The film, which opens in select theaters today and wide on Friday is “Doctor Strange,” the latest installment in Marvel’s ever-expanding cinematic universe. It begins with a reality-bending battle between sorcerers that starts in a mystical library in Nepal before spilling onto the streets of a modern city.
The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) pursues Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) and his henchmen after they have stolen pages from a book of mystical incantation capable of generating access to a dark and powerful entity just outside our reality.
As pitched as the battle is, the senses of ordinary mortals going about their business in the material world aren’t tuned to notice the warping of buildings and other M.C. Escher-like affronts to the laws of physics happening all around them.
Director Scott Derrickson skillfully establishes the structure of the universe the audience will inhabit for two hours. In “Doctor Strange,” the reality that materialist-minded mortals take for granted is only one of many millions of possible realities.
Enter the brilliant, but egomaniacal neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). Dr. Strange has amassed great wealth and prestige in New York’s competitive medical world, partly because he never takes on “hopeless” cases that would endanger his perfect track record.
After Dr. Strange barely survives a career-ending car wreck caused by his own inattention, he becomes one of those hopeless cases he would have once scrupulously avoided. The gifted hands that had been the source of his self-esteem and wealth are rendered useless and beyond ordinary rehabilitation.
With the help of fellow physician and former lover Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), Dr. Strange pursues every known and experimental remedy, draining his fortune and becoming angrier by the day about the cruel twist of fate life has dealt him.
After meeting a man who fully recovered from injuries worse than his, a now desperate and nearly penniless Dr. Strange goes to Nepal based on the man’s testimony. He assumes he’s looking for a Western-trained doctor doing cellular regeneration experiments in the shadows.
This movie is far more compelling than the comics that introduced the characters created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko half a century ago. Here the Ancient One, Doctor Strange and Baron Mordo are far more relatable as human beings with pieces of truth the others can’t fully see. They may be more “enlightened” than we are, but they’re still fallible and very human.
There was some initial controversy about casting Ms. Swinton as the Ancient One given the dearth of roles for Asian actors in Hollywood, but those reservations will be tempered by appreciation for her great performance. Mr. Cumberbatch and Mr. Ejiofor are terrific, too.
The undisputed stars of “Doctor Strange” are the kaleidoscopic special effects and glimpses of strange new realities conjured in nearly every scene. Even the car accident that destroys Strange’s old life is beautifully choreographed. There are humorous interludes that subtly remind us that this film is based on a pulpy comic book. Speaking of which, don’t leave your seat until the theater lights come on. There are two post-credit sequences that point to a MCU crossover and the inevitable “Doctor Strange” sequel.