Doctor Strange has been on the Marvel movie to-do list since the House of Ideas was still just a place that studio president Kevin Feige visited on his way home from eighth grade when he stopped at his local comic book shop. The arrogant surgeon who becomes a master of the mystic arts and one of the Earth’s chief protectors against supernatural and extra-dimensional threats has fascinated and flummoxed a long string of screenwriters, producers and studios since at least 1986, and it even took the current powerhouse version of Marvel Studios nearly a decade to install the good doctor in his cozy little Sanctum Sanctorum down in Greenwich Village.
Stephen Strange has one of Marvel’s most clear-cut origin stories, which makes the long delay in bringing his story to the screen somewhat baffling. Then again, the idea of a superhero who does most of his crimefighting as a disembodied being on an astral plane that resembles what Kubrick’s “star gate” might have looked like if the director had actually dropped acid was no doubt daunting to even the most open-minded filmmakers. But after eight years of confounding everyone who has naysayed Marvel Studios’ ability to bring some of its most outlandish properties to the screen, the time was right for Doctor Strange — but oddly enough his roots as a comic book creation have ended up working both for and against the movie.
When we first meet Strange — embodied by Benedict Cumberbatch in full haughtiness — he is at the top of his world as he knows it, a successful, wealthy and exceptionally self-important neurosurgeon who takes calculated risks inside his patients’ heads — that is, when he’s interested enough to take their cases. Flirting with fellow doctor and one-time lover Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), stomping around his penthouse apartment or zipping through the streets of Manhattan like a medical version of James Bond, Strange lives his life in fourth gear — until it all comes crashing down around him when his car swerves off an upstate mountain road.
His hands and career destroyed, the trajectory of Strange’s decline is illustrated by how unkempt and scraggly his hair and beard become. Desperate to fix his trembling, stiffening fingers and finding no help from Western medicine, Strange travels to Nepal and stumbles into the company of Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who introduces the doctor to Kamar-Taj, the sanctuary of the bald, smiling, ethereal Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). It is through the guidance of the Ancient One, Mordo and a contingent of acolytes that Strange learns about the larger universe beyond this one, setting him on a path to become a maestro of the metaphysical and a defender of the planet against menaces from beyond — including Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former student of the Ancient One with his own ideas about healing.
Doctor Strange, under the direction of horror movie specialist Scott Derrickson (who also co-wrote with C. Robert Cargill and Jon Spaihts), lives up to its advance billing as perhaps Marvel’s weirdest and most visually audacious movie yet. I mentioned the famous “star gate” sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey earlier; the scene here where the Ancient One shoves Strange out of his corporeal body and into a white-hot ride through a succession of dazzlingly bizarre universes is legitimately mind-blowing, as are several visits to the Dark Dimension, an evil outlier cosmos that appears to be ripped right out of the original Doctor Strange pages first drawn by the incomparable Steve Ditko (this is one of the rare times I recommend seeing a movie in 3D for the full effect).
Equally eye-opening (as in “third eye”) are the casting of spells, the relics like the scene-stealing Cloak of Levitation, the leaping through inter-dimensional portals from one side of the globe to the other, and the battles between the Ancient One’s army and Kaecilius’ minions on city streets and sides of skyscrapers that fold, spin and turn inside out like Escher on a major bender. It’s dizzying, deranged, and a total blast, adding a whole new level of comic book giddiness to a Marvel Cinematic Universe that already includes Norse gods, talking raccoons and flying cyborgs powered by cosmic stones.
The cast, one of Marvel’s finest, sells all this with aplomb: Cumberbatch’s aristocratic presence and simmering intelligence make him the perfect Strange; like Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man or Chris Evans as Captain America, it’s instantly difficult to see anyone else in the role. Swinton already seems like she’s from a different realm, so playing a thousand-year-old wizard isn’t much of a stretch; nevertheless she tackles it with serenity and a mischievous twinkle in her eye. Ejiofor and Benedict Wong as the librarian of Kamar-Taj bring the appropriate gravitas, and even though Marvel villains continue to lag behind the gold standard of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, Mikkelsen manages to inject a little complexity and humor into his otherwise standard bad guy.
The acting, the visual fireworks and Michael Giacchino’s distinctive, Eastern-influenced score all go a long way toward disguising the fact that we are once again watching an origin story, and one that seems even a bit more perfunctory than usual. I mentioned Iron Man earlier, and the truth is that Doctor Strange plays like a remix of that very first MCU movie, from its lead character’s arc to its snarky humor to its status as a standalone story with little connection (at least at first) to the bigger narratives of the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy. There is not a moment plot-wise in Doctor Strange that comes off as surprising or unpredictable, and even a late second-act reveal isn’t the game-changing moment it’s perhaps meant to be.
By the time we get to the movie’s climactic showdown — which involves some unique fracturing of time in multiple directions — even those eye-filling visuals can’t stop a certain resignation setting in: we know exactly where the story is going and where Strange is going to end up. If Doctor Strange the movie suffers from anything, it’s a sense that filmmakers and cast, as hard as they are all working, just want to get through the origin story so Strange can move onto bigger adventures, both on his own and alongside the other members of the MCU (and yes, please remember to stay for the mid-and-post-credits scenes).
On one hand, Doctor Strange is a bit too clockwork as a story to make it into the top tier of Marvel movies, but on the other hand, its fearless approach to bringing the many weird dimensions that Strange traverses into the MCU emphasizes the studio’s complete confidence in both its material and its ability to sell these heady concepts to a mainstream audience. Perhaps that confidence will allow Marvel to move past the standard origin template from this point forward; in the meantime, the Sorcerer Supreme’s cinematic debut makes us hopeful enough that stranger things, so to speak, are ahead for him.
Doctor Strange is out in theaters on November 4.