It’s difficult to fathom the idea now, but the creation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was a gamble when Iron Man came out in 2008. Prior to that, the only truly successful comic book movies had featured Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, and the X-Men. Fourteen movies later, Marvel can do almost no wrong, with its cultural cachet so high that it can introduce almost any new character without hesitation.
Enter Doctor Strange, a head-trip of a movie that fits perfectly in the established world of Marvel. Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a highly skilled neurosurgeon who suffers massive hand injuries in a car accident. Determined to regain the use of his hands, he searches far and wide for ways to heal, a quest that eventually brings him to Nepal.
There he finds the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), whose method is spiritual enlightenment rather than physical repair. She teaches her students, which also include Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Wong (Benedict Wong), to tap into the potential of their minds. This technique, along with a specific piece of hardware, allows them to create magic, such as conjuring weapons or portals out of thin air.
Per usual, there is a big bad adversary, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), one of the Ancient One’s former students, as well as a love interest in the form of Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), a doctor at Strange’s hospital. How their stories mesh and intertwine with that of Strange's is an impressive feat of movie engineering by writer/director Scott Derrickson, who was previously best known as a horror movie filmmaker.
There’s nothing horrific about the results he produces here as, despite the mind-bending nature of the magic on display, Doctor Strange is actually one of the most straightforward and compelling Marvel movies yet. Derrickson and co-writers Jon Spaight and C. Robert Cargill lay out a precise story, one that somehow remains logical in its steps while showing seemingly illogical things.
Anybody who doesn’t come away impressed by the CGI work in this movie needs to have their pulse checked, as it creates scenes that are like Inception on steroids. People waving their hands around in the air to create spells has the potential to seem ludicrous, but when what they summon is nothing less than a complete shift of reality all around them, any sense of disbelief is wiped away.
Cumberbatch is beloved by a certain segment of pop culture fans, but this is the role that should finally make him a megastar. He embodies every inch of Stephen Strange, from egotistical bastard to chastened acolyte to soaring superhero. The stellar supporting cast of McAdams, Swinton, Ejiofor, Mikkelsen, and Michael Stuhlbarg, among others, is among the best in Marvel history.
I’ll leave it to others to make sense of the Marvel-y details in Doctor Strange, like Infinity Stones and other superhero cameos. But, as a stand-alone origin film, it more than fits the bill for blockbuster entertainment.