If this year’s crop of comic book movies has been disappointing for some, Doctor Strange is an eleventh hour consolation prize. Featuring a title character whose roots lie in the heady psychedelia of the ’60s, director Scott Derrickson has promised, “This is the movie where Marvel goes full weird.” Derrickson, best known for horror films like The Exorcism of Emily Rose, has certainly sold his vision to an impressive cast: Benedict Cumberbatch plays the title character, but casting Tilda Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor in key supporting roles is also a coup.
When we meet Cumberbatch’s Stephen Strange, he’s a superstar neurosurgeon whose dazzling career dovetails with a dismal personal life; his slightly exasperated ex-girlfriend, fellow surgeon Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), seems to be his only friend. But after his hands are mangled in a horrific car accident, Strange can no longer operate and he angrily pushes Christine away. Wallowing alone in his apartment, he’s offered a lifeline when he hears about a mysterious place in Katmandu that once helped a paraplegic man to walk again. There, he meets super-powerful Celtic mystic the Ancient One (Swinton) and her loyal student Karl Mordo (Ejiofor).
“Full weird” is an oversell, but Doctor Strange definitely offers a fresh spin on Marvel’s usual “superhero saves the world” narrative. The plot pitting Strange against the Ancient One’s corrupted former student Kaecilius (Hannibal‘s Mads Mikkelsen) brings the film to a suitably high-stakes conclusion, but earlier scenes in which Strange masters the art of sorcery and visits freakish alternate dimensions are actually more interesting. Though action sequences showing cities that bend and fold in a ripple effect recall Christopher Nolan’s Inception, this doesn’t make them any less breathtaking. Some fine performances also elevate Doctor Strange above the blockbuster norm. Cumberbatch’s spiky title character never quite loses his arrogance; Swinton’s Ancient One is intriguingly ambiguous and could be interpreted as gender-neutral, though big-budget caution means other characters always use the pronoun “she”.
Derrickson’s film isn’t without flaws: some humorous moments feel shoehorned in and MacAdams is wasted in a disappointingly two-dimensional role. But if you’re looking for an antidote to comic book movie fatigue, Doctor Strange could be the one.