As Marvel Studios expands its empire into decidedly lesser-known superhero properties, it’s becoming increasingly clear that said properties are the real MCU playgrounds. While the core of the domain seems to grow thicker but not deeper, with each subsequent Avengers entry becoming grander without ever actually changing in any discernible manner, the unveiling of the Marvel B-list has resulted in something of a coming-out party for filmmakers who want to flex creatively. Guardians of the Galaxy turned a relatively unknown entity into the Next Big Franchise. Ant-Man was a total blast. And now there’s Doctor Strange, which somehow manages to function simultaneously as Marvel’s most prestigious and most whimsical film to date.
It’s so incredibly whimsical that it almost crosses over into “too clever by half” territory, as evidenced by the title itself, which describes its protagonist, Dr. Stephen Strange, but also its content, which is a bonkers sci-fi/philosophical amalgam of surprising depth and occasional incomprehensibility. Marvel will ratchet the box-office returns for this one simply by virtue of how many re-watches it will take to fully piece together the multithreads of this film’s “Multiverse.” Seriously, this film introduces inter-dimensional portals, time travel paradoxes, intersecting mystical planes, and folding cityscapes into the Marvel universe. It’s like Inception Reloaded – or Inception Fully Loaded – except filtered through the brightly colored prism of the MCU lens.
Perhaps strangest of all, at the core of all this oddity is a quite straight-laced hero origin story. The titular doc, played with remarkable looseness by Benedict Cumberbatch, is a debonair genius not entirely dissimilar from Tony Stark. He’s a brash, slick, and quite arrogant neurosurgeon whose hands are so injured in a ridiculously severe car crash that he loses basic function, threatening to end his career. Strange is willing to sacrifice his fortune and even his relationships to find a way to heal his wounded hands, leaving behind colleague and One True Love, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), and traveling to Nepal to seek out a mystical healer known as The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, bald and bad-ass).
Of course, The Ancient One isn’t actually a healer, but rather a master in the mystical arts who sees boundless potential in Strange, if he could but shed his reckless self-centeredness. That’s the standard-order origin part of the narrative. Then there’s the other part, which involves another of the Ancient One’s former students, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who steals a ritual from a mystical text in the library of Kamar-Taj that would summon the evil Dormammu and spread the Dark Dimension all over our world, therefore cutting off the space-time continuum. Got it? It actually becomes part of the fun of Doctor Strange to follow along as the film goes into exposition overdrive at any given turn, even up to and during its climax, to explain the many layers and implications of its byzantine narrative. It’s ungainly, sure, but then again, so is every other superhero origin story, and none of them include sequences involving collapsing environments, levitating cloaks, and weapons materializing from the ether.
It may well also be the most visually dazzling of the Marvel films – and certainly the most inventive. Director Scott Derrickson, a veteran of genre films like Sinister and Deliver Us From Evil, demonstrates a surprising lightness of touch and dexterity with effects. We witness not only an origin of a hero, but the creation of a vivid universe. And with a cast that boasts the likes of Cumberbatch, Swinton, McAdams, and Mikkelsen, but also Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Benedict Wong, Doctor Strange boasts the highest acting pedigree of any of these superhero tomes. It’s a next-level enterprise on multiple levels.
The MCU machine keeps churning, and with it the inevitable surprise cameos and character tie-ins that bind this world together. Doctor Strange will likely appear in a handful of supersized hero paloozas before getting his own sequel, but I suppose that’s for the better – it will give us all time to keep revisiting this film, luxuriating in its dazzling ethos.