Doctor Strange probably isn’t quite good enough to compete for the title of Best Marvel Movie, but the honor it’s really going for is Coolest Marvel Movie. With its film-geek-friendly cast and trippy, kaleidoscope action sequences, it makes a strong case.
Created in 1963 by artist Steve Ditko, Stephen Strange is the Sorcerer Supreme, a hip New York wizard who uses his mastery of the mystical arts (i.e. totally bitchin’ magic) to battle demons, monsters and all kinds of horrific fiends from other dimensions. The movie effectively lays out Strange’s origin: He’s a cocky surgeon whose hands are permanently damaged in a car crash. When modern medicine offers no cure, Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) travels to Nepal to seek out a being named the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a centuries-old mystic who teaches him the ways of both magic and selflessness, setting him on the hero’s path. So, yeah, the movie is another superhero origin tale, although it’s a damn good one — offering up a story that feels complete and fulfilling rather than merely a setup of what’s to come. (A trap that too many of these things fall into.) Director Scott Derrickson, working off a script he wrote with Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill, keeps things moving at a brisk pace, wisely not making you wait too long before the movie dives into its magical shenanigans.
Cumberbatch’s American accent is all over the place, but he capably pulls off all of Strange’s dimensions — the vast intelligence, the cockiness, the humbleness once he realizes he knows far less about the world than he had thought — while also cutting a fine superhero pose. The supporting cast is just as good. Mads Mikkelsen plays the primary villain (a former pupil of the Ancient One gone rogue) exactly the way you imagine Mikkelsen would do so — menace matched with a twinkle of knowing mischief. The always reliable Chiwetel Ejiofor is also around as a fellow mystic, although his time to truly shine will come in the sequel.
The real star here though is those killer action sequences. Throughout the film, good and evil sorcerers wage magical battle around New York and Hong Kong, but in ways unlike we’ve never seen on film before. Using their powers to warp reality as a weapon, the laws of physics are abandoned as buildings are twisted in half and roads turned upside down. Matter disassembles and reassembles around the characters at their will. It’s like somebody took an old DVD copy of The Matrix, glued it to an M.C. Escher painting and ran them through the Marvel machine. Out pops Doctor Strange’s wizard battles … and they never grow tiresome.
The film does have a few weaknesses. Rachel McAdams plays a nothing character saddled with a nothing romantic sublot. I really don’t feel up for wading into the white-washing debate, but I will say it’s a good thing Swinton is in this movie being her awesome self. Otherwise, a strong female presence would be nowhere to be found. Also, while I appreciate Marvel is the superhero studio that still tells jokes in their movies (ahem), the gags are a little too obvious at times here. If you don’t know early on that Benedict Wong’s stoic librarian is going to bust a gut laughing at the end of this, then you clearly don’t pay attention to movies.
Still, like with most of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there’s just so much here that flat-out works. I love that the Cloak of Levitation has a personality all of its own. I love that the film’s climax goes cerebral rather than just limiting itself to the usual action beats. (Captain America: Civil War started this trend of subverting what you expect from the third act of a Marvel film. Doctor Strange takes it even further.) I love that Mads’ villain has so clearly defined a viewpoint that you can totally get where he’s coming from. I love that Strange takes a hallucinatory adventure through space and time that probably needs to be experienced while on a mind-expanding substance to truly appreciate.
Oh, and a bonus: After dropping the ball in this regard recently, Marvel seems to have rediscovered their post-credits-stinger mojo. Strange has two of them, one setting up a sequel and another that ties into a future MCU film. They’re both great, and — just like Marvel always plans it — has me dying to see what they’re going to do with this character next.