Behold Doctor Strange, the first movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to grow significantly better in its action sequences. This massive franchise of interlocking superhero series tends to stuff appealing comic book conceits full of bantering character actors for fun setups that dim through endless pro forma digital destruction. The best keep the same light touch from zinging dialogue in the violence choreography, but they often err on the side of wearing out their welcome. Strange, though, finds itself dealing with cosmic transdimensional threats above the Avengers’ pay grade, so the movie is free to spiral out into wild visual invention. And somehow Marvel has allowed director Scott Derrickson – shifting tone from his usual horror beat – enough room to create some appealing, mind-boggling popcorn adventure images. Maybe the entire creative team was carried away by the intoxicating silliness of sorcerers, ancient magic, enchanted relics, pulpy gobbledygook jargon, and loopy fantasy. This isn’t a great film, but it’s a pleasant surprise to see Marvel’s ossifying superhero formula find some glimmers of new life.
The plot itself is standard origin story stuff, with quippy arrogance humbled by exposure to great power and great responsibility. Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a hotshot brain surgeon who struts onto the operating theater like all his life is a show devoted to his brilliance. He plays his medical prowess as a Sherlockian neurologist, like Dr. House crossed with Tony Stark. So of course he’s distraught when a hyperbolic car crash – his sleek sports car pinwheeling off a cliff, down a ravine, through a shack, and into shallow water – leaves his hands smashed to bits. Recovery is slow, and will likely never allow him to wield a scalpel again, let alone with anything remotely approaching his former skill. Out of options, he journeys to Katmandu where he’s heard tell of a magical healer, a guru known only as The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, otherworldly as ever, bald and beautiful, and maybe the best, coolest MCU performance yet). He’s initially put off by her ideas about astral projection, chakra alignment, and infinite alternate dimensions, but soon can’t deny the power she offers him. Open your mind, she says. He doesn’t even hesitate long enough to ask if she takes his insurance.
Moving through the typical training montages, Derrickson (from a screenplay he co-wrote with Jon Spaiths and C. Robert Cargill) finds hallucinogenic imagery. As Strange trains with The Ancient One and her talented acolytes (Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong) in the ways of the Sorcerer Supreme, he encounters glowing spells floating in the air, energy fields, swirling portals, glowing martial arts weaponry, mirrored dimensions fracturing the world in front of his very eyes, and abstract flourishes of phantasmagorical, mind-bending, reality-contorting travel. Marvel steers into the visual possibilities opened up by this concept, letting Derrickson and crew stage creative adventure. You can see in the effects’ department’s talented kaleidoscopic manipulation of matter – a city bending and warping in on itself, time moving backwards for some and forwards for others in the same frame, doorways to anywhere – Inception’s topsy-turvy hallway fight and Matrix bullet time plus Fantastic Voyage’s titanic molecules and 2001’s trippy wormhole. Here landscapes shift, tile patterns double and redouble, reality blurs and slurs, slips and slides. This isn’t dull shooting and punching interrupting fun characters’ hangouts. It’s, well, a visual Marvel much of the time.
And yet as much as it is fun to watch, it’s still in service of business as usual plot machinations. Strange’s training is about to come in handy, and the groundwork the early going lays for the imaginative imagery will pay off, when the villain (Mads Mikkelsen, with his eyes surrounded in a craggy dark glitter) appears, threatening the entire world with total destruction. He’s the type of bad guy who is splintering our dimension in exchange for immortality promised to him and his followers by an alternate universe ruled by a writhing purple goop monster. The conflict plays out like you’d expect, with fun side characters cycling in and out seeding future entries and forthcoming conflicts. (No less than Rachel McAdams, Benjamin Bratt, and Michael Stuhlbarg appear in such foreshortened subplots I couldn’t help but wonder if they’re only there for the promise of sequels.) But the details of the narrative, and the regular Marvel blend of light humor and apocalyptic stakes, take a back seat. It’s their usual crowd-pleasing formula done up with a genuinely pleasing visual snap. Compare it to their flat, dishwater grey, CGI airport tarmac in Civil War and it’s even more like a whole new dimension of possibilities opening up in a dull world.
Like the Thor movies, Doctor Strange is swept up in its terrifically silly/serious concoction. Moments like a slapstick fight involving a sentient red cape or a head-spinning M.C. Escher chase through a scrambled sideways New York City are right up there with Asgardian rainbow bridges and pseudo-Shakespearean Norse god mythos as the closest the whole MCU behemoth gets to massive pop art spectacle, eye-popping splash-page fantasy filmmaking driven by an imaginative use of screen space instead of the overused and overfamiliar slam-bang drudgery. Strange is best when it lets its visuals overpower its plot, taking off into uncharted cosmic wilderness. No wonder it leaves behind its characters’ emotional journeys and down-to-earth formulaic interactions by the end, consigning their mortal problems to get sorted out later. It has a multicolored psychedelic lightshow to stage, stretching out across a 3D IMAX screen every which way and then some. Its spectacle may be no more or less empty than any other MCU smash-‘em-up, but at least it’s entertaining spectacle used strikingly, surprisingly, and enjoyably down to the last pixel.