I should probably mention right at the top that while I was growing up I never thought Dr Strange was a character that deserved his own ongoing title. Sure, it was cool when he showed up in the Marvel universe, spouted some crazy nonsense words, and helped out the book's main hero, but I never wanted to follow his solo adventures. (That has changed a lot recently with the excellent Jason Aaron Dr Strange title, but I stand by the general feeling). I always thought our favorite Sorcerer Supreme was a little too undefined. I mean, he can sort of do anything, right? No rules, no clear definition of powers, it was all demons and dimensions and reality-bending mumbo jumbo. What does he do? Whatever is needed at any given time.
Well, the new Marvel movie directed by Scott Derrickson is very much a solo adventure - perhaps not since the very first few Marvel Studios films has there been a more stand-alone, single hero story without overlap to the broader cinematic tapestry - and it is for sure about demons and dimensions and reality-bending mumbo jumbo, but it is so much fun, so dazzling and inventive, and exciting, that it proves Dr Strange is worthy of his own film franchise. I can’t wait for more.
The casting is perfect. Benedict Cumberbatch brings a swagger to the early part of the film, as charming and funny as he is brash and overconfident. Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mordo is a steady counterpoint, all bottled intensity and control. There is understandable criticism of casting the very-much-not-Asian Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One, but she brings an unexpected lightness to the role that works.
The film has many of the same faults as the other Marvel Studios movies. Rachel McAdams, like Natalie Portman before her, is woefully underused and her character lacks any real substance. The antagonist, sneered admirably by Mads Mikkelsen, is only a speed bump in our hero's way, generic in his villainy. And yes, there's a blue light in the sky, of sorts, that threatens to annihilate the city.
But all that doesn't stop the sheer joy of the experience. From the very first sequence of the film - a wild, topsy-turvy action set piece that immediately fulfills the promise of that all-too-brief city-as-M.C. Escher painting moment from Inception, it's clear that Marvel has doubled down on the "lack of rules" inherent in the sorcerer milieu, and has made the most of it.
Throughout the movie, action unfolds inside a magically manipulated world where walls can bend and shift, portals can open to strange new places, and weapons and armor can manifest out of thin air. No one trick is over-used and each new sequence introduces a novel way to frame a set piece. Going in, I feared Doctor Strange's mysticism would be visualized with CGI that might make it look like a cartoon. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles school of “live action”. But everything supernatural in Doctor Strange is married to physicality and sculpted out of the real environment. When spells transform the world, things move and reorient in specular, but material ways. The floor bends and shifts and folds itself into untold shapes. Portals crackle and spark. Sorcerers can walk on walls and break all the rules of physics, bounding around and off one another in thrilling ways, but everything has weight. Not since the first Matrix have I seen "there are no rules" taken to such a satisfying cinematic extreme. It is a blast, the action is constant, and the ideas are wondrous. Even more impressive, Derrickson’s direction manages to keep the geography of the action sequences clear, even when the actual geography of the scenes is magically twisting and whirling around the characters running through it.
None of that would matter if the main character wasn't interesting. And thankfully, the trademark Marvel humor is well executed, also. Yes, this is another Marvel origin story movie, but an interesting one, with real stakes and a compelling journey. The balance that comic book version of Dr Strange is always playing with between science and mysticism is reinforced and mined to great effect, and there are even some deeper themes about our human struggle with time and entropy.
I loved Dr Strange and think it is among the very best Marvel films to date. The incredible action sequences, a charming, funny lead, and some of the coolest visualization of magic ever put on screen make it an easy movie to recommend to comic book fans and movie fans alike.