Marvel’s Doctor Strange opens with a gloriously bizarre sequence, in which Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelson, and assorted minions battle it out while bending space and time, all of which transpires with barely a moment’s set-up or explanation. Good for them. This is a film franchise that could use some curveballs, directors and screenwriters willing to shake off the crippling requirements of their established formula. At its best, Strange throws out the playbook, but even when sticking to it, the film manages to make things weird.
Adding to the nerd-crush quotient of aforementioned Swinton and Mikkelson, Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Dr. Stephen Strange, the Tony Stark of doctors. Introduced with the strains of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Shining Star” (a cue that Suicide Squad’s music supervisor would’ve dismissed as “too on the nose”), in the midst of 3D OPERATION ACTION, Strange is a self-involved hotshot with a fab pad and a fast car, which he quickly crashes by passing on a wet, one-way mountainside road while talking on his cell phone and looking at X-rays. (If there’s a practical takeaway to this entire movie, it’s probably “Don’t be a shitty driver.”) Barely alive, stricken with irreparable nerve damage that renders his million-dollar hands forever Shakesville, he exhausts all medical possibilities before heading to the Far East, begging the whispered-about Ancient One to teach him how to “re-orient the spirit to heal the body” while putting him through a Matrix-style training battery.
Said Ancient One is played by Swinton, whose casting is a decidedly “X steps forward/ X steps back” proposition (I’ll let you determine how many in each direction): the character has been gender-flipped from the original comics, which is great, and has been race-flipped from Asian to white, which is not so much. ‘Tis a sticky dilemma indeed, exacerbated badly by co-scripter C. Robert Cargill’s “The social justice warriors were going to get mad at us for something this week” shrug-off (seriously, what is this guy, a sentient subreddit?), and speaks loudly to a big problem with movie-making in general and mainstream, tentpole movie-making in particular.
But it’s also tough to ding the final product too hard, because Swinton is so terrific in the role – precisely because she’s such a singular presence, an island unto herself. We’ve seen it in other roles, where she seems to transcend actual human-dom, existing more as a timeless, formless specter. For my money, she’s intellectually a bad fit, and emotionally the right one. Make the call how you will.
At any rate, she sends our hero floating and blasting through delicious frames full of trippy imagery, worlds without end, multiverses and mirror dimensions, temporal disruptions and alternate realities. Director Scott Derrickson (who helmed the very good, and 180 degrees different, horror flick Sinister) cues up one of these big, mind-bender set pieces every twenty minutes or so, and they’re what give the picture its motor and its momentum. The film has moments of physical comedy, complemented by little quips and character beats– when the Ancient One’s right-hand man (a square-jawed Chiwitel Ejiofor) hands their new guest a slip of paper with a single word, Strange asks if it’s his mantra, and is told it’s the wifi password – but what makes Doctor Strange work, and pulls it out of the Marvel doldrums of late, is its, well, strangeness.
By the time we get to the chase scene through shifting planes, twisting buildings, and folding skylines (here’s a piece of advice I never dispense: pony up for the 3D screening), we’re having something often absent from these lumbering, franchise-feeding blockbusters: a good time. The scripting is a little dodgy – particularly in the turning-back-the-clock climax, which feels an awful lot like the end of the first Superman – and the dialogue, particularly in the opening scenes, is so rote you can recite it along with them. But if it’s not great storytelling, at least it’s good spectacle, and that seems like the minimum these movies can provide.
Doctor Strange opens wide tomorrow.