Much of Doctor Strange’s first act will feel very familiar to long-time Marvel fans. A highly skilled and very rich narcissist is overtly insufferable, before undergoing a brutal humbling and starting a journey towards superpowered enlightenment. Encouraging obvious comparisons to the first Iron Man, but with a Dr House-esque surgeon rather than a weapons-manufacturing industrialist, and adding Guardians of the Galaxy’s love of ‘70s music to the mix, it almost seems like the latest addition to the MCU might be going down a rather rote path. Thankfully, there’s no reason to worry. Not only are these early scenes fun despite their familiarity, once Doctor Strange really kicks into gear it becomes a brilliantly paced surrealist action film with some extravagantly brilliant visuals.
It’s an enormous testament to the success of the Kevin Feige-run MCU machine that a $165-million tentpole based on the Doctor Strange comics is even feasible, let alone one carried off with such panache. Played here by Benedict Cumberbatch, Strange is one of the world’s top neurosurgeons, with an ego to match such a position. After a car accident shatters his hands (an incident shown in frighteningly grisly detail with the first of many excellent uses of 3D), his life crumbles and he pushes away from his friends and colleagues. Seeking experimental cures, Strange ends up in Nepal, where he is taught by the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) how to harness powerful magic.
Of course, the hidden depths of this spiritual sorcery have corrupting influences, and in Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), we see where this dark path leads. A former student of the Ancient One, he goes rogue at the film’s start, bringing with him a team of mystical zealots, all with the aim of summoning an inter-dimensional being with the power to consume the earth. It’s a pretty standard comic-book movie villainous scheme, but Mikkelsen has enough menacing charisma to sell it as credibly threatening.
It’s a phenomenally heavyweight cast list, with the lead three bolstered by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, Rachel McAdams, and Michael Stuhlbarg, all of whom manage to imbue the plentiful gibberish of the material with all the lightness and wit it needs. Marvel’s trademark humour is in effect here, and though it doesn’t slot as easily into Doctor Strange’s world as it does into, say, The Avengers or the Iron Man series, there are still some fantastic jokes in here, with the Dan Harmon rewrites clearly a boon to Jon Spaihts’ script. Cumberbatch and Swinton are as great as one would expect, with Benedict Wong giving a proper star-making turn as magical quartermaster Wong.
Director Scott Derrickson is actually the star of the show here, though. His horror-movie background, combined with an enormous budget and groundbreaking source material, serves him perfectly to deliver one of the most visually unique films you could hope to see. Strange’s first trip to the astral realm is jaw-dropping, filled with psychedelic imagery straight out of 1960s comics, and later fight scenes are the most imaginative Marvel have ever produced. Whether he’s one-upping the Inception folding city sequence, or having a showdown take place as time reverses around the two combatants, Derrickson demonstrates a unique and captivating vision of the mystic arts.
As the first individual hero movie of Phase 3 of the grand Marvel plan, Doctor Strange manages to be largely standalone. The Avengers are name-checked, and there are some easter eggs for the hardcore fans, but this is a great jumping on point for anyone not sure about committing to the full franchise or even for anyone who might have grown tired of conventional comic-based films. It even manages to be a good deal shorter than most of its contemporaries, wasting no time in the build-up to its various climactic set-pieces. Doctor Strange still follows the classic Marvel formula in terms of story beats, but a fantastic cast in front of some of 2016’s very best visuals keep this fresh and ensure it joins Civil War and Jungle Book as one of this year’s genuinely great blockbusters.