It's too much to ask that a studio moneymaker/sequel generator like Doctor Strange actually be strange, much less flaunt doctoral levels of weirdness. Instead, it's Strange 101 in super HD, its lavish pop-art psychedelia in service of 1963 comic book story beats. The attractions this time are Benedict Cumberbatch, haughtily Randian as a surgeon of self-willed greatness, and the most extravagant superhero trip-outs that Marvel can buy.
These prove familiar, too, a diverting jumble of action-fantasy and head-shop screen saver. Cityscapes fold in on themselves, à la Escher and Inception; we gush down an umbilicus of light, as in 2001 or Contact; too many hands from nowhere seize the terrified protagonist, as in Repulsion. But here blockbuster hugeness for once pays off. Those cities keep folding, as if Manhattan were some bored god's squeezable stress toy, while the characters vault from one skyscraper to the next, the angle of the glass facades tilting from sheer drop to sleek slide to horizontal battle arena.
Meanwhile, the light-show journey between dimensions rockets along in worth-your-money 3-D at a bit rate such a sequence has never before been rendered at. And those freaky grasping hands — well, there are a million of them, and my certainty that a PG-13 Marvel/Disney epic couldn't conjure up imagery that might haunt me died when their fingers all bloomed at the tips into new hands, tinier than the first, their own pale and luminous fingers blooming again in turn.
That blooming marks the visual set pieces throughout Doctor Strange, kaleidoscopic visions of the everyday gone fractal, its geometry splintering and then endlessly replicating itself. The history of the superhero movie has been, in part, a history of the breakdown of filmmakers' interest in spatial geography — Doctor Strange wittily literalizes this. It's not all that strange, but it's restlessly arresting and always technically impressive. Unlike most studio franchise fantasies, Doctor Strange rewards the eye rather than assaults it.
As in Ant-Man or the original Iron Man, the Marvel Studios releases it most resembles, Doctor Strange sells its wearily old-hat dude-becomes-hero tale through strong casts, an emphasis on emotion and humor and the good sense never to let action overwhelm character. It beats Ant-Man, to my mind, because Cumberbatch's driven egoist Stephen Strange is more coherent a creation than Paul Rudd's shrugging, listless Scott Lang. Strange is all I shall become master of the mystic arts! where Lang was more I dunno, I guess Michael Douglas wants me to talk to ants now?
This origin story, based on an Orientalist pastiche whipped up by Atlas Shrugged devotee Steve Ditko, concerns a peacocking neurosurgeon who, in a tragedy of fate and hubris, shatters both of his hands. His quest to restore himself leads him to a Tibetan monastery whose master — the Ancient One — trains him in kitchen-sink Marvel sorcery, drawing on many spiritual traditions and none in particular. Disappointingly, in the film the students are taught to use magic to conjure weapons, which they then wield for combat training; that's much less interesting than using magic to cast, like, crazy-ass spells.
Director Scott Derrickson (Sinister, Deliver Us From Evil) makes all this skip right along, with not-bad jokes and some credible human feeling, but there's nothing he can do to distract from the errors of conception at the film's heart. Doctor Strange is another movie about a white man braving a garishly mysterious East, where monks who have devoted lifetimes to a discipline will train him in a couple montages to be the Best Ever. It's almost as if Marvel is trolling with this, trying to see how much it can get away with: The Ancient One, that monastery's master of all masters, is Tilda Swinton, whiteness’ Platonic ideal.
Perhaps the executives considered this casting progressive, giving what originated as a male role to a woman, increasing the number of female principals to two. (Rachel McAdams plays a back-home love interest of Strange's, a small role that doesn't demand she get kidnapped by a villain but does demand she scream at a broom.) In practice, though, Swinton's first appearance plays like parody — Strange is the American who backpacks to Tibet and immediately seeks out companions who look like him.
Cumberbatch, that posh geek pinup, embodies the role with a dashing imperiousness. He wrings laughs out of both Strange's lack of interest in the people around him and his tendency to get turned on by his own power, but he's also convincing when stirred to heroic action. Actor and character here overlap, as with Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man. Strange should probably be retired from Marvel's movies when Cumberbatch moves on.
For all its stoned splendor, Doctor Strange is the fleetest, breeziest superhero movie since Deadpool. The villains — a squad of Dark-Side Jedi/evil samurai/black-hatted cowboys/fallen followers of Swinton's Ancient One — never crowd the narrative and aren't given to speechifying. The final showdown arrives much earlier than in the latest Avengers, Captain America and Iron Man films, and even with the fate of Earth at stake, the scale seems personal — it's Doctor Strange, in a dimension that could be a black-light poster, pretzeling space-time to outwit forces beyond our comprehension. That beats robot-punching any day.