Marvel is getting increasingly good at delivering great movies based on material that shouldn't really work on film.
Guardians of the Galaxy? A goofy sci-fi comedy with characters nobody had heard of should not have been that successful. Ant-Man? How are they going to pull off a heist flick about a dude that can become as small as an ant? How is that going to interest anybody?
And now we've got Doctor Strange, a movie heavily focused on magic in a world that's already on the verge of five spinoffs set in the Harry Potter universe, directed by the Scott Derrickson, the same guy who gave us The Day the Earth Stood Still. Good luck with that, Marvel.
But Doctor Strange does what Marvel continues to do shockingly well: It works. It may be the studio's best origin story since Iron Man kicked off this wild cinematic universe back in 2008.
That's not the only way you could compare the two films. The titular Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is an arrogant, selfish, unpleasant surgeon whose intelligence and success leads him to treat the people around him like dirt. He's the kind of person who will insult a physical therapist by referring to them by the term "bachelor degree." Worse, Strange doesn't even possess most of Tony Stark's humor or boyish charm, making him little more than a very talented jerk.
As you might imagine, he doesn't stay that way. After a car accident irreparably damages his hands and destroys his medical career, Strange eventually finds himself giving up on western medicine and finding hope in the most unlikely source for a skeptic: magic. Before long, the man of science is astral-projecting, casting spells and even toying with time.
Here's where one of the movie's biggest assets comes into play. The special effects in Doctor Strange are nothing short of spellbinding. Sure, there's some really flashy magic being tossed around and wielded as weapons, which is all well and good, but the visuals shine when they start to bend the world itself. One scene early on in the course of Strange's magical training has the character falling through increasingly trippy landscapes: It's literally dizzying (especially in 3D), but in a way that's exhilarating rather than sickening.
You thought Inception had impressive special effects involving a city twisting and folding in on itself? Doctor Strange cranks that concept up to 11, and it's visually engaging every step of the way.
Beyond being a treat for the eyes, Doctor Strange takes what could have been a relatively boring series of training montages (much of the film takes place while Strange is basically at a school for magic, reading books rather than fighting evil) and infuses it with enough action, humor and heart to keep you going. Even when things get impressively philosophical for a superhero movie, the dialogue never tries to get so deep that it loses its audience.
Cumberbatch is backed by a solid cast of teachers and peers, chief among them being Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mordo, while Mads Mikkelsen makes for a worthy (if perhaps underutilized) villain. And while it won't be nominated for Best Supporting Actor, Strange's magical cloak is reminiscent of Aladdin's magic carpet in all the best ways.
If you want to knock it, Doctor Strange does ultimately follow most of the same beats as Marvel movie attendees have come to predict at this point. You know it's all leading up to one big epic duel at the end that could determine the fate of all humanity. To its credit, though, Doctor Strange handles that final moment with more originality than a simple battle of strength.
As expected, there are plenty of teases to the Sorcerer Supreme's upcoming involvement in future Marvel universe movies, and yes, there's an Infinity Stone in there somewhere (setting the stage for the third and fourth Avengers movies), but Doctor Strange also stands on its own pretty easily. The Avengers are only mentioned once, in an off-handed way, and Strange's story doesn't require even a tiny bit of prior Marvel knowledge to be enjoyed.
You'd be forgiven for having comic-book movie fatigue at this point, but Doctor Strange brings something new and exciting to the superhero table. That, in and of itself, is pretty magical.
Doctor Strange (A-)
Directed by Scott Derrickson. PG-13 (for sci-fi violence and action throughout, and an intense crash sequence). 115 minutes. In wide release.