Source: Marvel Studios

Marvel Studios has taken audiences from a cold, dark cave in Afghanistan, across a Rainbow Bridge to Asgard, all the way to Knowhere on the other side of the galaxy, into the Quantum Realm, and everywhere in between, or so we thought. There is a whole other mystical corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and infinite dimensions within it. That is where director Scott Derrickson takes us in Doctor Strange, a mind-blowing meld of magic and martial arts that is the best superhero origin story since Marvel’s Iron Man.

It takes Doctor Strange only seconds to set itself apart from the rest of the MCU. I don’t subscribe to the idea that all Marvel Studios movies have the same tone (because they don’t), but even those who do will notice the darker, scarier, and more violent nature of the film’s prologue. Beyond that, the opening minutes feature action unlike anything ever put on screen. This isn’t folding Paris in half like Inception. It’s so much more, as The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) tries, but fails to prevent the theft of pages from a book with yet to be learned importance. Buildings twist, contort, and spin while villains are dispatched through portals to the other side of the world and it all looks incredible.

Next we meet Dr. Stephen Strange, played by Benedict Cumberbatch as if he was born for the role and he very well may have been. Cumerbatch’s Strange is funny and charismatic, in his own way, but those qualities are often undermined by his arrogance and a lack of sincerity he does not yet recognize within himself. Strange is a brilliant neurosurgeon and thankfully, Derrickson affords Strange the time to show us his skill so that we do not have to be told. Saving lives is a natural consequence of Strange’s professional success, but that’s not always the same as truly living with an unselfish purpose. It’s certainly not the same for Strange and learning that distinction is critical to his arc.

Distracted driving later puts Strange in a terrible car accident that robs him of the full use of his hands. He can barely grip a scalpel, let alone steady it and use it to operate on a patient. He’s done as a neurosurgeon and just doesn’t know it yet, spending all of his fortune on experimental treatments and surgeries to fix his hands. When Western medicine fails, Strange turns east and travels to Nepal in search of Kamar-Taj, a place where some have overcome impossible odds and actually healed themselves from seemingly permanent injuries.

Strange is found and pitied by Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and taken to Kamar-Taj to meet The Ancient One. Strange, of course, is still stuck in the mindset of a scientist and has no desire to hear The Ancient One speak about the power of the spirit until she proves it. The first act, which wisely invests most of its time building and breaking the character of Stephen Strange, ends with a spellbinding finale. It may have taken a while to set the table, but it’s worth it when we see Strange shot through space, time, and new dimensions we’ve never even heard of.

In one of many sequences that reward the 3D ticket premium, we travel with Strange and are taken inside glorious recreations of the Steve Ditko panels that made the title character’s original, Stan Lee-written stories in Marvel’s Strange Tales comics stand apart from everything else in the 1960s. This is the point at which Doctor Strange grows from movie to a brand new cinematic experience like nothing audiences have ever seen before.

There are infinite dimensions throughout the multiverse, some mirrored reflections of the world we know, others cold and hostile (yet still colorful), more that are wonderfully psychedelic and just plain weird. The world is different now for Doctor Strange, just as the Marvel Cinematic Universe is now different for us. Strange, ever the ambitious and impatient student, studies the mystic arts as quickly as he can, frequenting Kamar-Taj’s library and pestering Wong (Benedict Wong), the Master who guards all of Kamar-Taj’s powerful and dangerous knowledge, for more and more volumes on sorcery.

Source: Marvel Studios
Source: Marvel Studios

The script—written by Derrickson, John Spaihts, and C. Robert Cargill—treats the mastery of mystic arts similar to that of martial arts. In both fields, the body is merely a vessel and an empty one until the power of the mind and spirit are harnessed and channeled through it. It comes as no surprise then that martial arts are also part of Strange’s training. Using energy from other dimensions to conjure weapons and shields does not negate the need for punching and kicking to defend oneself from powerful threats.

The first of those threats for Doctor Strange is Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), the page thief from the prologue. Kaecilius, a former student of The Ancient One, has been seduced by a higher power, but that does not make him crazy or leave him without a valid point. Kaecilius is genuinely trying to save the world. He just has a vastly different idea of what it means to protect mankind. Kaecilius is absent from the film for a long stretch after the prologue, but Mikkelsen makes up for the lost time with an outstanding performance, particularly in a heart-to-heart conversation he has with Strange.

The narrative structure of Doctor Strange is not dissimilar from other superhero origin stories, but where it differs and excels is by allowing its characters to be multi-dimensional, just like the worlds they discover and explore. Through the emotional complexity of its characters, Doctor Strange proves that it is about something. In addition to Strange’s own discovery of what it really means to live in the service of others, Doctor Strange is a fascinating meditation on morality and compromise for the sake of the greater good.

The four main contributors to this conversation are Strange, Kaecilius, The Ancient One, and Mordo. All of them, save perhaps for Mordo, are shown to be willing to compromise their own sense of right and wrong, so long as the end justifies the means. It’s a sliding scale of moral grey for each of them. Mordo, a man who’s now in control of the demons from his past, is the only Master of the Mystic Arts with an unblemished record. Learning that others have compromised in ways he never would challenges everything Mordo thinks he knows about the way of life he transitioned to in Kamar-Taj. Ejiofor sells the difficulty of that reconciliation beautifully, adding layer after layer to his character so that we care just as much about his future as that of Doctor Strange.

