You know you’re in a top-drawer Marvel Comics adaptation when even the Stan Lee cameo is clever.
In “Doctor Strange,” two warriors smash into the window of a bus with the 93-year-old Marvel boss inside, laughing at a book: “The Doors of Perception,” where Aldous Huxley shares mescaline-fueled insights. Lee reads a book about a man on a drug trip contemplating infinite realities, and he’s in a movie that seems like a drug trip and contemplates infinite realities. (The book gave the rock group The Doors a name.)
The whole film, the most inventive of Marvel superhero movies, plays out that way. The Cloak of Levitation worn by Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) can detach itself from his shoulders, wrap itself around the head of an enemy and bounce him off walls, like a cartoon dog whomping a cartoon cat. A sorceress known as The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) spins a mystical string of ideas, then deflates the situation with a witty one-liner.
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Perhaps Marvel needed to hire outsiders to get fresh eyes on such a story. Director Scott Derrickson has never worked on a superhero film. Neither have Jon Spaihts or C. Robert Cargill, who wrote the script with Derrickson. (All three have spent their careers mostly in smaller films, particularly horror.)
True, cinematographer Ben Davis knows his way around the Marvel universe: He shot “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and “Guardians of the Galaxy.” But even he outdoes himself with space-twisting scenes where buildings and streets invert, a grand expansion on a visual theme used in “Inception.”
The narrative follows conventional comic-book lines. A wise guru protects the multiverse (that’s all universes) from a world-destroying Dark Lord. She trains novices at her Nepalese headquarters to run “sanctuaries” in New York, London and Hong Kong. The smartest and most ruthless (Mads Mikkelsen) student goes over to the Dark Lord, who promises eternal life.
Surgeon Stephen Strange, whose hands have been ruined in an auto accident, visits Nepal to see if The Ancient One can heal him. There, taught by Mordo (Chiwtel Ejiofor), he discovers powers he never knew he had and realizes he may be the greatest of all sorcerers.
Marvel often offers heroes with sharp edges, from abrasive Tony Stark to bitter Wolverine. Strange begins as the least likeable: a cruel egotist who mistreats the doctor who loves him (Rachel McAdams), has no friends and blows all his income on a luxury car and a vast penthouse apartment. Yet the more he discovers his superhuman side – and realizes he cannot live a typical life, even as a surgeon – the more human he becomes.
Cumberbatch moves smoothly from supercilious smugness to bewilderment to reluctant acceptance of fate to quiet serenity. Swinton remains convincing as philosopher, teacher, warrior or kindly companion. Ejiofor projects stolid ruggedness, Mikkelsen stolid ruthlessness. (Neither has much of a character to play, though Mordo gets a surprising moment after the credits finish.)
The inevitable hint at a sequel, in which Strange chats with beer-chugging Thor about Loki’s visit to New York, suggests this series will soon become an assembly-line product. For now, though, it’s unusually fresh, rare and...strange.
☆ ☆ ☆ 1/2
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Rachel McAdams, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mads Mikkelsen.
Director: Scott Derrickson.
Length: 115 minutes.
Rating: PG-13 (science fiction violence and action throughout, and an intense crash sequence).