DOCTOR STRANGE you ask? Let me sum up the latest cinematic offering from Marvel Comics in one word: spectacular. From a whiz-bang opening sequence where space folds in on itself as combatants hurl magical fire at on another, to the charismatic, ahem, marvel that is Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role, this action film is a knockout. Cumberbatch has the peculiar ability to make his characters both unrepentantly arrogant and yet still engaging. Think no further than the updated version of Sherlock Holmes he has essayed as a high-functioning sociopath with minimal social skills and no sense of decorum. Here he has all the arrogance as the brilliant neurosurgeon Stephen Strange, a man with an encyclopedic knowledge of pop music, a substantial collection of expensive watches, and goals that will bring him glory as well as healing those patients he deems worthy of his skill. Nothing pleases him more than accomplishing the impossible and putting those of lesser skill in their places while doing so. His great intellect, alas, does not include understanding the dangers of looking at his phone while driving his pricey car at high speed through the rain. When he does come to understand it, it’s when one of those lesser surgeons has done all he could to save Strange’s hands that were crushed in the ensuing accident. Which is it say, they are still attached, but no longer capable of performing exacting surgery. Arrogance unabated, but desperate to resume his old life, he travels to Nepal in search of alternative remedies for his crippled hands, where he finds The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and her band of mystic warriors tasked with keeping the world safe from the more malevolent parts of the multiverse. Lately that’s been Kaecillus (Mads Mikkelsen), a former pupil of The Ancient One gone rogue in return for the promise of life eternal. Naturally that promise involves him destroying our planet.
The intersection of Strange’s sardonic attitude against that of more laconic people around him, including Chiwetel Ejiofor’s stalwart Mordo, and Benedict Wong’s mountainous and deadpan Librarian Wong, is an ongoing piquant delight. One of the film’s best exchanges has Strange pointing out to Kaecillius the flaw in the latter’s theory that he’s doing the right thing by asking him to notice the effect it’s having on his face. It’s what we were all thinking, and Cumberbatch, in full mystic regalia, delivers the line with exactly the right tone of bemused disbelief. The Ancient One is another story. She glides through life with a serene composure beneath which lurks a sparkling sense of humor. Bald and pale, Swinton is nevertheless a suitably formidable presence, whether needling Strange for his addiction to intellect, or showing him the possibilities beyond his limited conception of reality with a swift pass of her hand. There’s also Strange’s estranged girlfriend, ER doctor Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) another strong woman who is dead serious when she tells him off for the last time, but resilient enough crack wise when her old boyfriend returns from his travels thinking that he is a wizard. Then there are the visual effects in which all these characters play. Mirror dimensions where cityscapes are transformed into 3D jigsaw puzzles that ripple and roil with murderous intent, magical portals open in rings of fiery sparks, and my favorite, that red Cape of Levitation that adopts Strange at a strategic moment. Sentient and aggressively prehensile, opinionated and oddly nurturing, it swirls about Strange with dramatic panache and has definite ideas about what constitutes being presentable. It’s all executed seamlessly, but the best effect is Strange’s palpable delight in experiencing his newfound powers, even when things, as they must in films such this, are going very, very wrong. Cumberbatch may be in a lighthearted fantasy epic, but he doesn’t stint on the thespian flourishes. DR. STRANGE is one of the best franchise launches that I’ve ever seen. Eye-popping, smartly written, and with a central character who still has a hero’s journey ahead of him. I can’t wait. N.B. Stay through all the credits.