It's been less than ten years since Marvel Studios kicked off its grand experiment with Iron Man and changed Hollywood forever, and it's interesting to look at the ways the company has both relied on what's worked and pushed its own boundaries since then. The studio's fourteenth (!) movie, Doctor Strange, is, when you break it down, a relatively formulaic origin story, but in many ways its the studio's most daring creation yet. This is the most visually stunning film of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and while co-writer/director Scott Derrickson leans on familiar beats in the screenplay, it's his stylistic eye that makes the movie leap off of the screen and truly command your attention.
Director: Scott Derrickson
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton, Benedict Wong, Rachel McAdams, Chiwetel Ejiofor
Benedict Cumberbatch is perfectly cast at Dr. Stephen Strange, a brilliant surgeon who loses the use of his hands and travels across the world to learn the mystic arts of magic. He's just as arrogant as Tony Stark and he's great at being a total jerk to everyone around him, including his former flame, a fellow doctor named Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). But he's believable at his lowest point, too, when he's begging The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) to teach him after his mind has been opened to the idea of multiple universes existing at the same time. And he pulls off the physical requirements of the part without breaking a sweat, falling and fighting and flying through dimensions with equal aplomb. Among the newest class of Marvel heroes, he's already proven to be a standout success and it'll be a lot of fun to see him interact with the rest of the ever-expanding cast of the MCU.
But one of the most fascinating things about Doctor Strange is that it's almost entirely self-contained. Though thirteen movies have come before it, this film barely hints that those or its characters exist, wisely choosing to focus on Strange's arc instead of falling into the trap of something like Iron Man 2, a film ultimately remembered more as connective tissue laying groundwork for future MCU properties than as its own movie. Strange introduces us to a corner of the Marvel universe which has big implications for future movies, but this movie's primary mission is telling its own story. (It's sort of crazy that we're at the point in superhero movie culture where we give props to a film for simply keeping its eye on the ball and not spending too much time setting up sequels, but when so many other properties fail to do this, a baseline level of competency is no longer a given.)
(Very light spoilers ahead.)
Where this film really soars, though, is in its visuals. Derrickson and his visual effects team have managed to create some sequences that are — and I mean this literally — unlike anything we've ever seen, and when you see some of these moments, your jaws are going to hit the floor. The marketing is heavily promoting the visual similarities to Inception (and they're certainly there, complete with a rotating hallway fight), but this movie gets much weirder than just a few buildings shifting around. There's a scene in which Strange basically flies through panels of Steve Ditko's art that have come to life, and it feels like a perfect marriage between the character's psychedelic origins and modern blockbuster sensibilities. And while tons of superhero movies have used destruction of cities as a way to convey the scope of the danger their heroes face, Doctor Strange deliberately goes in the opposite direction: the title character learns how to manipulate time, so this film's climax actually revolves around putting a destroyed city back together again. But as Strange's power sends the location sailing backwards through time, he and some of the other characters engage in a fight that happens while they're moving forward in time, providing one of the film's most visually stunning moments.
Not every aspect is as remarkable as its visuals, though. Rachel McAdams' Christine Palmer is, like so many other female characters in the MCU, stuck on the sidelines with little to do, and one of the fight scenes (a centerpiece set in the streets of New York City) begins to feel a bit repetitive after a while. The overall pacing could use some help, too; it opens with a fight sequence depicting the villain (Mads Mikkelsen) stealing something from The Ancient One's compound, but he conveniently disappears for a large swath of the movie until Doctor Strange has trained enough to face off against him.
But the positives far outweigh the negatives here. Michael Giacchino's score occasionally recalls the theme of Cumberbatch's Sherlock, and it's one of the very few Marvel Studios scores that is actually memorable. The film touches on deep themes like science vs. faith, and its humor, while often predictable, largely works. Swinton, Mikkelsen, and Benedict Wong give strong supporting performances, and the movie's ending features an inventive and fun scene between Strange and the movie's larger villain that's a wonderful little hint of the type of weirdness that's possible in this new corner of the universe. Every time the movie tiptoes toward feeling too familiar, something wild will happen that will make you shake your head and smile that they succeeded in making something this crazy on this scale.
Dazzling, daring, and delightfully different, Doctor Strange is another big win for Marvel Studios.