Marvel Studios’ nearly endless winning streak continues. The decision to add a mystical bizarro world to the company’s already intergalactic Cinematic Universe through “Doctor Strange” may have left many people scratching their heads. But it proves that in the right hands there is no niche cult character so obscure that he can’t conjure up a blockbuster and become a household name.
The film introduces us to a dimension far from the Earthly battlefields of HYDRA and S.H.I.E.L.D., a new domain assembled with airtight precision. From the characters’ relatable charm, to the staging of intense action, to retina-ripping fluorescent visuals, to coherent story lines, spot-on casting choices and the lighthearted fun missing from DC superhero films, it is remarkably efficient entertainment.
Benedict Cumberbatch, who seems born to play every role he tackles, dons surgical scrubs, and later a sorcerer’s mantle. Each fits him like fine custom tailoring. He plays Dr. Stephen Strange, a superstar surgeon who considers himself Mr. Fantastic from the start. His insistence on being called the honorific “doctor” rather than “mister” makes for a fine running joke. An arrogant perfectionist, he radiates narcissism and overconfidence that undermines his once-close relationship with his hospital colleague Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams in winning form). It also damages his career. His self-absorbed text messaging at high speed sends his car to the bottom of a steep hill and him to the emergency room with his hands damaged beyond medical repair.
His search for an alternative cure leads him to Nepal, where he is introduced to the mystic arts by a shaman called the Ancient One (played by that versatile chameleon Tilda Swinton, now bald).
The snappy getting-to-know-you phase between these two veteran shape-shifters is a delight. The rationalist Strange dismisses her philosophy as bunk and her spiritual icons as gift-store knickknacks. Then she steers him into impossibly complex psychedelic pathways that resemble the Star Gate sequence from “2001” on LSD.
It’s wonderful to watch Cumberbatch’s expression morph from vanity to awe. Returning to solid ground, his eyeballs popping like a frog, he gasps, “What was in that tea?” Little by little, the vain doctor becomes humbled and even likable.
Directly we enter a familiar comic book hero’s journey/origin story. Strange tries to master his new powers clumsily at first, but finally conquers an evil nemesis. As the hellbent destructive spirit Kaecilius, Mads Mikkelsen shows he can handle humorous material with deadpan ease, even while wearing creepy face makeup.
The film’s commonplace focus is processed through a very inventive filter. Scott Derrickson, who directed and co-wrote the script (and whose found-footage snuff film “Sinister” made many sleepless nights in 2012), orchestrates the story’s competing tones against each other until they make great harmony. The tragic air surrounding Strange’s car crash aligns against later trippy kaleidoscope visuals without one canceling the other. The film pushes for distinctive, detail-rich, synced-up approaches to every plot convolution of the story.
What works is much more than the film’s stratospheric production values. If your film is about altering the laws of nature, time and reality itself, it needs to keep its feet planted firmly. That is delivered by individuality and personality in roles that other films would make leaden or invisible.
Michael Stuhlbarg (“A Serious Man”) appears briefly as a hospital surgeon jealous of Strange’s career, nailing the fellow’s pompous insecurities with little more than flawlessly arched eyebrows. Derrickson’s action sequences echo the folding cityscapes from “Inception,” but multiply them by a power of 10. His sophisticated script contains what must be the only fluegelhorn joke in the history of film, and it’s a hoot. Even costume props are presented with groundbreaking skill. Doctor Strange’s mystical cloak goes swirling around under its own hilarious power, like a matador’s red cape during a bullfight.
And as usual, the very tail-of-the-end credits introduce hints of ongoing stories begun here. Apparently Marvel has more cinematic universes to conquer. I can’t wait.