Note to future directors of blockbuster bombast: Gone are the days of watching metropolises simply explode or collapse from such banally familiar tropes as nuclear blasts, alien death rays or picayune fisticuffs of levitating Avengers.
Doctor Strange, himself a future Avenger, and the new Marvel movie that dramatizes his origin story, have rewritten the disaster playbook, rendering obsolete the apocalyptic standbys that used to wow our pupils and punish our cochleas. Because once you’ve watched skyscrapers turn on their sides, undulate and flip upside down, or deconstruct themselves into gears of architectural nudity and reconstruct again, or dangle precariously in mid-topple while time stops, it’s hard to be amazed by yesterday’s pedestrian detonations.
All of this happens and much more in Doctor Strange, a mesmerizing mind-bender that, like its fellow late-blooming adaptee Ant-Man, earns its 3D glasses. We see energy fields and etheric bodies materializing out of nowhere, and our known universe being folded and shaped like a madman’s origami, as people and cars logically follow the patterns into seeming oblivion. The movie claims to have been directed by horror journeyman Scott Derrickson, but he seems to be channeling M.C. Escher. It’s a good thing Doctor Strange, a character that’s astonished us in panels since 1963, has taken this long to evolve into a feature film, because only in 2016 has digital wizardry evolved enough to realize his magic.
Yet, save for the de rigueur prologue in which a character loses his head in less than one screen minute, Doctor Strange begins all too earthbound. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a celebrity neurosurgeon with a steel-trapped capacity for music trivia and an ego the size of a Stage IV brain tumor. He’s like McDreamy without the heart or the suavity, a Type A-plus-plus personality who, when he recklessly speeds off a cliff toward certain death after an ill-advised iPad glance, we don’t feel particularly pained. Resurrected from the brink but with hands unable to hold a razor, he remains an unlikeable sod — arrogant, selfish, self-pitying, narcissistic and mean.
Thankfully, he soon eats his humble pie, served up by a long-shot healer in a secret address in Katmandu: The Ancient One, a bald guru played by Tilda Swinton with the kind of droll sarcasm and joyous command she’s rarely summoned to embody. He visits her on a lark after hearing that she helped a paralyzed patient walk again, but he gets instead a life-changing dose of New Age mysticism. He’s barely begun to imbibe her tea by the time she sends him hurtling through the multiverse, pinging and ponging off planets, prisms, interstellar kaleidoscopes and other versions of himself: The famous trip from 2001: A Space Odyssey conjured in a digital infinity.
During his time at the Nepal retreat, Strange becomes a metaphysical Karate Kid, as this denier of spiritualism gradually evolves into the one man fated to use the powers of thought, consciousness and manipulation of energy to, you know, save the entire world(s).
Must all comic book movies capsize in such existential destruction? When Doctor Strange occasionally lumbers, it’s because it jettisons its natural mirth for laborious, overplotted gravitas. When it has fun with its conventions, the possibilities are, like Strange’s powers, limitless. Never thought you’d see two astral bodies body-slamming each other in the middle of a surgical theater while the earthly husk of one of them lies in the balance? Neither did I, which makes the movie such a surprising and generally fleet-footed product.
Cumberbatch, like Swinton, seems to be having the time of his life onscreen, unshackled by the hefty considerations of a self-conscious prestige picture. The more the film progresses, the Strange-ier he looks, eventually developing the character’s close-cropped facial hair and discovering his trademark Cloak of Levitation — a sentient cape that functions as both sidekick and fashion statement. It doesn’t speak, and it’s still wittier than any live-action Robin.
DOCTOR STRANGE. Director: Scott Derrickson; Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton, Benedict Wong, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt, Mads Mikkelsen; Distributor: Disney; Opens: Friday in most area theaters