Countless clickbait headlines roam around the internet on the back of Marvel Studios and their 14 blockbuster films, begging readers to enjoy conjecture, rumor, even falsehoods about their upcoming properties. It seems people can’t get enough of producer Kevin Feige’s massive comic book to screen empire. They are the undeniable box office champions of the cosmos in 2016, with no sign of slowing down assuming they can gracefully age their current stars and add new ones to an expansive interlocking series of hero and villain yarns the likes of which has never been seen elsewhere (so far, that includes from their primary competition over at DC/Warners). After the expansive and somewhat tedious Captain America: Civil War, which along with the preceding Avengers sequel and Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice tried, as if on a dare, to cram as many superheroes together in one bloated cinematic run time as possible, Marvel now has given its fans a more traditional, fleet origin story for one of its prized properties, the Sorceror Supreme himself, Doctor Strange. Steven Ditko’s creation for Marvel Comics back in the 1960s introduced a psychedelic element to the printed kingdom that is almost the exact opposite of the technology-rooted Iron Man that launched the movie universe. The result is a fun ride with a new ensemble to enjoy, as always loaded with recognizable Hollywood faces and now spiked with visuals that put to shame even the most cosmic exercises they’ve already attempted.
Benedict Cumberbatch puts on his best American accent (which, to be fair, is probably not THE best American accent you’ll ever catch a Brit on screen passing off on us, but it ceases to be a distraction quickly which is a victory in itself) and introduces us to Steven Strange, superstar surgeon and arrogant citizen of the galaxy. A surprisingly common modern danger sends him literally off the rails in his sportscar, and before we’ve barely gotten to know him his hands are useless in an operating theater. Modern medicine fails him, of course, and the action switches to Nepal, where he’s tipped off there may be a solution outside of the Western world. Chewitel Ejiofor’s Mordo and Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One take him under their wing after a false start or two, and we’re on the way towards the once proud doctor becoming a mighty magical warrior. They are of course in need of more soldiers in helping to protect Earth from mystical foes, and said foes (led by the ever icy Mads Mikkelsen) are of course rallying to bring death and mayhem to all, justified by the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s standard villainous logic of bringing about some form of twisted golden age through allowing evil to take the reins.
If this all sounds a bit familiar for those of us who’ve been consuming comic books on celluloid for years now, it is. However, Doctor Strange has many things going for it that help override the familiarity of yet another “promising miscreant called up to greatness” starter story for a new character. First is Cumberbatch, who may hold several copyrights on charming snarkiness, and he manages to make a potentially unlikable protagonist fit right in alongside the likes of Tony Stark and Peter Quill. The rest of the cast do their characters credit too, from Ejiofor’s steadfast moralist to Swinton’s playful master magician harboring a secret or two. Rachel McAdams has a somewhat thankless role as a former love interest of Strange’s, but their easy chemistry and her humorous annoyance with the mystical goings on that the Doctor brings into her hospital make every scene she’s in a fun one to watch. So as usual, Marvel remembers that character counts, and give you just enough to care as threats increase. Above and beyond this, director Scott Derrickson delivers what is easily the best looking Marvel film to date, with Inception-style world bending taken several levels above what anyone’s put on screen before. This also feels like one of the more action packed entries into the MCU; once the story really gets going, we’re treated to a grand mashup of martial arts and supernatural powers slamming characters around in high combat style. And unlike many other entries in the genre, a clever path to victory is well developed and used to save the day instead of One Last Big Fight. With a quick runtime of 115 minutes, the film doesn’t overstay its welcome while adding the standard Marvel post credit teasers to prepare audiences for what’s coming next with these heroes and more. Finally, Derrickson and his co-writers Robert Cargill and John Spaihts show an understanding of and love for the source material that represents the true bedrock of this studio’s success. All in all, another entertaining ride from the Marvel Movie Machine, giving us the equal parts familiarity and newness that the brand promises and delivers like clockwork.