There’s never been anything particularly special about the special effects in the Marvel movies. For all the money and resources the studio dumps into its whiz-bang showdowns, these are still superhero extravaganzas that put more stock in quips than spectacle; “cool enough” is about the highest praise one can usually lavish upon their elaborate climaxes, even when they feature a rampaging rage-monster, dueling deities, or a fleet of flying battle drones. But Doctor Strange is different. The 14th installment in the ever-expanding MCU is the first to really exploit the possibilities of CGI—to use state-of-the-art technology to its full, jaw-dropping advantage. “Cool enough” doesn’t do justice to this blockbuster’s city- and reality-bending set pieces. “Awe-inspiring” is closer.
The wow factor arrives early, with a bait-and-switch prologue: Dark wizards flee what looks like an ancient Shaolin temple, only to emerge into the blinding daylight of contemporary Manhattan, which the hooded figure on their tail then folds inward, altering the direction of gravity’s pull and transforming skyscrapers into giant, rotating gears. It’s the first spectacular sign that Scott Derrickson, who made Sinister and The Exorcism Of Emily Rose, will be breaking from the look and feel of the average Marvel product, the house style that regularly assimilates even distinctive directorial personalities like Kenneth Branagh and James Gunn. Visually and conceptually, Doctor Strange owes more to the inverted physics of Inception and the East-meets-West chop-socky of The Matrix trilogy. As storytelling, however, it’s very much MCU business as usual, an origin story that answers a curious question: What if Dr. Gregory House got in touch with his spiritual side and became a costumed sorcerer?
Summoning the full power of his charismatic arrogance, Benedict Cumberbatch plays Stephen Strange, a world-famous neurosurgeon who loses his livelihood in a car accident. (His hands, afflicted with irreparable nerve damage, become even shakier than Cumberbatch’s American accent.) Out of surgical solutions, Strange desperately turns to alternative medicine, flying to Kathmandu to consult with The Ancient One (a bald, puckishly serene Tilda Swinton), leader of a cabal of super-powered, dimension-hopping monks. Strange, a man of science, approaches their mind-over-matter philosophy with skepticism—a roadblock to his ascension in the magical arts. But he’s also a fiercely competitive quick learner, an egghead determined to be the smartest man in every room, and Doctor Strange has some fun with the sight of this sworn materialist mastering a worldview he barely believes in. Not that the guy can cling to his stubborn rationalism for long: There’s no coming back from the enlightenment trip Swinton’s sagely mentor sends him on, as sudden comeuppance for his dismissiveness—a dazzlingly surreal plunge through multiple planes of existence that’s like the slapstick answer to 2001’s closing voyage into starchildhood.
With his goatee, colossal ego, and barrage of referential humor, Strange is basically Tony Stark in a magic cape. But whereas Iron Man built a world around Robert Downey Jr.’s snarky star performance, Doctor Strange uses its own sardonic hero as more of a comical counterpoint—a voice of audience-surrogate reason to poke fun at the mumbo jumbo surrounding him. That’s smart, because there’s a lot of mumbo jumbo in this movie, which adds New Age mysticism to a cross-franchise universe already accommodating mad science, intergalactic empires, and ancient space gods. Besides their ability to reshape the physical properties of the world, Strange’s new teammates can also pull glowing weapons out of thin air (it’s a bit like starting an engine), leap out of their bodies into their “astro” form, teleport across oceans, do battle in an invisible “mirror dimension,” and even roll back time itself. Derrickson and his co-writers do their best to simplify the endless exposition into basic Star Trek terms, and there’s a certain geek-friendly charm to the mythological density, which is true to the spirit of the source material. But Doctor Strange sometimes feels as much like paging through an instruction manual as reading a comic.
Fortunately, no more than a few minutes ever pass without some eye-popping display of wizardry, both literal and digital. The action scenes in this movie are playfully, kaleidoscopically incredible. Derrickson builds on Inception, topping its hallway skirmish with the addition of dimensional portals and—in the film’s presumed Best Visual Effects clincher—twisting an entire metropolis into an M.C. Escher war zone. There’s also a fist fight between disembodied spirits, a panorama of destruction kicked into reverse, and lots of madcap mayhem featuring Strange’s sentient cloak, an iconic fashion choice with a mind of its own. Doctor Strange is the first Marvel movie that all but demands to be seen in 3-D, its rotating columns of rearranged architecture and layers of recontextualized reality a natural fit for the stereoscopic treatment.
If but the characters were so multi-dimensional. Marvel has assembled a typically esteemed cast, without giving the actors much to do beyond fire the occasional deadpan aside and swoop their hands around in circular motion. As Mordo, an essential supporting player in the Doctor Strange universe, Chiwetel Ejiofor goes through the origin-story paces, marking time until his sidekick becomes more interesting. Meanwhile, Rachel McAdams gets stuck with an MCU love-interest role far less crucial than the ones Natalie Portman and Gwyneth Paltrow have already abandoned, while Mads Mikkelsen plays the villain—a sorcerer rebelling against the cruel march of time and certainty of death—with a chilly self-regard he could conjure in his sleep. (It is entertaining, admittedly, watching him and Cumberbatch try to out-hubris each other.) Only Swinton seems to rise above the mercenary demands of the material, giving her ageless instructor figure a twinkle of warm humor and a twinge of moral complexity. She’s both the most and least human person on screen, a Zen master with personality.
More institution than series, the Marvel films remain reliable sources of bright, brisk entertainment without ever achieving the pop resonance of the best comic-book adaptations, like Spider-Man 2 or The Dark Knight. That’s mostly because they operate by a tried-and-true formula, delivering variations on what’s worked before. Doctor Strange, for all the welcome grandeur of its visuals, fits neatly into that tradition of quality without risk, most evident in the setting-things-up franchise management of its storytelling and the familiarity of its character arc. Who is Strange, after all, but another swinging dick, like Iron Man or Thor or Starlord, learning the value of a little humility? “It’s not about you,” The Ancient One tells her new apprentice during a big turning point. But given that she’s talking to a brilliant surgeon with a photographic memory and magical powers, isn’t this insistence on his insignificance a little... strange? Only when it’s reveling in amazing effects and turning whole skylines into Rubik’s Cubes does Doctor Strange achieve the transcendence its titular superhero seeks. Otherwise, it lands pretty squarely in the “cool enough” column.