After mangling his hands in a car crash (don’t text and drive!), gifted neurosurgeon Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) finds his illustrious career in ruins. Desperate for healing, he heads to Nepal, where a secret order of magicians led by the enigmatic Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) induct him into the mystic arts.
James Mangold recently tweeted a page from the script of his upcoming Logan, in which a note on the action states it will not be a "hyper choreographed, gravity defying, city-block destroying, CG fuckathon." The three-clawed dig at Marvel Studios is not wholly undeserved. New York, Washington, London, Sokovia, and half the planet Xandar have all been victims of Marvel third acts, wholesale destruction of public property having become an all but mandatory component in the studio’s winning formula.
Like last year’s Ant-Man, Doctor Strange is meant as a break from that routine — a zesty palate-cleanser before Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2. But where Ant-Man used levity and a smaller (in every sense) story to break the rhythm, Doctor Strange rolls the Marvel paradigm into a hefty joint and invites us to smoke it over the course of two stunning, psychedelic hours.
Strange’s origin tale starts predictably enough, but upon reaching the Himalayan temple of Kamar-Taj, he and we embark on a phantasmagorical vision quest unlike anything the studio has done before. Forcibly ripped from his corporeal form, Cumberbatch’s physician is cast onto the astral plane for a two-minute sequence that plays out like Salvador Dalí’s wettest dream. We tumble into the void, passing comets and crystals before shooting into the event horizon of a black hole, along a tunnel of exploding fractals into a sea of kaleidoscopic colour. From there Strange is sucked down into his own eye while hands sprout from smaller hands at the end of his fingers and writhing naked bodies melt into the landscape of his mind. "Have you seen that in a gift shop?" quips Swinton’s magic monk.
Horizons broadened, Strange is introduced to both the magical arts and the threats they’re used as a defence against: chiefly Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former student of Kamar-Taj whose pact with a demonic entity threatens to end the world. It’s a far from revolutionary story but the invention with which it’s told is something else entirely. Gravity, time and reality all become weapons during the film’s eye-popping magical brawls. Cityscapes fold in upon themselves, Escher-inspired architecture unravelling and reforming around the combatants as they wield burning geometric shapes. There are battles on the astral plane, a chase through time reversing and the introduction of an entirely new fighting style that might best be described as cape-fu. It’s an audacious display of visual artistry that manages to pack more trippy creativity into one movie than all 13 of Marvel’s previous offerings combined.
As the Sorcerer Supreme, Cumberbatch demonstrates an easy charm, overriding the character’s playboy smugness and leavening talk of Dormammu, Agamotto and the Wands of Watoomb with a wry sense of humour. The others fare less well, with Rachel McAdams and Chiwetel Ejiofor in particular being starved of both screen time and purpose, while Mikkelsen’s threadbare antagonist is all outline and no shading.
Introducing spells and sorcery to the MCU — not to mention doing it via a wizard resembling a prog rock drummer — is Marvel’s riskiest move to date, but the gamble pays off. What could have been the studio’s first serious mis-step is a confident stride into new territory that reinvigorates a tired formula while expanding the shared universe. This is both a reality-defying “CG fuckathon” and the most dazzling spectacle of the year.
A bizarre and beautiful detour on the Marvel journey, which culminates in a mind-bending, expectation-inverting final act. Not to be watched under the influence.