Say what you will about “Doctor Strange,” but it’s nice to see a superhero movie where the skyscrapers do more than blow up for a change.
In this pleasurably trippy new outing from the corporate entities that brought you “The Avengers” and “Guardians of the Galaxy,” the walls and buildings of London and Manhattan don’t tumble to the ground; they magically fold in on each other, like pages in a giant pop-up book. Around and around the characters go, running up walls and flying from perch to perch, like wuxia warriors navigating a spinning parkour playground designed by M.C. Escher.
How did we get here, exactly? To summarize, if I can: A brilliant, arrogant neurosurgeon named Dr. Stephen Strange (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), having suffered irreparable nerve damage to his hands in a near-fatal car wreck, has sought out the help of Nepalese mystics, not realizing that this particular pathway to healing would transform him into a powerful caped sorcerer, tasked with protecting Earth from supernatural threats and beating up bad guys in alternate dimensions where the ordinary laws of gravity and physics don’t apply.
Of course, at some point in the not-so-distant future (stay through the closing credits), the laws of billion-dollar franchise governance will reassert themselves and slide the good doctor into his preordained slot in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the process, his roguish wit will be streamlined and his powers redirected in service of what is usually referred to as the greater good — a term that, in this case, is interchangeable with the bottom line.
For now, at least, we have this stand-alone adventure, which is playful and distinctive enough to throw a wrench into the grinding gears of the Marvel assembly line. Within the familiar narrative contours of the origin story, writer-director Scott Derrickson (“The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” the “Sinister” movies) crams in enough out-of-body experiences, spatial-temporal shenanigans and dazzlingly kaleidoscopic visuals to make you wonder if he and his co-writers, Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill, were dropping acid behind the scenes — possibly in between viewings of “Inception,” “The Matrix” and other eye-popping thrillers set at the blurry juncture of perception and reality.
All that lysergic imagery (by all means, spring for the 3-D) feels entirely true to the artist Steve Ditko’s original conception of Doctor Strange, who made his debut in 1963 and brought a welcome infusion of decade-appropriate mysticism into the world of Marvel Comics. Whatever adjustments have been made between page and screen, the character feels tailor-made for Cumberbatch, who, after his career-high performances as Sherlock Holmes and Alan Turing, is no stranger to playing a vain, sardonic genius with a droll contempt for humanity.
When Strange’s career is derailed by tragedy — a harrowingly staged set piece that may nonetheless elicit a spasm of audience schadenfreude — he falls into an inconsolable despair, until he receives a mysterious tip from one Jonathan Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt), a former paralytic who can now mysteriously walk, run and shoot hoops. Their encounter leads Strange to a secret temple in Kathmandu called Kamar-Taj, where he joins a small cult of magical martial-arts enthusiasts who train and study under an ageless, follicularly challenged enchanter known as the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton).
“Forget everything you think you know,” the Ancient One tells Strange, shortly before flinging him through a series of inter-dimensional portals and granting him a glimpse of the multiverse (like the universe, only bigger) in all its psychedelic glory. It’s a hoot of a sequence — imagine Dorothy taking her first steps in glorious Technicolor, but this time hopped up on ’shrooms — and it’s a thrill to see Strange get a taste of the power at his fingertips, if he can only set aside his skepticism and free his mind.
And slowly but surely, he does. Before long he’s poring over Sanskrit manuscripts, flying high on the astral plane, mastering the rigorous choreography of spellcasting (sort of a cross between jazz hands and tai chi), and getting necessary lessons in humility from the sorcerer Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a trusted member of the Ancient One’s inner circle, and Wong (Benedict Wong), the keeper of the Kamar-Taj library.
There’s more of course, including Strange’s former colleague, Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), who pops up intermittently to play the erstwhile love interest and quicken the movie’s pulse — quite literally, in an out-there action sequence involving a gurney and defibrillator paddles. There’s also a regulation villain named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who’s intent on unleashing the evil power of the Dark Dimension — and judging strictly by Mikkelsen’s eye makeup, you’d be forgiven for mistaking the Dark Dimension for a ’70s glam-rock band.
One of the pleasures of “Doctor Strange” is the way it both wholly embraces and gently mocks the unapologetic geekiness of the enterprise. Between the Staff of the Living Tribunal, the Eye of Agamotto and the Pillar of Cacciatore (OK, that one’s fake), the film wields its occult accouterments with scholarly pride; the best supporting performance here is arguably given by the Cape of Levitation, which loyally affixes itself to Strange but turns out to have quite a mind of its own. Edna Mode would surely disapprove.
The value of this particular origin story of course depends on the individual wearing that cape, and Cumberbatch makes for unsurprisingly fine company. His Strange is imperious and self-absorbed, a reluctant hero by any measure; you can already imagine him exchanging quips with Tony Stark or rolling his eyes at Thor at some later date. For all its frenzied time-turning and dimension-hopping, the movie tells a fairly straightforward yet rewarding story of one man’s emotional and philosophical growth as Strange comes to realize, in the words of another character: “It’s not all about you.”
Indeed it isn’t. For months, much of the discussion around “Doctor Strange” has targeted the casting of the Ancient One, who was conceived in the comic books as a Tibetan man — a stereotypical fount of Eastern wisdom that Derrickson and his fellow screenwriters rightly saw as dated and insulting. But in rewriting the Ancient One as a white Celtic sorceress and casting Swinton in the role, they have effectively replaced one retrograde industry practice with another — an act of whitewashing that Derrickson has since acknowledged with appreciable candor, and which is mitigated to some degree by his decision to expand and deepen Wong’s role.
Still, it’s dispiriting to hear the director and too many of the film’s early critics spout the reductive notion that casting an Asian actor would have merely reduced the Ancient One to stereotype — as if it weren’t the job of writers, directors and actors to try, through the very power of their art, to shatter the cultural assumptions and attitudes that Hollywood so lazily reinforces time and time again.
As compromise choices go, the filmmakers could have done far worse than Swinton: She is our resident avatar of the otherworldly, an actress who, whether she’s playing a chic Russian-Italian matriarch or the White Witch of Narnia, really does seem to have magic coursing through her veins. It’s no surprise to report that Swinton is entirely on this movie’s pleasingly eccentric wavelength, or that she gives a delightful, even disarming performance. Nor does it change the fact that, in a better, fairer multiverse, she wouldn’t have had to give it at all.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for sci-fi violence and action throughout, and an intense crash sequence.
Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes
Playing: In general release