Doctor Strange has always operated in the trippier corners of Marvel Comics; while other superheroes were foiling bank robbers or repelling interplanetary conquerors, the good doctor was slipping between dimensions, battling mystical forces up to and including Eternity itself. He was cornball enough to pepper his speech with oaths like “By the Hoary Hosts of Hoggath!” but you definitely would not want to find yourself on the business end of one of his powerful spells.
“Doctor Strange,” the latest movie in the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, casts a few impressive spells of its own, not the least of which is the redemption of the visual-effects extravaganza. In a year where bloated, empty spectacles have induced a crushing level of CG fatigue — Now Showing: “Alice Through the Warcraft Suicide Apocalypse Justice” — this funny, freaky adventure reminds us of how effective VFX can be when they’ve got some imagination behind them.
Yes, there are big battles in city streets, but they appear to have been designed by M.C. Escher and not a colorblind four-year-old. And yes, our hero travels beyond the farthest reaches of the universe, but he encounters intergalactic psychedelia that calls to mind both “2001” and the acclaimed Nick Fury stories drawn by Jim Steranko for Marvel Comics’ short-lived “Pop Art Productions” imprint. In other words, the brain trust at Marvel Studios wisely continues trying to keep audiences on their toes by upending what viewers might be thinking of as business as usual.
True, “Doctor Strange” is an origin story, and occasionally hemmed in by the genre’s narrative requirements, but it’s smart enough to bring in great British actors to make the predictable paces and life lessons feel fresh and fascinating. Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Dr. Stephen Strange, a brilliant but arrogant surgeon who only plies his craft in ways that will win him fame and fortune.
A car accident leads to massive nerve damage to his hands, and after Western medicine provides no solutions, he follows a tip from a no-longer-paralyzed man (Benjamin Bratt) to a place called Kamar-Taj in the Nepalese city of Kathmandu.
There he meets the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a Celtic master of the mystic arts who quickly shows Strange that there is more in the multiverse than is dreamt of in his philosophy; his initial skepticism disappears after she opens his third eye and sends him careening through dimension after dimension. (This sequence alone justifies seeing the film in 3D.) He sets about developing his powers under her tutelage; she’s aided by her right-hand man Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and stone-faced librarian Wong (Benedict Wong, “Marco Polo”).
Meanwhile — and there’s always a meanwhile — the Ancient One’s former protégé Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) has stolen some pages from one of her sacred texts and plans to create a passage that will bring some very dark forces to the planet. (All the sorcerers have the ability to open up portals from place to place; Strange finally learns how when the Ancient One commits an act equivalent to throwing a child in the deep end to teach him to swim.)
Fans of the original comic book (created in 1963 by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko) will thrill to their first glimpses at the doctor’s cloak of levitation and at the Sanctum Santorum nestled in the middle of Greenwich Village. (Here’s hoping that a sequel sees the building encased in a giant cereal box, as happened in the pages of “Howard the Duck.”) But director Scott Derrickson (“Deliver Us from Evil”) — who co-wrote with Jon Spaihts (“Prometheus”) and C. Robert Cargill (“Sinister”) — makes this nutty material accessible to newbies in the same way that “Guardians of the Galaxy” made leading men out of a raccoon and a talking tree.
The performances are consistently engaging: Cumberbatch remains charming and quippy whether he’s full of himself or learning to let go and to face his fear, Swinton puts her otherworldly qualities to great use, and Rachel McAdams (as Strange’s former and maybe future girlfriend) provides a much-needed degree of groundedness to the bizarre goings-on. Mikkelsen is sadly underutilized, but his conflicts with Strange allow TV fans a long-awaited Hannibal vs. Sherlock match-up.
Those fights are more interesting than you’d imagine; when magicians battle, it’s not just a matter of fists connecting and buildings collapsing. The action climaxes with a truly impressive finale, one that employs time going in multiple directions that’s like nothing I’ve ever seen in a movie before. The effects shots here aren’t just visually impressive; they actually let the narrative go to places it couldn’t without this level of, you’ll pardon the expression, wizardry.
As per usual, the closing credits involve some hints of what’s happening next, and the thought of Doctor Strange and his madcap mysticism rubbing shoulders with the Avengers is a genuinely promising pop-culture event. And for a superhero movie in late 2016 to generate enthusiasm is perhaps the greatest trick of all.