Directed by Scott Derrickson. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Michael Stuhlbarg, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton, Benedict Wong, Amy Landecker, Scott Adkins, Daniel Eghan. Written by Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill, Jon Spaihts.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe takes a dive into Matrix/Inception territory with the mind-bending Doctor Strange, a razzle-dazzle effects-driven spectacle that doesn’t just throw eye-candy CGI at the screen, but incorporates the visuals into its well-woven puzzle-box story.
Not that the eye candy isn’t pretty great on its own terms: as you munch on popcorn and watch the screen devolve into a M.C. Escher painting as filtered through a kaleidoscope, you can at least say that this isn’t something you usually see from a Hollywood blockbuster.
Superhero fatigue has long set-in, and even the good comic book films are starting to get wearying. Captain America: Civil War, generally considered the best blockbuster in a summer season full of disappointments, wore me out by the time the fourteenth Marvel superhero hit the screen.
But until the obligatory post-credits sequence of Doctor Strange, nary a character or even element of the other MCU movies makes an appearance (okay, I did catch a glimpse of the Avengers penthouse).
Strange is entirely its own thing, and it’s all the better because of it.
Benedict Cumberbatch is perfectly cast as the brilliant-but-arrogant doctor Stephen Strange, who opens the film, in a little crib from Guardians of the Galaxy, performing operations to hit 1970s tunes. Think the actor’s TV Sherlock meets Hugh Laurie’s Gregory House, with a dash of Tony Stark sarcasm.
But during a horrific car accident, the Doctor loses full control of both his hands due to nerve damage. Don’t examine MRIs while driving, kids (an end-credit warning actually states something to this affect).
This sends Strange, broken but not without hope, to the ends of the world to search out a cure: namely, Kathmandu, where he encounters The Ancient One (played by Tilda Swinton). She’s an ageless world-wise mystic willing to teach him the secrets of the universe – but soon, Strange will have to decide between personal gain and more lofty pursuits.
That’s because former sorcerer student Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), has gone power-mad in the quest for eternal life, and is about to unleash the dark dimension upon the Earth. As is the norm in films like these.
Both The Ancient One and Kaecilius can modify their surrounding environments at will, and that leads to Inception-like sequences where floors become ceilings and entire cityscapes fold in on themselves and characters chase each other through a maze of constantly changing elements.
And then there’s the spirit world, which characters seem to slip in and out of at will while time slows to a halt in reality. And then the gateways to travel through space, which sends Strange instantly from New York to London to Hong Kong.
And there’s also time, which Strange is able to manipulate with the help of some kind of amulet (but he’s given a stern warning about doing so). At one point in the movie, events unfold on the screen both forwards and backwards, simultaneously, and then in a time loop.
With time and space and all manner of other dimensions up for grabs, the film never attempts to really explain any of these extraordinary elements – it throws them out there with wild abandon in the hope that we won’t have time to question them. It works. This is gleefully, giddily imaginative stuff in ways that few movies of this budget are, and it’s hard to poke holes in something you never really understand.
Strange director Scott Derrickson previously made the horror movies Sinister and Deliver Us from Evil; he handles the otherworldly elements here with aplomb, resulting in a movie that distinguishes itself from the usual Marvel product.
And the cast! Apart from the splendid Cumberbatch and Swinton as his mentor – the two share the movie’s finest moments – there’s also 12 Years a Slave‘s Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mordo, another sorcerer and student of The Ancient One, along with Rachel McAdams as a doctor and potential Strange love interest, Benedict Wong as a sorcerer librarian, and Scott Adkins, Benjamin Bratt and Michael Stuhlbarg in smaller roles.
It’s a far better ensemble than we’re used to for this sort of thing, and only Mikkelsen’s villain feels underwhelming (quick – name another MCU villain besides Loki), though the Hannibal star lends the role some undeserved gravitas.
After a disappointing summer season, Doctor Strange is a breath of fresh autumn air. Alongside Guardians of the Galaxy, it’s the best Marvel movie to date.