By the fourteenth movie, what is there left to say about the Marvel Cinematic Universe? “Doctor Strange” is the latest success for the studio, a solidly entertaining superhero blockbuster which introduces not only an important new hero to the MCU but also opens up the fictional universe to a world of astral projection and interdimensional, cosmic sorcery.
Arrogant and gifted neurosurgeon Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is sailing through life, aloof from the world around him until he suffers a catastrophic car accident which permanently damages the nerves in his hands. Seeking a cure of last resort, Strange travels to Tibet where he encounters The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) who opens his mind to the worlds beyond conscious perception. But dark powers dwell in the other dimensions and Strange must learn to master his new skills in order to save the world.
There’s a deserved confidence to Marvel movies now, and “Doctor Strange” is no exception. Under the direction of talented horror director Scott Derrickson, this origin tale of the Sorcerer Supreme has a trippy, psychedelic quality to it from the beginning although it bides its time before it rewards long-haul fans by going the full Ditko in a dark dimensions-set finale. The kaleidoscopic word-twisting visions glimpsed in the trailers are used to fascinating effect to give the fight scenes a dizzyingly fresh perspective but nothing in the film quite beats the brilliantly choreographed timey-wimey climactic battle.
Although it’s a little slow to start – and you may grow slightly impatient waiting for Strange to quit struggling and start mastering the magic – it’s mostly a worthwhile journey to take the arrogant surgeon on the journey to enlightenment. There are a number of nice shout-outs to the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe including glimpses of Avengers Tower and a subtle reference to the events of “Captain America: Civil War” which helps place “Doctor Strange” in the cinematic chronology.
Cumberbatch slips into the role of Doctor Strange smoothly and while it may be obvious casting, it doesn’t diminish its effectiveness. Chiwetel Ejiofor provides an intriguing foil for Strange as Mordo while Swinton’s Ancient One is a curiously egg-like Zen Yoda, something that shouldn’t really work but absolutely does. The movie does have an effective villain, however most of the time is spent with his henchman Kaecilius, a role which tends to fritter away the talents of Mads Mikkelsen. In the wider cast, it’s nice to see the Flying Carpet from “Aladdin” getting work again.
There’s nothing here that will convince the doubters or shift the needle in the futile DC v Marvel debate but there’s no denying it’s another crowdpleasing hit in their 14-movie run. It’ll chart at various points in the inevitable Marvel countdowns but I’d be surprised if it lands anywhere but the top 50%. Marvel’s only growing weakness is that these solo introduction movies serve only to whet the appetite for the inevitable meetings and crossovers to come. With that in mind, remember to stay in your seat until the very end for two stinger scenes which both have significance for the future of the MCU.