Giving a whole new meaning to the idea of Doctors Without Borders, “Doctor Strange” is a superhero movie that often feels as though it’s been shot through a kaleidoscope — it’s hollow, hypnotic, and every twist of the tube reflects a beautiful new dimension of infinite possibilities. Unapologetically folding the likes of “The Matrix” and “Inception” into the fabric of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, “Sinister” director Scott Derrickson reaches into the mirror dimension (whatever the hell that is) and retrieves the year’s most (only?) visually dazzling blockbuster.
That spectacle comes at a cost. As with all of the best installments of the MCU, the film’s unique strengths have a perverse way of highlighting the franchise’s shared weaknesses. But “Doctor Strange” deserves credit for treating several of the ailments that have been infecting the series, and for diagnosing several more. A movie about a forward-thinking man who is deeply afraid of failure, “Doctor Strange” can be seen as something of a self-portrait for the studio that produced it — it might even be more fun to think of it in that context, as the risks taken by the story’s thinly sketched superhero are endowed with the weight and history of the many-tentacled mythos that we’ve been watching Marvel unpack for almost a decade. This is the most exciting addition to their ever-expanding universe since “The Avengers.”
For a character who hasn’t appeared in a live-action feature of any sort since 1978, Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) feels mighty familiar. A selfish, arrogant, and relentlessly ambitious (but emotionally distant!) white guy who lives in a massive glass penthouse in the middle of Manhattan, New York’s most eligible neurosurgeon is a lot like another Marvel superhero, one who’s in the process of being phased out. That may not be true in the graphic novels, but — at least in the MCU — the biggest difference between Stephen Strange and Tony Stark is that one of them cuts with sarcasm, the other with a scalpel. They even have the same goatee. As you watch Strange recklessly injure himself in a car accident, resort to dangerous measures in order to heal himself, and then ultimately be endowed with greater powers and responsibilities than he ever dreamed possible, it’s hard to tell if Marvel is renovating its property or flat-out resetting it.
Of course, complaining about origin stories in superhero movies is sort of like complaining about subtitles in foreign films — they’re a necessary evil, without which most viewers would be lost. Still, there’s no denying that Marvel is reaching the point where they know they have to go back to the drawing board. There’s only so much more juice that they can squeeze from their core cast of characters, and “Doctor Strange” is but the most compelling and transparent of their recent attempts to transfigure the magic from one generation to the next.
But if “Doctor Strange” can be dispiritingly safe, it can also be just as impressively bold — an hallucinogenic trip along a very familiar path, watching the film is like adding a large dose of LSD to your morning commute. A riveting prologue provides some fun teases of the craziness to come: The action begins at a Nepalese monastery as a guy named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen, glammed up with so much glittery eye makeup that he could just as easily be playing the lead in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”) teleports into the ancient library, rips a page out of a magic book, and walks through a portal that opens onto downtown London. He and his henchmen are chased by a hooded figure, who begins to engage them in combat that’s not quite like anything you’ve ever seen before.
Punches are thrown and blasts of enchanted light are fired (the choreography here is a touch clearer and more enjoyably kinetic than we’re used to in these movies), but the brunt of the fighting is done by altering the dimensions of reality itself. With a wave of their hands, these characters can weaponize the world around them, folding and shrinking and warping the scenery in hexagonal patterns of death. The individual effects can all be traced back to other movies, but Derrickson combines them in breathless new ways, and his (justified) commitment to a single trick is one of the biggest gambles in MCU history.
The hooded monk reenters the picture after Strange’s precious hands are destroyed in his stupid, stupid, very stupid car accident, and he journeys to the mountains of Kathmandu in desperate search of a cure. It’s there that our hero meets the Ancient One (Tilda fucking Swinton), a bald and seemingly immortal Celtic woman who has learned how to harness the mystic arts to do all sorts of cool stuff. The Morpheus to Strange’s Neo, the Ancient One leads the former surgeon into untold years of training montages, she and her trusty assistants Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Wong (Benedict Wong) helping the newbie to learn magic in much the same way as he once learned medicine.
At some point along the way, Strange learns to submit his ego to his superpowers, and he puts his own demons on hold in order to battle the giant one that Kaecilius is trying to summon to Earth. Cumberbatch is such an inherently watchable actor that it’s easy to overlook the vagueness of his character’s personal transformation, but it may have been a bit of a lost cause with stakes that are so high — when the fate of an entire planet hangs in the balance, it’s hard to establish a personal motivation for someone to save it. You save the world because there really isn’t any other option, but desire tends to be a lot more interesting than need.
It’s a typical Marvel pitfall in a movie that trips into many of them. The villain is severely underwritten (condolences to Mikkelsen’s hardcore fans), Strange’s love interest is an afterthought (oh, right, Rachel McAdams plays his co-worker ex), and the technology used to bring the story to life is still lagging behind the imaginations of the filmmakers who are wielding it (it’s 2016, and we still can’t get a CGI body to fall realistically). Worst of all, “Doctor Strange” more dramatically underlines Marvel’s gender bias than any previous film, if only because there’s a striking contrast between the trite dude superhero and the mesmerizing lady guru who passes her power onto him. It feels telling that the most beautifully written female character in the MCU is so explicitly androgynous.
But if the usual Marvel headaches feel unusually pronounced here, it’s only because this film does so much to transcend them. “Captain America: Civil War” was bogged down by surface-level squabbles about the ethics of power and it looked like an episode of a network TV show; this movie is obstinately about nothing and it looks like an acid trip. “Avengers: Age of Ultron” had more characters than it knew what to do with; this has approximately 10 speaking parts (11 if you count Stan Lee). “Ant-Man” cast Atlanta as San Francisco; “Doctor Strange” lets Nepal, Hong Kong, London, and New York all play themselves. That’s not all — miracle of miracles, there’s finally a Marvel movie with a memorable, personality-driven score! That’s what you get when you hire Michael Giacchino.
Finally, for the first time since “The Avengers,” the action scenes are special. Derrickson doesn’t create any sequences that are fluid and symphonic as that film’s Manhattan fight, but he compensates for that lack of grace with a surplus of wonder, contradicting time with space in order to create unique battles that outshine their familiar stakes (and actually take advantage of 3D!). And, dodgy CG aside, remember how cool it was when Yoda finally threw down at the end of “Attack of the Clones?” Watching Tilda Swinton roll up her sleeves is better — way better.
If Marvel often gets more credit for being “weird” than they deserve — some fans nearly tore ligaments in their arms trying to pat themselves on the back for helping a movie about a talking raccoon and a humanoid tree become the biggest hit of the 2014 summer movie season — it’s because they do such a good job of wrapping nerd lore into traditional Hollywood fare. Films like “Guardians of the Galaxy” only feel like such risky high-wire acts because the safety nets have been so cleverly hidden just out of sight. That holds true for much of “Doctor Strange” as well. And yet, it’s one thing to take a new world and make it feel familiar, and quite another to take a familiar word and show us new ways of looking at it. This is the first chapter of the MCU that accomplishes that second, more difficult, more thrilling task, and that bodes well for a better, stranger tomorrow for the MCU.
“You wonder what I see in your future?” The Ancient One asks our hero? “Possibility.” She’s not the only one.
“Doctor Strange” opens in theaters on Friday, November 4.