Marvel braves a stumble with each dip into its grab bag of second-tier, less-recognizable characters. But it won’t come with “Doctor Strange,” an extremely entertaining and sure-footed adaptation that manages to conjure more than enough magic to easily pass its spell check.
Much of that has to do with a splendid cast, led by Benedict Cumberbatch. Having top-flight actors – including Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tilda Swinton and Mads Mikkelsen – is especially helpful with this enterprise. That’s because some of the mystical-mumbo-jumbo dialogue – as in, “Dormammu dwells in the dark dimension” – could sound stilted or silly tripping off less talented tongues.
Largely faithful to the comics, the film tells a straightforward origin story – in hindsight, an area where Marvel has generally excelled. The first “Iron Man,” for example, is far more satisfying than either of its sequels.
A brilliant neurosurgeon, Dr. Stephen Strange has his million-dollar hands mangled in a terrible car accident. (The closing credits might elicit the biggest laugh with a disclaimer warning about the dangers of distracted driving.)
Desperate to be restored, Strange begins exploring alternative means of healing, a search that ultimately leads him to Nepal, a hidden retreat and a bald sage known as the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, in glorious-weirdness mode). Aided by her chief lieutenant Mordo (Ejiofor), they train him in the mystic arts.
Those skills will soon by needed. A former acolyte (Mikkelsen) has gone rogue and is on the loose, determined along with his minions to release the aforementioned Dormammu, a magical creature who will bring the requisite death and destruction to Earth.
The plot builds toward an inevitable showdown that, in traditional Marvel fashion, is probably the weakest part of the movie. Fortunately, director Scott Derrickson (who also collaborated on the script) ensures that it’s great fun getting to that point, with the landscape-bending spells and battle making especially good use of the 3D effects, producing all kinds of dazzling visuals; and composer Michael Giacchino delivering one of his best scores.
In some respects, “Doctor Strange” owes a debt to the Harry Potter movies, which have laid the groundwork for sorcerous combat. Those images, it’s worth noting, might also make the movie scarier for kids than most prior Marvel offerings.
It’s facile to say that Cumberbatch – classically trained, dashing actor on the brink of superstardom – was born to play a superhero. But it’s hard to think of anyone who could have invested the role with all the necessary qualities with such seeming effortlessness. And yes, hang around for the Easter eggs, which help cement the good doctor’s place in Marvel’s larger cinematic universe.
Swinton is equally terrific, as what amounts to Strange’s Mr. Miyagi. If there’s an odd woman out here, it’s Rachel McAdams, playing a medical colleague and one-time lover, with the script laboring to afford her screen time.
“Forget everything you think you know,” the Ancient One tells Strange upon his arrival. But in fact, the opposite is true: Having successfully branched out with the likes of “Ant-Man,” Marvel has this genre down to a solid formula. And that should play well not only with fans, but even those who might have to consult a comic book to master spelling “Dormammu.”
“Dr. Strange” opens in the U.S. on November 4. It’s rated PG-13.