Forget all you know or think you know about the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Doctor Strange director Scott Derrickson has blown the glitter dust off one of its second-string superheroes and provided him with a barnstorming origin story of dramatic heft and astounding visual dexterity.
First appearing in 1963, Doctor Strange is very much a product of its swinging time where tuning in, turning on and dropping out was all the rage and interest in psychedelia and mysticism was at its peak. All of those quaint traits have been polished with a contemporary sparkle and winningly reflected in this hugely entertaining and ambitious blockbuster that takes the somewhat interchangeable Marvel movies of late into some new and exciting terrain.
More on the Harry Potter cusp than the usual Spandex Central knockabout, here’s a long-gestating Marvel that’s more highbrow than hi-tech, more emotional than just purely promotional and on a more mature level altogether in matters of life, death and the meaning of it all.
After a horrendous car crash, arrogant neurosurgeon Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) loses the use of his hands due to severe nerve damage. No longer able to perform the delicate surgery for which he’s famous, his life becomes a repetitive loop of recuperation, rehabilitation and recrimination that isolates him from everyone, including his long-suffering medic girlfriend Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams).
When it becomes clear that traditional western medicine can’t help him, he hears of a cult in Kamar-Taj that might, and heads east to Kathmandu where he meets The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) who puts him on an unusual healing course.
So far, not so far out. But through The Ancient One, her devoted acolyte Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and her stoic librarian Wong (Benedict Wong), Strange’s inexhaustible thirst for knowledge unlocks his infinite magical powers as he learns the peaceful enclave is also the front line in the battle against unseen evil forces.
In particular, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), the one-time favourite of the ageless oracle, who betrayed her trust by stealing a forbidden spell to open the Dark Dimension – and by destroying reality, learns the secret of eternal life.
With Strange quickly ascending to high-level sorcery, he must chose between returning to his former charmed life of fortune and status or becoming the primary protector of Earth against paranormal threats. No contest really!
Impeccably cast above its comic book station, everyone is at the top of their game in this amusingly droll, wacky and absorbing existential epic that tempers its cool razzle dazzle with tragedy of almost Shakespearean quality.
Cumberbatch was born to play this defining big screen role (his talent to inhabit every part he plays and make them his own is just extraordinary) and Swinton brings a wonderful openness to her spiritual mentor character that banishes any dubious thoughts along Lost Horizon/Little Buddha lines.
Their Romeo and Juliet-style balcony interchange at a key juncture in the Astral Plane is so touching, so relevant, and possibly the best-acted moment in any Marvel movie to date. While McAdams, Ejiofor, Wong and Mikkelsen have less to do, they each make an impact on the clean-cut, expertly gathered narrative.
Where Doctor Strange completely entrances is in its visual effects. With assembled powers bending matter, folding cityscapes, slowing time, twisting realities and mindwarping through Mirror, Alternate, Astral and Dark Dimensions, the eye-popping spectacle never lets up as the astounding sights go beyond The Matrix and Inception benchmarks into forever multiplying Escher landscapes and multi-verse trippy freak-outs.
The final battle done in reverse is one of the cleverest and most impressively choreographed climaxes in the Marvel canon. No stranger to providing that extra frisson thanks to his genre work with The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Sinister, director Derrickson gives a welcome shadowy edge to the staggering pop art kaleidoscope in this thrilling adventure that pays double dividends – because hiding behind its pyrotechnic patina is essentially a voyage of self-discovery.
Top-notch, innovative fantasy in a Marvel zone all its own, Doctor Strange is witty, surprisingly gritty, and pretty much a mind-blowing force of supernatural excitement. Just when you thought the comic book genre had nowhere interesting left to go, here’s the wildly surreal cosmic proof that says differently.
And make sure you stay through the final credits to witness a future liaison and who exactly Doctor Strange’s next adversary will be.
Sign up to the Radio Times newsletter for the latest TV and entertainment news