Doctor Strange Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Rachel McAdams. Directed by Scott Derrickson. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday citywide.
Strange isn’t really an accurate term to describe Doctor Strange, which mostly follows the Marvel Cinematic Universe origin template, with all the strengths and weaknesses that implies. That template has succeeded for a reason, and like all Marvel superhero movies, Doctor Strange is entertaining and enjoyable even when it’s formulaic and a bit underwhelming. What director and co-writer Scott Derrickson (who has a background in horror, with movies like Sinister and The Exorcism of Emily Rose) brings to the Marvel movie world is a trippy, sometimes creepy visual sense, which comes in handy since Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a sorcerer with access to alternate dimensions.
While most of Marvel’s previous heroes have been based in science or technology, Doctor Strange is a master of the mystical arts, and the movie fully embraces the idea of magic spells and sorcery, opening up new avenues for storytelling. At the same time, its title character’s origin is pretty familiar: Stephen Strange starts the movie as a Tony Stark-style arrogant man about town, a superstar neurosurgeon who pioneers new procedures, collects awards and drives a really fancy sports car, which he then crashes spectacularly, irreparably damaging his hands in the process. No longer able to perform surgery, Strange eventually seeks out the aid of a mystic known as the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, having a great time), who teaches him the secrets of magic and helps him realize that he was meant for a greater purpose than personal glory.
Strange also fights off a villain (played by Hannibal’s Mads Mikkelsen) intent on destroying the world, but as is typical for Marvel movies, both the villain and his plan are largely forgettable. While the story isn’t groundbreaking, the characters (including Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong as Strange’s fellow sorcerers and Rachel McAdams as his requisite long-suffering love interest) are engaging, the dialogue is snappy (with just the right amount of self-deprecating humor), the performances are lively and the special effects are dazzling. The visual style is the movie’s greatest strength, and Derrickson stages some truly astounding set pieces, with the heroes and villains manipulating their surroundings into surreal, kaleidoscopic landscapes that give the action a new dimension (sometimes literally). Even if the stakes are less than thrilling, the fights themselves are kinetic delights.
Although the references to other Marvel movies are mercifully brief and unobtrusive, eventually Strange has to be set up for his larger role in the Marvel universe (stick around, as always, for the post-credits scenes), and this movie might be his one chance to be shine on his own. If that’s the case, the movie doesn’t quite go far enough, but it’s still an entertaining and occasionally distinctive addition to the increasingly homogeneous Marvel movie canon.