When was the last time you saw a movie in IMAX 3-D? For the newest offering from the Marvel Comics Universe, you might just want to plan a jaunt to one of those humongous screens (and ask your favorite local investor why there isn’t an IMAX theater yet at Kingston’s Tech City). There’s no doubt about it: Kevin Feige and Scott Derrickson’s Doctor Strange is the most visually stunning, mind-bending cinematic product to hit the megaplexes since Avatar in 2009. And even blown up to gargantuan proportions, star Benedict Cumberbatch remains easy on the eyes, as any self-styled “Cumberbitch” will gladly tell you. His acting is, unsurprisingly, splendid here as well.
Most Marvel superheroes have some sort of scientific/technological explanation, however vague, for the source of their powers. Doctor Strange simply learns to wield magic, after an auto wreck deprives the elite neurosurgeon of the use of his hands. Tipped off by a former paraplegic (Benjamin Bratt) who has learned to walk normally with a little help from a mysterious esoteric order, the cynical-but-now-desperate Stephen Strange heads for Kathmandu in search of a cure.
While Doctor Strange lacks the tongue-in-cheek tone of Guardians of the Galaxy or the snarky bro-banter that prevails amongst The Avengers, the movie does not lack for humor – most of it at the Doctor’s expense. The character is a brilliant, arrogant materialist in the mold of Sherlock Holmes or Tony Stark/Iron Man, so there is much fun to be had in the process of his humbling at the hands of the chief mystic, the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who swats him into his first out-of-body experience.
A fair bit of “whitewashing” controversy arose when Derrickson cast Swinton in this role, who is an elderly Asian male in the original comic-book version. True, there are a wealth of elderly Asian actors out there who could have used the gig. But in fairness, the director did bend over backwards to eliminate some of the ethnic stereotypes inherent in the comic series, which dates back to 1963. The character of Wong (Benedict Wong), a self-effacing manservant in the comics, here becomes the librarian in charge of a storehouse of priceless spellbooks and a powerful sorcerer in his own right. Disillusioned mystic arts master Karl Mordo, originally white, is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor and transformed into a more complex character to make better use of that actor’s formidable thespian skills.
With her shaved head and unearthly pallor, Tilda Swinton totally rocks the part of the Sorcerer Supreme with a whole lot of deep dark secrets. Once you’ve seen her, it’s tough to imagine anyone else who so embodies the concept of an ageless, genderless, contextless (but not entirely mirthless) channeler of arcane cosmic forces. She plays the part with eerie economy of movement and expression, but still seems to be having the time of her life: the perfect foil for a flawed hero whose cushy lifestyle and flamboyant aura of professional superiority have crumbled to ruins. Strange needs to be beaten down before he can be reconstructed to wield powers beyond anything he previously imagined, and the Ancient One is just the one for the job.
The rest of the cast is equally strong, notably Rachel McAdams as Dr. Christine Palmer, Strange’s baffled surgical colleague and ex-girlfriend, and Mads Mikkelson as Kaecilius, an adept who has broken away from the order with a stolen magical recipe to turn our world over to Dormammu, a pandimensional megavillain from the Multiverse. The latter big baddie is an uncredited motion-capture rendering of Cumberbatch himself. And even though it’s just a special effect, a small acting laurel should probably be reserved for the Cloak of Levitation: a magical gizmo with a mind of its own that develops an overly tenacious attachment to the good Doctor.
Don’t look to Doctor Strange for deeply nuanced character development, though. Mostly this is an eye-candy-laden thrill ride through a plethora of dimensions, taking the Escheresque planar foldings of Inception to levels heretofore unprecedented onscreen. Gravity and direction become so meaningless in some extended action sequences that people with severe vertigo or Ménière’s disease may find this movie hard to sit through. For the rest of us, though, it’s gorgeously, gloriously trippy to watch. If you can’t see it in IMAX, at least spring for the few extra bucks for 3-D. You won’t regret it.