Undoubtedly, there are many who are still and will forever be unhappy with the casting of Tilda Swinton, a white woman, as The Ancient One, a character who has always been an Asian man in the comics. It is completely valid for anyone to feel that way, but based on how the film introduces her to Strange, the intent was to subvert stereotypes, like giving Wong a much more important role than his manservant position in the comics. Of course, that intent will not amount to much if one feels the execution is ultimately misguided and again, that’s a fair argument to make.

All of those issues, however, are separate from evaluating the performance turned in by Swinton and she is extraordinary as The Ancient One. Swinton naturally exudes the wisdom of someone who’s lived for centuries. That could have made her intimidating, but Swinton also brings kindness and warmth to the character, making The Ancient One the kind of teacher one trusts implicitly. She is the perfect person to introduce Strange—and all of us—to the multiverse. She is powerful, but still human and therefore flawed. She even says as much during a poignant conversation with Strange in a scene I had to watch through the tears in my eyes.

Keeping things anchored to the dimension we know best is Rachel McAdams as Christine Palmer. She is a friend, colleague, and former (but could be again) lover to Strange. Like Kaecilius, Palmer falls victim to the plot moving away from her and not checking back for almost an entire act, but McAdams charms whenever she’s around and represents the kind of selflessness Strange must find within himself. She saves lives because they need to be saved, not because doing so will grant her fame and fortune. McAdams also gets to have a bit of fun reacting to all the mystical weirdness, especially in one scene that will delight fans who’ve read Brian K. Vaughan’s Doctor Strange: The Oath.

Source: Marvel Studios
Source: Marvel Studios

As Kaecilius uses the spells in his stolen pages to attack and weaken the Masters of the Mystic Arts and, in his mind, save the world (while killing lots of people and threatening to end life as we know it), Strange and his friends fight back. These battles take place in thrilling action sequences that are completely new not only to the superhero genre, but all of cinema. The twisted, contorted buildings from the prologue return in a see it to believe it chase scene in New York, but now the entire city is being pulled apart, rotated, reflected back, and broken into smaller pieces that create an infinite maze. That’s as best as I can describe it and I’m still not covering it.

A final battle in Hong Kong initially looks like the CGI debris-fest of so many superhero movie third acts, but that’s not at all how it plays out. It is literally a reversal and also a subversion of that trend. The final confrontation looks and feels big, but is actually a very small, personal scene that satisfies Strange’s arc.

Scott Derrickson led a group of amazing actors through an outstanding story, but there is more credit that must be handed out for all of the world-building in Doctor Strange. Marvel Studios had to introduce audiences to a brand new, mystical side of its universe, so it’s no wonder the studio turned to much of the team that built the cosmic side of the MCU in Guardians of the Galaxy.

Oscar-nominated visual effects supervisor Stephane Ceretti deserves to have another exciting early January morning when this year’s Academy Award nominations are announced. It didn’t seem possible that another film could challenge The Jungle Book in visual effects this year, but Doctor Strange does with magical weaponry, stunning action sequences, and beautifully bizarre alternate dimensions. There is so much that could go wrong in Doctor Strange, but it all goes right. Ceretti, the man who helped worldwide audiences fall in love with a raccoon and a tree, has pulled a similar trick with a higher degree of difficulty by turning the Cloak of Levitation into an actual character in the movie.

Production designer Charles Wood makes Kamar-Taj feel likes its own world and a place that’s always been there even though we never noticed. The Sanctum Sanctorum lives up to its billing as the most famous address—177A Bleecker Street—in the history of Marvel Comics (and soon, the Marvel Cinematic Universe). Alexandra Byrne has designed more than her share of fantastic Marvel costumes, but none better than the one Doctor Strange wears (based on a character design by Marvel Studios Head of Visual Development Ryan Meinerding).

Doctor Strange is the third Marvel Studios film for cinematographer Ben Davis, who turns in his finest work for the studio. He frames the work of his colleagues with precision and a bold visual style that offers the MCU an entirely new aesthetic. Davis, and the film, are backed by Oscar-winning composer Michael Giacchino. This is Giacchino’s first Marvel score, but hopefully not his last, as his music is the best of any Marvel film since Alan Silvestri’s score in Marvel’s The Avengers. Giacchino grants Doctor Strange a terrific theme that must be carried forward in future installments.

Doctor Strange marks another creatively successful franchise debut for Marvel Studios. Producer Kevin Feige must also be credited, as one cannot be the common denominator in such an impressive winning streak without being a great storyteller.  This is a property Feige has been talking about since the beginning of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Scott Derrickson, along with his cast and crew, had the vision and talent to make that dream a reality and open the MCU up to a new realm of possibility, which fan be explored even further in the years to come.

Of course, it’s difficult to maintain the potential of the future without mastering the tasks of the present. No one forgot that in Doctor Strange with Derrickson crafting a film that supports its mind-blowing visuals with layered, engaging characters worth caring and talking about long after audiences have recovered from the psychedelic trip. Doctor Strange is a beautiful film, inside and out, and a thought-provoking cinematic experience that extends the Marvel tradition of earning the global audience’s affection for its characters through great storytelling.

 

Marvel’s Doctor Strange is in theaters November 4.