After 14 films and counting, I’ve resigned myself to the fact that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is here to stay. Not only that, but it’s expanding—and I’m not just referring to the fact that there are eight (!) more pictures in the MCU’s “Phase Three” slated for release during the next two-and-a-half years. No, I’m speaking about the eye-popping alternate (and parallel) dimensions on magical display in director Scott Derrickson’s otherwise paint-by-numbers origin story Doctor Strange.
Oscar nominee Benedict Cumberbatch’s Stephen Strange could be a direct descendent of Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, insofar as he’s a charismatic, arrogant, wealthy and materialistic man of hubris. However, when a horrific car accident strips this world-famous neurosurgeon of the use of his hands, he rebuilds his life not in one of the familiar playing fields of Marvel’s well-established superhero universe where Iron Man might do battle, but in the mind-bending multiverse that Derrickson and his army of talented visual effects artists have conjured into dazzling existence. If you enjoyed the trippy Quantum Realm in the climax of 2015’s Ant-Man, you ain’t seen nothing yet. This is one picture that you should seek out in both IMAX and 3-D—and we happen to have one of the best of such theaters just outside the city, the Sunbrella IMAX 3D Theater at Jordan’s Furniture in Reading, where you can experience the strange doctor’s exploits in 4K laser projection.
But no matter where you choose to see the spectacular sights, you’ll still find yourself sitting through a somewhat rote tale of redemption and rebirth. The screenplay courtesy of Derrickson, Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill follows a familiar path on the broken man’s journey toward becoming the Master of the Mystic Arts, even if it takes him to an unexpected place. After exhausting every medical option in his attempts to heal the hands that have become shakier than the British Cumberbatch’s American patois, Strange travels to Kamar-Taj, an arcane enclave hidden within Kathmandu, where martial-arts practitioner Baron Mordo (12 Years a Slave’s Chiwetel Ejiofor) saves the good doctor from further injury at the hands of thugs before introducing him to the Ancient One (Oscar winner Tilda Swinton), the bald-headed leader of a clan of magic-wielding monks.
When Tony Stark healed his broken body eight and-a-half years ago in Iron Man, the film that kicked off the MCU, he did so with equal parts ingenuity and science. Strange is an equally brilliant materialist, but he’s shocked when his new mentor, a Celtic woman who’s somehow been living and teaching for hundreds of years, opens his eyes to a larger world of mysticism that’s completely at odds with what his rational mind has told him is possible. But then, you’d become a believer too, if you were sent hurtling through time and space in a series of shots that beautifully evoke the pop art-infused planes of existence that original Doctor Strange illustrator Steve Ditko used in the earliest issues of the comic book he co-created with Stan Lee (who shows up in his obligatory cameo). Think of the climactic stargate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey that fueled so many cinematic acid trips back in 1968, but with a layer of humor laced throughout.
You may be getting the sense that this film is basically a retread of Iron Man’s original adventure. Once Strange adopts a goatee to go along with his massive ego and self-deprecating jokes (not to mention his equally ornamental love interest played by Rachel McAdams in a Gwyneth Paltrow key), you’d basically be right. Marvel’s latest hero to be taught a lesson in humility as he learns to wield great power is essentially Tony Stark as the world’s greatest magician. But rather than wearing a suit of armor, Strange is cloaked in a sentient red cape that conveniently grants him the Iron Man-like ability to soar through the heavens, only now those heavens may be set in parallel and mirror universes, concepts that the MCU will presumably be exploring more once our newly dubbed Sorcerer Supreme teams up with, say, Thor—a prospect teased during the closing credits, so as always, remain seated.
Now, if I’ve made this film sound like it’s some sort of Frankenstein freak built from the spare parts of what’s come before, that’d be doing a disservice to the strong turns by everyone in the cast (which also includes Michael Stuhlbarg, Benedict Wong and Mads Mikkelsen), not to mention the unbridled imagination on display. Sure, the trailers may have prepared you for a recycled journey through the city-folding gags borrowed from Christopher Nolan’s Inception. But these twisting metropolises are more than just a strong visual backdrop for foreground action; Derrickson pushes into them as sorcerers dive through portals and do battle in kaleidoscopic war zones that would make M.C. Escher’s head spin.
Will you achieve the same spiritual enlightenment as Strange does by the end? Not even close, but if you enjoy these Marvel movies, the addition of magic to the MCU is just enough to add some new fizz to the formula.
Doctor Strange ***
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Mads Mikkelsen, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt, Scott Adkins and Tilda Swinton. Directed by Scott Derrickson. Written by Derrickson, Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill, based on the Marvel comics by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee. At Assembly Row, Boston Common, Fenway, Somerville and in the suburbs.