By now, superhero origin stories are familiar beasts. While not exactly a superhero per se, Marvel’s mystical mage Doctor Strange is still the recipient of a fairly stock standard introduction here – Benedict Cumberbatch introduced as a bit of an arrogant dick, is confronted with a challenge that changes his worldview, gets abilities and et cetera. Fortunately, his hero’s journey is brought to life with sufficient psychedelic spectacle to paper over the plot’s familiarity, alongside Marvel’s expected knack for injecting organic humour into proceedings and casting strong supporting actors.
Cumberbatch is a credible medical master turner sorcery student, and as expected, Tilda Swinton brings both dramatic weight and light relief as his initiator into the mystical arts. Rounding out the cast, in Strange’s corner Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, and Rachel McAdams do as much as they can with fairly generic material, while principal villain Mads Mikkelsen doesn’t nearly have enough to sink his teeth into. Luckily, Mikkelsen’s screen presence is potent enough to get away with his character’s minimal motivation and development, and fortunately we’re spared the sort of unlikely historical bond with the hero that is seen elsewhere far too often.
The other true stars of the film lie in the special effects department, though. Doctor Strange boasts the most mind-bending visual effects I’ve ever seen, overloading one’s mind, while still remaining coherent to the audience. Cumberbatch’s initiation into mystical realms channels 2001, Dali, Doctor Strange creator Steve Ditko’s work and more besides; Manhattan- and London-set chase sequences one-up Inception’s folding cityscapes with healthy doses of Escher and psilocybin.
While it might not be Marvel’s most ambitious or successful work, they’ve nevertheless shown us a previously-unseen side of their cinematic universe and done so in frequently jaw-dropping fashion, elevating Doctor Strange beyond the film’s other, generally three-star, attributes.