"Doctor Strange," starring Benedict Cumberbatch as a neurosurgeon who learns to bend time, space and his workaholic, narcissistic ways, can't escape all its Marvel Universe corporate imperatives and generic third-act battles for control of the planet. If it could, it'd be like a new Olive Garden opening with some sort of crazy "no breadsticks" rule. Financially it behooves Marvel's superheroes to stick to the plan, and the plan, to borrow a line from the old musical "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," comes down to two words: bold caution.
But you know? This latest in the ever-broadening Marvel movie landscape is fun. For an effects-laden franchise launch it's light on its feet, pretty stylish, worth seeing in Imax 3-D (for once, the up-charge is worth it) and full of tasty, classy performers enlivening the dull bits. Plus, Stephen Strange sports a Cloak of Levitation. Years from now, the garment can co-star in its own crossover franchise opposite Harry Potter's Cloak of Invisibility.
Introduced by Marvel Comics in 1963, Strange was initially touted as "a different kind of superhero ... a MASTER OF BLACK MAGIC!" The doctor's acquired abilities hark back to such radio serials as "Chandu the Magician," featuring astral projection, teleportation and the like. The millions about to see "Doctor Strange" won't know Chandu from Shamu, but that's pop culture for you: The past and the present are one.
The Strange we first encounter in co-writer and director Scott Derrickson's feature is pure ego, a Lamborghini-driving hotshot who's full of himself even by neurosurgeon standards. Then, in one of the few scenes in contemporary film that might actually get teenagers to think twice about texting while driving, he suffers a terrifying car crash, causing massive nerve damage to his hands.
In Nepal, seeking out-of-network healing techniques, Strange comes under the wing of a secret sect managed by the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, not quite the old Asian guy as the Marvel comics imagined, but in this case talent trumps fidelity to an ethnic cliche). Formidable support comes from Chiwetel Ejiofor (as Mordo) and Benedict Wong (as Wong), as Strange's mentors and guides to various alternate dimensions. The narrative focuses on the threat posed by a rogue ex-disciple of the Ancient One, played by Mads Mikkelsen, and "Doctor Strange" travels back to Manhattan for a titanic confrontation (though less insanely apocalyptic in scale than a lot of the Marvel movie climaxes) between Strange and his adversaries.
"Doctor Strange" really does show you a few new things, or at least familiar things in a clever new way. Director Derrickson is best known for medium-budget horror pictures ("The Exorcism of Emily Rose"), but he takes on this material with a surprisingly unassuming hand. That said, the movie's trippy as hell: When Strange is flung into his first astral projection, it's a space odyssey of considerable visual invention. The bendy-foldy skyscrapers of "Inception" clearly inspired similar sequences here, and the alternative realities of "The Matrix" serve as occasional reference points.
Backed by the first good musical score (from Michael Giacchino) ever heard in a Marvel superhero film, the movie bops along and even the expository passages are sufferable. I wish Rachel McAdams had a couple of additional scenes as Strange's fellow doctor, but some of her screen time, no doubt, went instead to sight gags featuring the Cloak of Levitation. That cloak is a pleasure, a supporting player of wit and distinction, emblematic of the best of "Doctor Strange."
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for sci-fi violence and action throughout, and an intense crash sequence).
Running time: 1:55