After a while, Marvel movies start to blend together. The films have settled on a basic recipe from which they seldom diverge. The latest installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, “Doctor Strange,” doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it does push the boundaries of the formula in exciting ways, creating a superhero origin story with both style and substance.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays arrogant neurosurgeon Stephen Strange. When a brutal car wreck leaves his hands maimed, Strange loses everything, from his job and dignity to his extremely patient girlfriend (Rachel McAdams). Desperate to regain his previous lifestyle, Strange exhausts every medical means of healing his hands, and ultimately spends his last dime to travel to a distant clinic in Kathmandu. When he finally arrives, he discovers not medicine, but magic.
More specifically, he discovers the Ancient One, an otherworldly mystic played by Tilda Swinton, and her student, Mordo (the ever-compelling Chiwetel Ejiofor). “You’re a man looking at the world through a keyhole,” the Ancient One tells Strange. He’s been looking for answers in the wrong place. His search for healing is limited by materialist beliefs.
Strange is defiant. “There is no such thing as spirit. We are made of matter and nothing more.” This angry nihilism doesn’t last for long. The Ancient One throws Strange into a realm of mind-twisting multiple dimensions and powerful beings, free from the laws of physics.
It’s important to note here that “Doctor Strange” is the most beautiful Marvel film to date, thanks to the intricate world of flying buildings and kaleidoscoping colors unveiled when Strange steps into “the astral plane.” It calls to mind the trippy dream sequences in “Inception” but incorporates Gothic architecture and patterns to create a truly unique alternate reality.
Strange soon discovers all is not well in the multiverse. The Ancient One’s former pupil, an evil sorcerer named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), plans to use black magic to cheat mortality and achieve ultimate power.
In his first confrontation with Strange, he espouses something similar to Strange’s materialist mantra as he dismiss the victims of his ambitions. They are nothing, he says, but “[t]iny momentary specks within an indifferent universe.” Confronted with his own morally bankrupt ideas, Strange suddenly discovers that being a doctor is about more than just head knowledge.
The realization is echoed by the film’s ethos. Like “Captain America: Civil War,” “Doctor Strange” takes great care to protect civilian bystanders during massive superhero showdowns. The conventions of Strange’s story allow the main players to retreat into “the mirror realm,” a magical parallel world where they can break and bend reality but not each other. It’s a clever and humane alternative to the casual collateral damage.
The film has a similar approach to problem solving. Strange doesn’t punch his way through obstacles (largely because his hands are held together by metal pins). Instead, he must come up with creative ways to foil opponents, using magic, intelligence, and creativity to achieve his goals. The commitment to problem solving makes for interesting and engaging action sequences.
“Doctor Strange” isn’t perfect. Its side characters are underwritten, and the rules of its moral universe are less than clear. Even so, it’s a solid new piece of the Marvel canon, bringing ideological and visual depth to a bland genre. More of the same, please.