What Robert Downey, Jr. is to Iron Man and Ryan Reynolds is to Deadpool – that’s what Benedict Cumberbatch is to Doctor Strange. By that I mean, he’s everything. The British actor, flashing an American accent eons away from the plummy tones of Sherlock or Hamlet, is the creative spark that ignites this bracing new entry in the Marvel cinematic universe. That’s no knock on the movie itself, which director Scott Derrickson – the horror guy from Deliver Us from Evil, Sinister and The Exorcism of Emily Rose – has kicked up a notch with a visual dazzle and wit unseen around these parts since The Matrix and Inception. See it in 3-D IMAX, people, and you’re in for the hallucinatory headtrip of the year. And having Cumberbatch around really raises the bar on what’s possible in comic-book fantasy.
Doctor Strange, the first in what looks to be a killer film franchise, is an origin story. And even if it feels carved out of the Marvel playbook of arrogant assholes who see the light (read Tony Stark), Cumberbatch plays it fresh, funny and fierce. His Stephen Strange is a neurosurgeon with miracle hands and a grand ambition to match his gargantuan ego; he won’t even treat patients he thinks he can’t cure. Rachel McAdams plays Christine Palmer, the ER doc who loves him, despite the fact that Strange thinks a romantic evening is inviting her to hear him deliver a lecture. Then, one dark night, Strange – texting while driving – crashes his Lamborghini Huracán, emerges with his hands mangled into useless digits and preps for a lifetime pity-party.
As the comic book, created in 1963 by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee points out, he finds salvation in the Eastern mysticism of Kathmandu, where he meets the Ancient One, played by Tilda Swinton in a role originally conceived as an Asian man. There have been protests, and there will be more, but Swinton – radiating otherworldly power – is a world-class mesmerizer. And cheers for the mystery Chiwetel Ejiofor brings to Mordo, one of the masters in the Ancient One’s service. Just don’t call it a cult. Strange does. Bad move.
Can our hero learn humility and the inner power to heal himself? Can he bend and fold time into shapes with an out-of-body wizardry his hands can no longer provide? You bet your ass. Cumberbatch, Swinton, and Ejiofer are not slumming at all here, and these top-of-the-line actors giving the blockbuster a riveting, resonant send-off, whooshed along by Michael Giacchino’s propulsive score. Add Mads Mikkelsen as Kaecilius, the Ancient One’s traitorous former disciple and Benedict Wong as Wong, the protector of the Ancient One’s secret books. “What, just one name,” asks Strange sarcastically. “Like Adele or Beyonce.” Not like them at all, actually, something unique.
Doctor Strange is similarly unique, deviating just enough from the cookie-cutter Marvel pattern to become its own living, breathing, thrilling thing – wait until you see his Cloak of Levitation, his encounter with the Dark Dimension, and the fight scene on the streets of New York that melts into a kaleidoscope of melting images scary enough to haunt your nightmares. Through it all, there’s Strange, a character that Cumberbatch catches in the fascinating act of inventing of himself as a new sorcerer supreme. Stick through the film’s final credits and you’ll see a bonus scene that suggests Strange inching into the world of the Avengers. But for right now, Doctor Strange creates its own world. And it’s a badass beauty.