The fourteenth addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe opens with a sequence so complex, bizarre and extravagant that it can only be described as baroque blockbuster filmmaking. Narratively there is nothing particularly special about the sequence. In it we see Mads Mikkelsen’s villain character Kaecilius and his followers break into a library, murder the librarian, rip some pages out of a medieval looking tome and abscond with them onto the streets of London. The owner of the book, a Celtic mystic known only as the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) pursues the thieves and gives fight but Kaecilius manages to escape. On the page it’s a fairly standard chase sequence but things take a turn for the, well, strange, when the Ancient One calmly begins reshaping reality, transforming the surrounding structures into a series of dazzling tessellations that she navigates with dizzying ease.
Doctor Strange director Scott Derrickson follows this spectacular, perception-altering opening with a much more lucid and conventional origin story. Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is introduced to us as a brilliant, somewhat arrogant neurosurgeon with a photographic memory and a flirtatiously combative relationship with his ex-girlfriend and co-worker Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). After a horrific car accident destroys Strange’s hands and career the surgeon spends every cent he possess searching for a way to repair the nerve damage. Eventually, having exhausted every other option, a broke and desperate Strange travels to Nepal based on the recommendation of former paraplegic Jonathan Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt) in search of the Ancient One.
Strange gets his chance to meet her when Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) rescues him from an attempted mugging and escorts him to the secret compound of Kamar-Taj. The rigidly rational surgeon is initially enraged to learn that the Ancient One’s healing methods are more about spirituality and sorcery than cutting edge medical techniques or stem cells, but he changes his mind after she rather forcefully introduces him to astral projection and the existence of multiple realities and dimensions beyond his own. This the moment where Doctor Strange fully embraces its surreal, psychedelic potential, exploding into a frenzy of kaleidoscopic, vertiginously shifting realities in a sequence that is as weird, exuberant and occasionally grotesque as anything you’re likely to see on a mainstream movie screen this year.
Mind utterly blown, Strange begs the Ancient One to teach him the mystic arts. She refuses but Mordo persuades her take the new student on and an enormously fun training montage ensues. Strange progresses quickly and is soon, like all precocious students, irritating the hell out of his teachers, particularly Kamar-Taj’s laconic new librarian Wong (Benedict Wong). Although Stephen relishes his rapidly developing mastery over the mystic arts he is reluctant to devote himself to the sorcerers sworn duty to protect the Earth from mystical threats. Those threats include Dormammu, the immensely powerful and malevolent interdimensional entity Kaecilius is attempting to summon so that it can literally consume the planet and its inhabitants.
When Kaecilius and his followers attack Kamar-Taj Stephen has little choice but to defend it and the subsequent confrontation is both thrilling and surprisingly funny. Mads Mikkelsen makes the most out of his slightly underdeveloped villain character, executing his fight choreography with graceful savagery while also landing several jokes, but it’s the Cloak of Levitation that proves to be the real badass in a scene stealing performance. Following a genuinely touching variation on the call-to-action speech from the Ancient One, Strange accepts the role of Earth’s protector and joins Mordo and Wong in Hong Kong for the film’s climatic battle with Dormammu. After thirteen previous entries in the MCU audiences may find the large-scale, destructive, CGI heavy climax to Doctor Strange a tad familiar, but there is at least something novel and clever about the method Strange uses to defeat the film’s big bad.
Doctor Strange’s defiant weirdness, silly sense of humour and aesthetic grandeur put it closest to 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy on the MCU spectrum, on the opposite end from the relatively realistic political thriller Captain America: The Winter Soldier. At no point does the film seem embarrassed that its protagonist is more sorcerer than superhero, instead it leans into the magic and mysticism of its source material and achieves something refreshingly new and unusual for a Marvel movie as a result. Scott Derrickson’s bold, dynamic direction is a pleasant surprise from a filmmaker previously known for decent though unexceptional horror movies like The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Sinister.
While the visual effects are the film’s most obvious draw Doctor Strange also boasts a truly exceptional cast. Benedict Cumberbatch is perfectly cast as Strange and the actor beautifully captures and conveys the character’s arrogance, vulnerability and brilliance. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong and Michael Stuhlbarg are all excellent in underwritten roles that will hopefully develop more in the forthcoming sequel. Tilda Swinton gives quite possibly the best performance in any Marvel movie to date as the Ancient One. The questions about whitewashing asked when the actress was cast were and remain valid, but there is no denying that Swinton is astonishingly credible and mesmerizingly watchable as the impossibly wise, impossibly ancient and impossibly powerful Sorcerer Supreme.