Not since Iron Man has a superhero movie surprised and delighted like Doctor Strange, after eight years of Marvel glut and DC rebuttals in-between.
Like Iron Man B.D. (Before Downey), Doctor Strange is a second-tier Marvel superhero, less renowned than any Avenger not named Hawkeye. Knowing next to nothing about a comic book hero is handy when origin stories are mandatory. Unless you're into seeing Peter Parker's spider bite or Bruce Wayne's traumatic childhood again.
Planning beyond the Avengers assembly line, Marvel needs another Iron Man-like sucker punch with another Robert Downey Jr. performance shaking up perceptions of what superheroes can be. There's a lot of Tony Stark in Dr. Stephen Strange, and dashes of Downey in Benedict Cumberbatch's portrayal of Marvel's next big thing among several.
Cumberbatch is inspired casting as Stephen, displaying a limber sense of humor seldom surfacing in his capital-T thespian choices. A brilliant neurosurgeon, Strange operates to the beat of a ego-massaging soundtrack; a Shining Star in the O.R. or maybe Marvin Gaye. Cumberbatch introduces the character in full jaunt, asserting superiority while charming Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) against her better judgment.
Strange is changed when a car crash crushes his hands beyond repair, at least by medical means, though he blows a fortune attempting in vain. He's pointed by a therapist to a former paraplegic (Benjamin Bratt) now playing pickup basketball, who credits his healing to the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) in Kathmandu.
"You mean like the Bob Seger song?" Christine asks for any baby boomers in the crowd. Doctor Strange is generous with toss-away chuckles like that.
Trekking to Nepal, Stephen meets the Ancient One, her right-hand sorcerer Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and a stone-faced mystic librarian named Wong (Benedict Wong) who'll teach him to harness his gift for turning hand gestures into sparkler twirls. It's cooler than that, but this movie is that sort of fun.
Doctor Strange is a unique superhero, dealing with supernatural threats the Avengers can't handle. This occasionally takes the movie into serious head trip territory; astral projections, roll-top architecture, Cronenberg surgery, a mashup of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Thor's Asgard drenched in M.C. Escher. Far out is an outdated yet appropriate compliment for this movie's look.
Director Scott Derrickson, a horror genre refugee, keeps everyone's tongues slightly in cheek, even when possessed as Swinton's glazed sensei suggests. The villain is the Ancient One's rogue disciple Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who basically steals pages from a library reference book of spells (but quietly). A doomsday threat is countered by a tactic that might work for a child wanting to play outside. This movie gets comic relief from a cloak of levitation with a mind of its own. How much Saturday morning matinee fun is that?
But it's kid stuff with a solid geek angle, laying out parameters of a Dark Dimension with plenty of spatial paradoxes and pseudo-physics lingo for the Comic Con crowd. Derrickson and co-writers Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill make concepts of folding time and matter easier to swallow than most blockbuster attempts.
Those fantasies give Doctor Strange its signature quirk, breaking through to a Mirror Dimension, behind the scenes of reality, where cityscapes warp without mortals realizing. A foot chase is much more interesting when it's up the side of a morphing skyscraper, and roughing up the hero is more thrilling when it's done by a rotating hallway. It's Inception with action, and ideas more inviting.
A nice balance of solemn myth making and genre irreverence lifts Doctor Strange to Marvel's first tier of movie franchises. A title card promises his return, and not one but two end credits scenes confirms it, as soon as next summer. The doctor is in. Make an appointment.
Contact Steve Persall at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.