“Doctor Strange” is Marvel’s “Avatar,” the “Inception” of comic book adaptations.
The effects are that dazzling, the images so trippy, eye-popping and ground-breaking that one is tempted to scrap the normal “credits” for a recitation of the unsung architects of its visual splendor.
Industrial Light and Magic, RISE Visual Effects, luma pictures, Crafty Apes, Base FX, Framestore CFC, Method Studios Vancouver — Marvel and its Disney check-writers spared no expense, hired everybody who could make this the marvel of all Marvel movies.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays the arrogant neurosurgeon with an encyclopedic brain in this origin story.
After playing Sherlock Holmes, Julian Assange and Alan Turing, “arrogant” has kind of become his thing.
And as far as comic book movies go, origin stories are the best, aren’t they?
The rich doctor’s car accident takes away his gift, and when surgeries and the support of a loving woman (Rachel McAdams) can’t bring him back, he seeks unconventional therapy in the exotic East, in Katmandu.
“The Bob Seger song?”
“Beautiful loser album, 1975, A-side, third cut? Yes. In Nepal.”
And that’s where he falls in with Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a mystic warrior, disciple of “The Ancient One.”
That would be the great Tilda Swinton — bald, wise and wizardly, like Yoda and Professor X. She humbles the Doctor, whom she insists on calling “Mister Strange,” with her lectures in “the mystic arts,” “the astral” plane and “the mirror dimension.” She leads a cult of warriors who defend Earth from threats from other dimensions. Magic, she mumbo-jumbos, “is the source code that shapes reality.”
Chief among those threats is Kaecilius, a “zealot” among her students who went rogue and has stolen an ancient incantation that can bring doom on us all. Mads Mikkelsen, so weak and uncertain as the first Daniel Craig Bond villain, devours the screen with this guy. The towering Dane is surer of his English and pulls out all the stops here.
Director Scott Derrickson (“Sinister”), who had a hand in the script, never lets the effects take over the picture. Nobody on screen gawks at them, as dazzling as the mirror dimension, “the sling ring” electro-lasso, or the clockwork Escher lithographs that fold cityscapes, ancient libraries and the like in on themselves might be. They’re just accepted as this world’s reality.
The jokes land lightly, and the best physical gag seems straight out of a Disney cartoon — the “Cloak of Levitation” that finds the Doctor, bonds to him and yet has a comical mind of its own.
Cumberbatch doesn’t so much stretch or dazzle us here as solidly step into the cloak (turned up collars are kind of his thing) and look cool doing it.
The film sags in the middle acts, lost first in the broken Doctor’s self-pity, then in magical gadgets and exposition and too much time in the Katmandu library. The “teases to the next Marvel movie” coda after the credits (there are two) is the worst-played, least logical scenes in the movie.
But everything around that is eye candy of the first order, comic book movie comedy at its drollest and Cumberbatch at his bitchiest. “Doctor Strange” doesn’t break formula, and no, they will never ever be able to surprise us with his origin story again. It’s still head, shoulders and cloak above so much of what’s being churned out the seemingly bottomless vaults of Marvel and DC Comics.
MPAA Rating:PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action throughout, and an intense crash sequence
Cast:Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Mads Mikkelsen, Benedict Wong
Credits:Directed by Scott Derrickson, script by Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill, based on the Marvel comic book by Steve Ditko. A Marvel Studios release.
Running time: 1:55