The heroes of Earth in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have all gone through their fair share of world-altering perception checks. Alien armies have emerged from portals to another dimension and the Norse pantheon has proven to be real (and somehow established a link to present-day Albuquerque). While these developments lead the denizens of our planet to some contemplative head-scratching, “Dr. Strange,” the latest from Marvel on the big screen, takes this malleability of reality and belief and throws it directly into ball-tripping territory.
And what beautiful territory it is!
Opening in modern-day New York, Dr. Stephen Strange (played by Benedict Cumberbatch doing his best at a startlingly flat American accent) is a supremely talented and supremely arrogant surgeon. His life of flexing trivia steez during life-saving procedures and shopping around only for cases that seem sure to raise his stature comes to a crippling halt after a car accident badly damages both of his hands. (Even the superhuman among us can fall to the perils of texting and driving.)
After Western medicine fails him, Strange turns his sights to the world of Eastern mysticism, traveling to Nepal after meeting with a former patient who had regained the use of his legs through spiritual enlightenment. There, his teaching and superhero origin story begins, led through the openings and folds of the multiverse by The Ancient One, a celtic mystic played by a bald and powerful Tilda Swinton. Snide quips, astral projection and an extraordinarily silly goatee follow.
Cumberbatch has a proven capability with arrogant and slightly goofy characters through other roles like “Sherlock,” and he fits in well as the doctor discovering (and flaunting) knowledge of the mystical arts. However, the visuals are far and away the high point of the movie. “Dr. Strange” is jaw-gapingly impressive, toying with a comic book interpretation of mysticism in lightshows that capture all the childlike wonder of ’60s Saturday morning cartoons and a Dixie cup full of LSD.
The multiverse plays out in lush and watercolored fractal patterns and galaxyscapes, and a clockwork folding of the world during action sequences bears obvious influence from Christopher Nolan’s “Inception,” albeit much more alive this time around with the doctor darting through gears sprouting up from the sides (floors?) of buildings. The more common magic sparkles like burning and spinning steel wool, throwing embers in every direction. It’s all very, very cool.
Though the Marvel universe has taken great strides to expand its death grip on the movie industry and the superhero story feels more and more played out with each passing iteration, “Dr. Strange” manages to separate itself from the crowd with its mystical setting and sorcerer story. A few tethers bind it to other big-name Marvel concepts, but it mostly exists on its own and feels, for once, as if it’s advancing its own path rather than a splintered piece of a wider outline.
Which it is, but still. The illusion is nice.
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