Back in 1963, Marvel's Stan Lee and Steve Ditko cheekily introduced Doctor Strange "quietly and without fanfare" as "a different kind of super-hero." And now, 53 years later, Marvel Studios has embraced that difference to make the "master of the mystic arts" a welcome addition to the sprawling Marvel Cinematic Universe. "Doctor Strange" leads us on a magical mystery tour that's both familiar and ... strange.
Benedict Cumberbatch ("Sherlock") plays Dr. Stephen Strange, a neurosurgeon marked by "stubbornness, arrogance, ambition." When an accident afflicts his hands with nerve damage, Strange loses his grip not only on his scalpel but his sense of self. His search for healing leads him to Kathmandu and a secret temple called Kamar-Taj, presided over by the powerful sorceress The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton).
Her trusted charge Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) tells Strange, "Forget everything you think you know," good preparation for the mandala of mystical wisdom about to blossom before him. The Ancient One instructs Strange in the true nature of our infinite multiverse, including an astral dimension, mirror dimension, and (uh oh) dark dimension. Naturally, that last bit proves entirely too tempting to the story's villain, The Ancient One's wayward former pupil Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen).
Director Scott Derrickson ("Sinister") presides over this epic adventure with a sure hand. In many ways, it's superhero boilerplate: an origin story (with more than a little in common with the dramatic trajectory of "Iron Man"), super-charged fight scenes, and a race to save the world. But "Doctor Strange" looks at urban architecture through a twisting digital kaleidoscope, next-stepping from "Inception" to an M.C. Escher-esque action aesthetic that amounts to three-dimensional chess.
Given that the film also briefly evokes the mind-bending of "2001: A Space Odyssey" as its hero learns to elevate his mind and deepen his spirit, "Doctor Strange" delivers the goods of dazzling spectacle that have become the guaranteed currency of modern movie going. The special effects artistry here indeed qualifies as special, bolstered by 3-D that feels necessary to the experience (and this movie must be a heck of a thing in IMAX 3-D).
None of that would matter a whit without a certain amount of compelling characterization. Cumberbatch turns in a smart, centered performance, and he's well supported by a skilled ensemble (also including Rachel McAdams as surgeon/love interest Christine Palmer and Benedict Wong as librarian sorcerer Wong). Above all, "Doctor Strange" overcomes its genre clichés by winningly exploiting pop psychology and New Age spirituality, particularly in identifying "fear of death" as the ultimate motivator (Kaecilius identifies time as "the true enemy of us all").
Of course, the successful launch of "Doctor Strange" also serves to prime audiences for upcoming Marvel adventures (mostly by use of the mid-credits and post-credits bonus scenes). As the credits promise, "Doctor Strange will return," and I have a feeling audiences will be happy to see him again.