“DOCTOR STRANGE” — 3½ stars — Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen; PG-13 (sci-fi violence and action throughout and an intense crash sequence); in general release
For all the time and money put into visual big-screen effects these days, it has become a challenge to stand out. “Doctor Strange” may not make the all-time list of great comic book movies but, without question, it stands out.
Director Scott Derrickson’s film also doesn’t waste time. In a dramatic opening sequence, a group of supernatural martial arts combatants battle in a dimension-crossing fight that appears to literally turn New York City inside out.
Beneath all the flash, the substance is a little more routine. “Doctor Strange” is the origin story of a neurosurgeon named Stephen Strange, who, after a debilitating accident, winds up an interdimensional superhero with a tight goatee.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays Strange with the confident bravado he’s lent numerous high-profile characters over the last few years. As the film opens, Strange is a cocky surgeon on top of his game, speeding along a coastal highway in a sleek Lamborghini, with only an early Pink Floyd track on the soundtrack to suggest the weirdness that is to come.
One traumatic accident later, Cumberbatch is in rehab, trying to regain the use of his reconstructed hands and wondering how he will ever resume a career that is completely dependent on dexterity. When traditional methods fail him, Strange follows a lead to Nepal, where he believes he has found a cure to his problem.
At first glance, Kamar-Taj is a haven for holistic medicine and spiritual meditation but, led by a bald, ambiguous woman named The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), its residents are actually mystic sorcerers defending the Earth from supernatural threats.
After a bit of comeuppance, the humbled doctor settles in on his new path, training to join the sorcerers and working to understand the surreal new world that has opened before him. He also learns of a rebellious master sorcerer named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who was behind all the fuss in the film’s opening sequence.
In the mayhem, Kaecilius stole the information for a time-bending procedure that will supposedly give the user eternal life — and unleash an otherworldly demon named Dormammu on the planet. When asked how he became a great doctor, Strange credits years of study and practice but, in true cinematic fashion, it isn’t long before he is called up to battle Kaecilius and the seasoned zealots who fight for him.
“Doctor Strange’s” biggest draw is its visual effects, which often feel like Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” on steroids. Most of them are employed whenever characters enter a realm called The Mirror Dimension, a place where combatants can bend space and time at will.
Those visual effects might be worth the price of a ticket on their own, even if their connection to the story sometimes feels tenuous. The most surprising element of “Doctor Strange,” though, is its frequent wit, which works to offset all the serious hocus-pocus without turning the film to farce. (Diehard fans will appreciate Kamar-Taj’s wi-fi password, but the jokes aren’t limited to inside references.)
Strange feels like a role built for Cumberbatch, who hides his stoic British mannerisms behind an American accent. Rachel McAdams plays fellow doctor and love interest Christine Palmer, and Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Mordo, a sorcerer who mentors Strange before the film’s events lead him to a moral crisis.
Like “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Doctor Strange” fits into the Marvel Cinematic Universe along with the Avengers, and a pair of after-credits scenes hint at the future connections between Strange and his big-screen peers. Even so, casual fans might be surprised at how cosmic and spiritual Marvel’s latest entry feels.
Ultimately, a routine story capped by another third-act showdown with a CGI monster prevents Derrickson’s film from truly distinguishing itself. Even if the story behind the curtain can’t quite equal the visual spectacle, “Doctor Strange” will put a smile on the faces of casual and hardcore fans alike.
“Doctor Strange” is rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action throughout and an intense crash sequence; running time: 115 minutes.
Points for parents
By Shawn O'Neill
- Violence: A man is beheaded but it is seen in shadow only. A man is involved in a violent car wreck. His hands are pushed into the dashboard of the car. Opposing forces fight each other with mystic weapons and with fists. Two men fight each other on an astral plane. People are stabbed by mystical weapons but do not bleed as the wound is inflicted. A man’s head is pounded on the floor many times by a cape.
- Images: After an accident, the face of the victim is very bloody and wounded. His hands are seen with mechanical harnesses holding them in place with pins. Images show different dimensions that seem to be like hallucinations, but are not in the story. Surgery is shown. Doctors insert instruments into wounds and wounds are sewn up.
- Language: A few uses of profanity.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photographer who appeared weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" from 2013 to 2016. He also teaches English composition for Weber State University. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.