel formula to a tee (Strange’s likeness to Tony Stark is particularly on the nose), and for safety’s sake, nearly every plot point but one has been leaked to the public. There are so few surprises in Doctor Strange, it feels like a rerun.
Given the considerable amount of story Doctor Strange covers in a little less than two hours, the film unfolds fast and furious. The eponymous physician (Benedict Cumberbatch, doing his overconfident, insouciant thing) is a wildly successful neurosurgeon until a car accident stops him in his tracks. Strange loses use of his hands (as we are reminded every five minutes), and becomes obsessed with finding a cure that doesn’t seem to exist.
At wits’ end, Strange lands at the Kamar-Taj and joins a community of sorcerers. Under the tutelage of The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, the movie’s MVP), the former physician learns about the existence of an astral plane, parallel dimensions, and how to travel between them. Also Strange gets wind of unseen, colossal threats, kept at bay by The Ancient One and her students.
Unfortunately for the doctor, a former Kamar-Taj resident, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), has been seduced by the Dark Side Dimension and interrupts his education in his efforts to overthrow The Ancient One. Outmanned and ill-equipped, Strange is forced way outside his zone of comfort. Thank heavens he is a quick study.
Director Scott Derrickson (Sinister, Deliver Us from Evil) finds himself at home in the Marvel universe. His genre sensibilities are nowhere to be found, but the filmmaker has a strong visual sense that overpowers the story’s shortcomings. The special effects are eye popping but also organic to the story. The notion of a mirror dimension is executed with remarkable self-assuredness, even though it’s a hard sci-fi concept to assimilate. Moreover, Doctor Strange features the most psychedelic sequence ever seen in a would-be blockbuster and not for a moment feels out of place.
Another smart move by Derrickson is the casting: Cumberbatch as Strange is solid, but more impressive is the supporting cast, which manages to create fully realized characters in limited time: Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius is the rare Marvel villain with a physical presence and psychological depth; Michael Stuhlbarg gets two or three measly scenes as comic relief and makes an impression. The group is so capable, they all give the impression of being underused.
Not every concept introduced is properly developed and the denouement hurts because of it. Regardless, as clinical as the approach is, Doctor Strange succeeds at blowing the Marvel Cinematic Universe wide open. Three and a half relic planets.
Doctor Strange opens tonight, everywhere.