The most common knock against Marvel’s cinematic universe? All their movies look the same. In a mega-franchise spanning 14 films and counting, that look can get pretty stale. For the most part, these movies about bravery are pretty timid when it comes to visual storytelling.

Thankfully, no one is going to level that complaint against Doctor Strange, which is easily the studio’s most exciting spectacle to date. Its hero, a former surgeon turned butt-kicking wizard, spends a fair amount of time exploring the multiverse, in sequences rendered with loads of bizarre, lysergic imagery. That’s the good news. The bad news is the studio’s most innovative visuals are wedded to one of its most formulaic origin stories. In some scenes, Doctor Strange is Marvel’s most exciting movie yet. In others, it might be its most boring movie since Iron Man 2.

After more than a dozen MCU entries, a little familiarity is probably inevitable. But there are times when Doctor Strange feels like a borderline remake of past Marvel hits like Iron Man and Ant-Man. Once again, we’re introduced to a talented but arrogant man who learns important lessons about sacrifice and heroism, and saves the world in the process. In this case it’s Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a brilliant and fabulously wealthy Manhattan surgeon. As the film begins, Strange is more interested in inventing new techniques (and furnishing his swanky New York condo) than in saving lives. His colleague and sometime girlfriend Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) wants Strange to come work with her in the emergency room. But you don’t get famous in the ER.

Strange’s career gets derailed in an instant on a rainy mountain road. Distracted while texting and driving (there’s even a PSA in the end credits warning people that’s a bad idea), he crashes his sports car and damages his hands beyond repair. Desperate for a cure, Strange eventually makes his way to Kathmandu, where he encounters a mysterious woman known only as the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who might hold the key to a magical cure. That, she says, will take years of practice and study in the mystic arts, but Strange, with his brilliant mind and photographic memory, makes for a quick study. In no time, he rivals Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) as the Ancient One’s top disciple. Good thing too, because as Strange builds his skills, one of the Ancient One’s former pupils, a man named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) is amassing power and followers, in the hopes of accessing a dark dimension and bringing about the end of life on Earth.

The stuff leading up to Strange’s arrival in Kathmandu are pure Marvel boilerplate, but director Scott Derrickson finds his footing once the Ancient One literally punches Strange’s soul out of his body and sends him on a mind-warping journey through time and space. The magnificently kaleidoscopic scene that follows looks like something ripped straight out of the pages of classic Doctor Strange comics by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. The sorcerers in Doctor Strange can bend physics to their will, entering places like the “Mirror Dimension” where gravity shifts and skyscrapers warp like the ones in Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Those sequences are all showstoppers; surreal, creepy, and thrilling. (And, for those who are so inclined, practically an invitation to trip balls in the movie theater.)

Maybe no human character could rate with such glimpses of the infinite, but Doctor Strange’s cast doesn’t even come close. Cumberbatch certainly looks the part and strikes a dashing figure in his magnificent costume by Alexandra Byrne, but he rarely steps out of the shadow of the Marvel heroes who’ve come before. He doesn’t get the opportunity to make this guy unique, and his (and the movie’s) attempts at comedy generally fall very flat. That includes Dr. Strange’s wacky sentient cape, which likes to pull him around or bonk his enemies on the head.

Cumerbatch doesn’t have much chemistry with McAdams, whose role is almost entirely superfluous. She’s not even a damsel in distress, since she spends the entire film sidelined in Strange’s old hospital waiting for him to show up for medical attention. Mikkelsen, an actor of incredible range and depth, is called upon to play a mean guy with spooky eyes, an enormously frustrating waste of his talents. (Ejiofor is similarly squandered as Mordo, although, as is Marvel’s wont, he’s primed for a much more interesting part in the inevitable Strange sequel). The only actor who makes a memorable impression is Swinton, with her strange affect, scarred bald head, sleek martial arts moves, and curious musings about the great beyond.

This is really the only way Doctor Strange deviates from the established Marvel formula: Typically Marvel movies have terrific characters and so-so visuals and action. Strange is the opposite; it’s glorious to look at (and the rare blockbuster where the 3D genuinely adds something to the experience) but the people are kind of dull. It’s to Derrickson’s credit that he managed to conjure up images to match his protagonist’s adventurous spirit. But you can see right through his characters, even when their souls aren’t floating outside of their bodies.

Additional Thoughts:

-If I’m reading the upcoming schedule correctly, Marvel won’t make another origin storyj until at least 2019 (with Captain Marvel). That’s starting to feel like a relief.

-The production design, by Charles Wood, is another strong facet of the film’s impressive visuals. The sets, like the Ancient One’s temple and Doctor Strange’s home in Greenwich Village, are full of details and Easter eggs. Even the bookshelves in the library are cool. This is just a fun movie too look at.

-Doctor Strange has faced some controversy over its casting of Swinton as the Ancient One, an Asian character in the original source material. In practice, she delivers a very strong performance, and it’s hard to envision anyone else so convincingly portraying an ageless androgynous warrior magician who’s both graceful and witty. On the other hand, it is a little disconcerting that a movie set almost entirely in Nepal, with characters dressed in Asian-inflected costumes, features so few Asian actors.

-There are two post-credits scenes, so stay until the very end if that sort of thing is of interest. (The first one is better than the second.)


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