Director: Scott Derrickson
Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton
3 (out of 5) Globes
At this point, watching the Marvel movies that drag on a single, increasingly jam-packed and convoluted story is a real drag — as fun as untangling a gnarly ball of Christmas lights. But the introductory installments can still be charming. “Ant-Man,” “Guardians of the Galaxy” and especially the new “Doctor Strange” get to thrive in their one-off-ness. They let their freak flags fly, show off some new toys, even make their own weird kinds of jokes. Then they get tragically sucked into the bigger, lumpier whole. The saddest part of the latter is the token bumper, when Thor shows up to conscript our caped crusader into his forthcoming threequel*. It’s like the leftfield downer ending of a ’70s movie you thought would end happily: Let Strange do Strange.
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Far as brand recognizability goes, this latest entry finds Marvel scraping somewhere near the bottom of the barrel. Embodied by Benedict Cumberbatch, Doctor Strange is in fact a guy whose last name is “Strange” and who is actually a doctor. Having lost his rock star hands in a rock star car accident, our brilliant, arrogant but Beyonce joke-making hero journeys to the East for a mystery cure. There, he finds a secret cabal of sorcerers led by an ageless, hairless head magician known as the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, reliably Tilda-y). She shows Strange a world beyond our own — one where rooms and corridors and whole cityscapes can be rearranged by a trained mind, where the entire universe can be visited in one trippy rush, where one’s astral form can leave the body and engage another loose spirit in a pretty nifty smackdown.
The Ancient One introduces the Marvel Cinematic Universe to something new, too: killer visuals. “Captain America: Civil War” took place in such thrilling locales as municipal carparks, Queens apartment buildings and an airport tarmac. “Doctor Strange” whisks us from New York City to Kathmandu to Hong Kong, then turns the buildings into kaleidoscopic Rubik’s Cubes. It’s like “Inception,” only fun, and it comes at us in 3-D that actually uses the third dimension — a phantasmagoria for the eyes. The simple act of magic is beautiful, too: Robed sorcerers swirl their hands and weave golden flame circles. Strange’s quips are usually terrible, even when wielded by Cumberbatch, but there’s real visual wit. Some of the best jokes come from a semi-sentient cape with a thing for Strange, and which doesn’t mind smashing some poor henchman’s head into the ground for minutes on end.
“Doctor Strange” almost gets away with it, too, which is to say it almost stands on its own hind legs — a self-contained adventure, not just another cog about to be installed in the wheel. When “Doctor Strange” is cooking, which is mostly in its fairly breathless second half, it keeps throwing clever and goofy set piece ideas at you. Previous films from director Scott Derrickson, like “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” and “Deliver Us from Evil,” were so heavy and humorless that it’s a legitimate shock he made something so fleet and alert, one where the viewer’s ability to just barely keep track of the myriad rules and nerd words becomes part of the rush. At its best it’s easy to call “Doctor Strange” a good film, not just a good Marvel film.
But it is still a Marvel film, which is to say it’s yet another drawn-out origin story that turns into yet another plot for world domination by yet another interchangeable villain. This baddie, actually, isn’t bad. He’s a renegade sorcerer who a) rocks funky eye-make-up, b) is played by Mads Mikkelsen and c) has a legitimate gripe: He thinks death is an “insult” and wants to defy the order followed by the Ancient One to create a world of eternal life. (If you ignore the part of his plan that involves global genocide, it’s almost tempting.) We’re not going to touch its honorable yet still dodgy attempts to dodge the parts of a comic that didn’t seem so racist in the 1960s; Buzzfeed's Alison Willmore already did that perfectly well. We will say Derrickson and company were right to think casting Tilda Swinton does indeed earn it copious brownie points at least. If only she could stop it from becoming yet another Marvel product, but not even the mighty Tilda is that mighty.
* We should note, however, that this threequel, "Thor: Ragnarok," sounds admittedly fantastic. It's directed by Taika Waititi, the eccentric New Zealand-born maker of "What We Do in the Shadows" and "Hunt for the Wilderpeople," and his cast includes greats like Cate Blanchett and Tessa Thompson. If anyone's going to incorporate Strange into a big tentpole thing without losing the magic — no matter how large or small his role turns out to be — it might be this.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge