It’d be easy to call the Marvel Cinematic Universe the PEZ Dispenser of Hollywood, but that wouldn’t be fair. On their surfaces, Marvel films are pretty much the same: homogenized superhero fodder—replete with big action set pieces and huge stars—that a studio executive can easily dispense. And they all fit nicely together in a single package; characters and storylines that weave and intersect within individual films to create a larger narrative.
But to Marvel’s credit, they put a lot of care and effort into giving each individual film its own unique fabric, even if they’re cut from the same cloth. Sometimes it works (Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor: The Dark World, Ant-Man, among Marvel’s more unique outings), and sometimes it doesn’t (Iron Man 2 & 3, The Avengers: Age of Ultron). Doctor Strange, Marvel’s latest, is perhaps its most ambitious film yet—at least visually. It’s main character, Dr. Stephen Strange (an affably cocky Benedict Cumberbatch), embarks on inter-dimensional journeys to learn the secrets of the universe. It’s biggest action sequences defy gravity and the laws of physics as cityscapes shift and transform like a massive Rubix Cube. This is Marvel’s acid trip.
Though Doctor Strange’s impressive visual effects and head-spinning mythology—deeply rooted in Eastern mysticism—might seem a bit much for Marvel’s typical filmgoing crowd, its story is rudimentary enough to keep the more far-reaching elements relatively grounded. This is an origin story, after all, and if there’s one thing Marvel knows how to do, it is how to tell an origin story.
Cumberbatch dazzles—literally and figuratively—as Strange, an accomplished but too-cocky-for-his-own good neurosurgeon who falls to pieces after a brutal car accident leaves the nerves in his hands permanently damaged. All seems lost for Strange until he meets a man (Benjamin Bratt) who claims to have fully recovered from complete paralysis thanks to a mystical compound in Kathmandu called Kamar-Taj. Strange spends every last penny he has to travel to Kamar-Taj, where he meets a sorcerer called The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who introduces him to the realm of magic, the astral plane, and other dimensions.
Strange begs her to teach him, but she’s reluctant at first because of his arrogance. She gives in, though, and Strange begins his training at Kamar-Taj under The Ancient One, and her students-turned-sorcerers, including Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Wong (Benedict Wong).
But all is not peachy among Marvel’s sorcery community. Kaecilius (an icy, excellent Mads Mikkelsen), a former student of The Ancient One who’s gone rogue and recruited his own followers after uncovering one of her, er, dark secrets, is hell bent on merging Earth with the ominously named Dark Dimension, a place where time does not exist. Naturally, Strange and the rest of The Ancient One’s students get wrapped up in an interdimensional battle to save the planet from total annihilation. So it goes.
Credit where credit’s due: Director/writer Scott Derrickson, along with co-writer C. Robert Cargill, does a fine job keeping the convoluted backstory relatively grounded, but it’s the thoroughly awe-inspiring action sequences—most of which occur in different dimensions and/or astral planes—that are most impressive in Doctor Strange.
But when all is said and done, Doctor Strange is, at its core, a Marvel origin story, and so it hits all the requisite beats: The main character’s emotional and physical transformation into a superhero; several training montages; and a hackneyed love story, this time between Strange and his co-worker/former lover Christine Palmer (an underutilized Rachel McAdams). Even if Doctor Strange seems like the trippiest superhero movie you’ve ever seen, it’s still the same superhero you’ve seen countless times.
Doctor Strange opens Friday in theaters everywhere.