At this stage of the game Marvel movies have fallen into a predictable pattern, especially the third-act city-leveling smackdown (it’s like it’s guaranteed in the Constitution or something).
About two years ago, I decided I was over the whole superhero thing. Unless, of course, you can show me something new.
“Dr. Strange” takes me halfway there, giving us a spell-casting protagonist who has more in common with Harry Potter than your usual Spandexed bicep bulger.
It’s got a solid first hour in which our ego-driven hero (see “Iron Man”) recognizes the errors of his ways and gets his head turned around.
And a second hour in which a lot of shit gets blown up.
The wild card here is Benedict Cumberbatch, PBS’s current Sherlock and an actor of such range and integrity that I’m willing to give a chance to just about any project to which he lends his name.
Dr. Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) is a ground-breaking neurosurgeon. Even among his self-aggrandizing colleagues he’s noted as a self-serving asshole who peers down his aquiline nose at lesser mortals and lives the life of a solitary genius. In the past he had a fling with surgeon Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), but his most enduring relationships are with his fancy sports car, plush apartment and his own self.
A highway accident leaves Strange with crushed paws. Unable to hold a scalpel, he sees his life dripping away and goes on an international hunt for some sort of treatment that can reverse his physical infirmities.
That is how he ends up in Katmandu in an esoteric school run by the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, bald and looking like a visiting space alien). The Ancient One and her lieutenant Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) put our hero through a physical and mental marathon, breaking down his sense of self, opening him up to life on the astral plane and filling his head — and the screenplay — with enough metaphysical mumbo jumbo to make Scientology seem a viable option.
There’s the usual plethora of special effects as Doctor Strange learns the tricks of astral projection and how to conjure up spinning pinwheels of sparks that serve as weapons.
What makes this rather amusing is Cumberbatch’s performance. His Strange is dragged kicking and fuming and spewing sarcastic comments from the safety of his own supremely rational self to an alternate universe with its own population of good guys and baddies.
The main baddie here is Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former student of the Ancient One who was seduced by the Dark Side and. . . wait, wrong franchise. Anyway, Kaecilius (his name makes him sound like the mascot for a KC-based Greco-Roman wrestling team) and a few other renegades are trying to invoke a powerful, destructive presence from the “other side.” Basically they want to end the world.
Along the way Strange picks up an amulet with all sorts of snazzy powers and the legendary Cloak of Levitation. A sort of variation on Harry Potter’s Sorting Hat, the Cloak chooses the good Doc as its new master and leaps from its museum display case to drape itself around his shoulders. This maroon cape has a mind of its own, and should Strange actually feel emotion, the Cloak compassionately uses its high collar to wipe the tears from his cheeks.
For most of “Doctor Strange’s” running time director Scott Derrickson and his fellow screenwriters (John Spaints, C. Robert Cargill) peddle their mystical malarky with just the right blend of sincerity and mockery.
Visually “Doctor Strange” is a retina-shredding head trip that evokes memories of the final minutes of “2001: A Space Odyssey” along with “Inception”-type cityscapes that fold in on themselves like a pop-up book on acid.