There’s nothing particularly new about serious, over-qualified actors being recruited to class up a Marvel movie. But the studio’s latest, Doctor Strange, wouldn’t work as well it as it does (and it mostly works very, very well) without Benedict Cumberbatch and Tilda Swinton — two actors, who in addition to being intelligent, top-shelf stars both project a slightly alien, otherworldy air. They make what might seem ludicrously esoteric in the panels of a comic accessible and seductively engrossing. Just as smart, the film’s director, Scott Derrickson (taking a giant leap from the Blumhouse cheapie-chiller Sinister, not to mention Hellraiser: Inferno) stylistically nods to puzzle-box brainteasers like Dark City, Inception, and The Matrix to conjure a cinematic universe that couldn’t be further removed from the usual Marvel spandexapaloozas.
Cumberbatch, with his deep, pack-a-day voice and reptilian grin, plays Dr. Stephen Strange — a brilliant, cocky neurosurgeon in the rich-and-insufferable Tony Stark mold. During an operation at the outset of the film, he wields his scalpel like a conductor’s baton while waxing pop-cultural about Chuck Mangione’s fluky Top-40 flugelhorn hit, “Feels So Good.” It may sound too cutesy by half, but it tells us exactly who he is. His tense relationship with Rachel McAdams, as a fellow surgeon and ex-lover, fills in the rest of the not-too-pretty portrait. After a grisly car accident, Strange suffers massive nerve damage in his hands. Looking for a cure beyond the reaches of Western medicine, he travels to Kathmandu to find a Celtic mystic known as The Ancient One (a chrome-domed Swinton in a colorful wardrobe of Nehru-collared silks — and, for the record, a characterization I didn’t find as offensive as pre-release reports suggested).
Like a natty est workshop leader, Swinton’s Ancient One (and her right-hand man, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo) opens up Strange’s consciousness to an unseen realm of cryptic astral secrets and a parallel multiverse of dark, immortal forces in the form of Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius — a power-mad mage hellbent on destroying the Ancient One. Doctor Strange becomes, in essence, her Grasshopper, soaking up her arcane teachings until he, too, has powers that defy logic (dimensional portals etched in orange lightning, teleportation, and a cool scarlet cloak with a mind of its own).
When you strip away the Secrets of the East mumbo jumbo and psychedelic special effects, Doctor Strange is a formulaic Marvel origin story, but it’s done with high-IQ wit, all but name-checking the myth of Sisyphus and the kaleidoscopic architectural origami of M.C. Escher. (We’re a long way from the blunt-force shenanigans of HYDRA here.) Doctor Strange is thrilling in the way a lot of other Marvel movies are. But what makes it unique is that it’s also heady in a way most Marvel movies don’t dare to be. It’s eye candy and brain candy. B+