By now, we all know what to expect from a Marvel movie: some good set pieces, some funny character beats (in lieu of actual arcs) and a perfunctory story that really only serves to set up the next few movies. So color me surprised that Doctor Strange conjures everything it can out of its defined parameters and takes us to another dimension.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays Dr. Stephen Strange is an obscenely wealthy surgeon, the kind who aces risky procedures then drives like a bat out of hell to speaking engagements. He could not be more of a dick, and after seeing him play the poor man’s version of Daniel Day-Lewis’ role in A Room with a View for the last decade, it was nice to see him play a character with at least some personality.
After a car accident leaves him without the use of his gifted hands, he treks to Nepal, where he’s heard about a radical course of treatment. And he does find it, just not in the form he’s expecting. The Ancient One (played brilliantly by Tilda Swinton) introduces Strange to the world(s) of magic, even if she has to drag his arrogant ass through multiple dimensions to get there.
Doctor Strange has the densest plotting of any Marvel movie, but director Scott Derrickson keeps things flowing smoothly. This is an origin story, but it’s done so well that it doesn’t feel like a drag. We’re being rewarded with actual character building, and then as the icing on the cake, we get some mind-blowing set pieces. In one scene, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen, as suavely menacing as ever) opens up multiple worlds to prevent Strange and his distrustful fellow warrior Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) from escaping. The effect is like an MC Escher lithograph come to life. It’s disorienting in the best way, making great use of 3-D, something nearly all Marvel films have failed to do.
But even beyond the special effects, there’s plenty to admire here. The cast is uniformly excellent (even if Rachel McAdams is given nothing to do, sadly keeping with tradition) and the music (by Oscar winner Michael Giacchino) is actually memorable. But the biggest surprise has to do with how explicitly spiritual the film is. Even if it’s a big mix of eastern and western religions and philosophical mumbo-jumbo, the movie treats it seriously. There hasn’t been a blockbuster that grapples with faith on this scale since The Matrix.
So even though the movie’s finale follows the pre-ordained Marvel Climax – bad guy trying to level a city – its resolution takes a slightly different path. By the end, Doctor Strange has stretched the corners of its box as far as it can. And that really is magic.