Strangeness abounds, entertains in ‘Doctor Strange’

"Doctor Strange" | Marvel Studios
Grade: A-

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Marvel Studios has a habit of playing it safe. Who can blame it? It has uncovered a narrative formula that works in cohesion with the characters it seeks to portray in film and continually entertains fans and critics alike. From “Iron Man” to “Captain America: Civil War,” people show up in droves to catch the latest Marvel film and the newest addition will prove no exception. Hilarious, visually stunning and, yes, even safe, Marvel’s “Doctor Strange” implements the time-tested tenets of the studio’s superhero origin story to create the cinematic universe’s most fascinating character in recent years.

Based on the Marvel Comics character of the same name, “Doctor Strange” presents the journey of the egocentric neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). After a career-ending car crash, Strange searches for the means to heal himself and return to his former lifestyle. During his quest, he encounters the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) an immortal who teaches him the ways of astral manipulation in an effort to combat a malevolent being that seeks to destroy the earth.

Strange’s newfound knowledge, including multi-dimensional travel, separates his ego from the likes of Tony Stark and his path to super-heroism from that of Ant-Man. In fact, the inimitable awesomeness of his mastery over the mystic arts is what truly defines this film.

The introduction of multiverse theory in a Marvel film is trippy in the best way possible. “Doctor Strange” throttles that unimaginable imagery beyond anything produced by Marvel before. The kaleidoscopic cityscapes, mesmerizing other-worldly dimensions and visceral manipulations of mysticism emphatically distinguish the film’s environments from its contemporaries in the MCU — as well as cinema in general. At a moment’s notice, the world could be turned upside down, which paves the way for innovative conflict choreography and set pieces alike. The sequence when Strange discovers the multifaceted nature of reality is simultaneously enthralling and terrifying, leaving the audience in the same state of mind as Strange by the end of it — desperately craving more.

No two environments are comparable, highlighting the movie’s greatest strength: distinctive visuals that cause cities such as New York and London to seem freshly located. It emphasizes the difference between an individual’s ability to see and his or her ability to comprehend, which challenges the audience to further immerse themselves in the film’s storyline and attests to the ingenuity of director Scott Derrickson in creating a unique magical world.

All of this would mean nothing, though, without a confident and believable lead performance. Thankfully, Cumberbatch assuredly channels both the narcissistic and conflicted nature of the title character, organically evolving him so the Strange at the film’s conclusion is not a complete 180 from where he began. He doesn’t abandon his past life, he repurposes it, and Cumberbatch manifests these nuanced traits in a way that makes one of Marvel’s most fantastical character all the more grounded.

His chemistry with Swinton makes the mentor-mentee relationship between the Ancient One and Strange not only enjoyable to watch but also surprisingly moving. The two reconcile antithetical worldviews for the sake of the greater good in a show of how faith in another need not negate one’s own beliefs. His relationship with his peer Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), too, exudes feasibility as the latter’s charm and tenacity act as an excellent foil for Strange’s disbelief and selfish reluctance to do what is right.

If there’s one thing an audience will be left wanting, it’s more details on Strange’s transformation from unbeliever to wielder of the mystic. The film’s pacing is rapid, and it doesn’t dwell too long on Strange’s suffering or his mastering of the unknown — bewildering given that the narrative introduces so many new abstract aspects to the MCU. The film’s haste also causes characters such as Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), Strange’s former lover and colleague, to seem like thankless roles in the greater scope of the story. And, in a long-standing Marvel tradition, the film’s antagonist Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) is another underwritten threat with generically evil objectives.

But with a third act that earns the spot as the best final “battle” in the MCU (yes, better than that airport fight) — who cares?

Despite not being quite as revolutionary in the genre as say “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Doctor Strange” relishes in its weirdness. It effectively masks minute instances of formulaic-ness with psychedelic creativity — a cure for “Marvel-itis,” which even the good doctor would approve of.

“Doctor Strange” opens at California Theatres tonight.

Contact Sanjay Nimmagudda at [email protected].