Directed by Scott Derrickson
Opens November 4
In Thor: The Dark World, perhaps not one of the most fondly or clearly remembered movies from the interconnected Marvel Studios dynasty, the movie took a while to warm up, with rehashed palace intrigue and fitfully amusing fish-out-of-water antics reversing the trajectory of the first film (the first time, Thor was the fish; the second time, it’s his human friends. Is any of this ringing a bell?). But while plenty of Marvel pictures arrive at samey-looking falling-airship conclusions, the Thor sequel saved much of its best material for the final stretch, with Thor and company jumping through a series of location-shifting portals, giving the big noisy destructo-bashing more than a touch of Looney Tunes energy.
It would be a stretch to describe anything in Marvel’s new film Doctor Strange in terms as lofty as Looney Tunes. But Thor: The Dark World, of all things, came to mind while watching Scott Derrickson’s origin of this universe’s ultra-powerful becaped sorcerer, which also features location-jumping portals and, moreover, some of the coolest, trippiest action sequences Marvel has yet assembled. Maybe that’s not so unusual. In some ways, Doctor Strange finishes the job of this year’s Captain America: Civil War in the conversion of the Marvel Studios house style into a genre unto itself. Cap shucked off the World War II adventure and conspiracy-theory thriller touches of its predecessors in favor of an all-star superhero brawl, heavy on Marvel Cinematic Universe crossovers and bylaws; this tactic was a touch disappointing, but the movie was too much fun for it to really matter. Doctor Strange is the first Marvel movie that feels not just a little generic, but like an actual remake of another, specific Marvel film: This is basically Iron Man with weaker laugh lines and vastly cooler action sequences. It’s Iron Man meets Thor 2, and the thing is, those guys have met before.
So instead of hotshot arms manufacturer Tony Stark, we’re introduced to hotshot surgeon Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) who, like Stark, is temporarily undone by his own hubris, mangling his precious hands in a car wreck; instead of impromptu engineering skills saving his sense of purpose, it’s a set of mystical skills he acquires by unwittingly seeking out the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). He gains access to the multi-verse and all of its cool dimensions, like the Mirror Dimension, where you can fuck shit up in a place that looks like our world while leaving our actual world intact, and the Inception Dimension, where cityscapes fold over on each other, but like, a lot.
Even before characters start running around the twisted building facades, windows and ornamentation unfolding like images from a kaleidoscope, little of this is hard to watch. Everything, boilerplate origin material included, is briskly paced, and Derrickson brings out some stylistic touches sometimes lacking in the likes of, say, Thor 2. When an injured Strange ports himself to a hospital and later projects himself out of his body to literally fight for his life as his surgeon ex Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) operates below, he glides the camera through the portal with Strange, and shoots the weird spiritual grappling with ghostly smoothness. That’s one of the smaller-scale sequences, but the bigger ones are light on their feet, too, including some time-freezing shenanigans that rank among the MCU’s most inventive.
There are drawbacks to the light touch; Doctor Strange may fold more buildings than Inception did, but Christopher Nolan’s images have a weight and a texture the Marvel Studios adventures so often lack. And Derrickson may have cut his teeth on horror movies, but no such moodiness is permitted around these parts. As charismatic as Cumberbatch is (even with a Hugh Laurie style persnickety-medical-genius American accent), he doesn’t have Robert Downey’s natural personality, which brought its own stylizations to the Iron Man movies even when the filmmaking didn’t. Cumberbatch’s quips are more obligatory than tension-breaking, and as nice as it is to see Tilda Swinton, Rachel McAdams, and Chiwetel Ejiofor (as Strange’s fellow sorcerer Mordo) in a movie like this, none of them conquer the dialogue’s fill-in-the-blanks rhythms (baldness and superpowers nonwithstanding, this may be the least strange Swinton performance I’ve ever seen). Benedict Wong comes closest to carving out his own space as Wong, a sort of librarian sorcerer who reacts to Strange’s wan zingers with an understandable stoneface.
Doctor Strange is fun; certainly, other studios could learn something about Marvel’s blockbuster assembly, where even the least inspired tend to have major standout elements: a delightful performance or two, funny dialogue, or, as here, a bunch of neat action sequences (that, get this, actually look cool in 3D). But by and large, the Marvel movies seem to get less idiosyncratic as the company gets more skilled at integrating them; quality control is high and (with the occasional exception like Captain America: The Winter Soldier or Avengers: Age of Ultron) artistic risks are low. At one point, a character in Doctor Strange remarks about the lead character: “Stubbornness, arrogance, ambition—I’ve seen it all before.” Is that line a wink at origin-story weariness? Or is this its own kind of arrogance?