Like many of the filmmakers involved in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Scott Derrickson (who’s best known for horror films like “Sinister”) may not seem like the obvious choice to direct a “Doctor Strange” movie. Then again, it’s pretty amazing that a film called “Doctor Strange” exists at all, because it’s arguably one of the weirder properties under the Marvel banner. That uniqueness ends up working in its favor, however, as Derrickson has basically made a psychedelic kung fu/fantasy movie that is without question the most visually stunning film that Marvel has ever produced. Joining the ranks of other B-list characters like Ant-Man and the Guardians of the Galaxy, “Doctor Strange” marries its inventive visuals with the usual superhero story beats to deliver the best solo origin movie since director Jon Favreau kicked off the MCU with “Iron Man.”
The two films have a lot in common, beginning with their titular characters. Like Tony Stark, Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a bit of an egomaniac – a brilliant neurosurgeon whose own hubris leads to his downfall. After he’s injured in a near-fatal car accident that renders his hands unusable, Strange tries every surgery and experimental treatment available in an attempt to save his career. When traditional medicine fails him, the bitter and defeated Strange goes looking for a miracle cure in Nepal, where he’s introduced to the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a powerful sorcerer who commands a mysterious order of warrior monks, including Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Wong (Benedict Wong), charged with protecting Earth from supernatural threats. Though Strange is skeptical at first, the Ancient One opens his mind to the infinite power and knowledge that the universe contains, ultimately taking him on as a student of the mystic arts. But after a former acolyte named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) steals a forbidden ritual from the Ancient One and goes rogue, amassing his own army of zealots to bring about world destruction, Strange must put aside his selfishness to help stop him.
“Doctor Strange” received a lot of criticism during production for casting a white woman in a typically Asian male role, but despite claims of whitewashing (which are ridiculous considering the diversity of the cast), Swinton is actually very smart casting; she brings an otherworldliness to the character, thanks in part to her androgynous features, that gives the Ancient One a more fantastical quality, all while avoiding the racial stereotypes of the original version. It’s the first time that Marvel has gender-swapped one of their characters, but instead of applauding the studio for this kind of progressive thinking (Mordo is also conventionally white but played here by Ejiofor), it’s been muted by the controversy.
You can’t please everyone, although most people seem to agree that Cumberbatch is the perfect choice to play Doctor Strange, and the actor proves it quite emphatically with his cocky yet charming performance, like Tony Stark without the daddy issues. Not since “Iron Man” has a Marvel movie relied so heavily on its leading man, but Cumberbatch does such a great job of juggling the drama, action and comedy in Derrickson and co-writer C. Robert Cargill’s script that it helps ground the silliness of the character. The rest of the cast are good in their roles, even if Mikkelsen suffers from the same problems as other Marvel villains (namely, the lack of a compelling backstory), and Rachel McAdams, Ejiofor and Wong (the latter of whom has some funny interplay with Cumberbatch) are not as fully developed as they could be. Ejiofor’s Mordo, in particular, feels like he’s being held back for a more important role in a potential sequel.
It’ll be interesting to see how much further Derrickson can push the boundaries of the MCU if given the chance, because “Doctor Strange” is already a wild mind-trip filled with colorful, kaleidoscopic imagery that looks like it came straight out of a Steve Ditko comic book panel. The gravity-defying, physics-bending action sequences are unlike anything the studio has ever done, and they’re really cool to watch unfold. Even the big finale, which involves the manipulation of time, provides a fun twist that subverts the typical superhero movie ending. Of course, “Doctor Strange” never strays too far from the tried-and-true Marvel formula, but it’s not afraid to get a little weird either, and Derrickson is more than happy to oblige, embracing the absurdity of the material with a knowing wink, as if to say, “Are you having fun yet?” “Doctor Strange” is nothing if not fun, balancing the headier stuff with a strong dramatic core and a dash of humor to create an immensely enjoyable addition to the genre that’s among Marvel’s finest films to date.