Doctor Strange signals the launch of what could be a very fun franchise. The movie isn't perfect—it's the origin story of a character from the Marvel JV universe, so there's setup involved; and it's a little light in the villain department; and the rampant computer imagery—some of it pretty spectacular—is maybe a little too rampant. But the occult flourishes beamed in from Steve Ditko's 50-year-old comic-book series—the "Cloak of Levitation," the "Eye of Agamotto," the trippy "Mirror Dimension"—give the story a rich, pulpy, Indiana Jones-like charge that's highly enjoyable.
It helps that the cast is so heavily over-qualified. Benedict Cumberbatch, slightly strange himself, plays Dr. Stephen Strange, a celebrated New York neurosurgeon who worships at the altar of his own genius. When a car crash crushes his gifted hands (no texting in the Lamborghini, Steve!), his search for restorative therapy leads him to a man named Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt), whose own broken spine has somehow been healed. Pangborne tells Strange about a mysterious compound in the world wind-chime capital of Kathmandu, and Strange quickly books a flight to Nepal.
Arriving at his exotic destination, Strange is saved from a multi-thug welcoming committee by a hooded character called Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who leads the way to the picturesque headquarters of his master, an ancient sorceress called—what else?—The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). But no sooner has she agreed to tutor Strange in a course of rather Matrix-y mixed magical arts than a party pooper named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) arrives on the scene to bust stuff up. Kaecilius, a former acolyte of The Ancient One, has gone over to the dark side, and dreams about "a world beyond time, beyond death." Although this actually sounds kind of cool, his former mentor disapproves, and Strange—soon equipped with the aforementioned levitating crimson cape and the time-bending Amagotto amulet—undertakes to scotch Kaecilius's plan.
Director and cowriter Scott Derrickson, rising up from the basement of low-budget horror films (Sinister, Deliver Us from Evil), has spared not a penny in CGI-ing this movie, and some of the digital effects are so impressive they for once justify seeing the movie in IMAX 3D. True, the usual action imagery—the leaping and hurling and running around on walls—although well-done, isn't new; and one recurring effect—a series of flaming circle thingies of varying sizes—looks as if it might have been whipped up with party sparklers. But Derrickson and his digital team also create a terrific Dark Dimension that looks like a vast psychedelic traffic jam of extra-dimensional smoke and hovering spheres; and he appropriates the bendy buildings and fold-up streets of Christopher Nolan's Inception and pushes that computer technology to the wall—especially in a fantastical battle sequence set in a collapsing metropolis.
Unfortunately, there's so much world-building going on that some of the characters are shortchanged. Cumberbatch, with his resonant baritone and tidy Vandyke beard, is a sturdy incarnation of the dashing hero; and Benedict Wong, as the curator of the Ancient One's mystical library, is deadpan funny in several scenes with the good Doctor. (It must also be noted that Strange's intricately animated cloak has a feisty personality all its own.)
But Swinton's Ancient One, with her bald head and linen guru suits, suffers from a lack of backstory—it'd be helpful to know more about her. And Mikkelsen is too charming an actor to provide much real menace. (He's also been spackled with crusty eye makeup that's so weird it's distracting.) It's also too bad that Rachel McAdams, playing Strange's sympathetic ex-girlfriend, has been given little to do beyond acting worried, and even that not very often. (To switch gears for a moment, I'd also like to say it could be time for a moratorium on Stan Lee cameo appearances, but let's not go there, I suppose.)
The movie does its job with considerable flair, stirring anticipation for future adventures. With the Doctor's origins now checked off, the filmmakers should be able to really cut loose. Strange will be turning up in the next Thor and Avengers films, and on the basis of this picture, the probability of him also returning in a sequel of his own seems like the surest of sure things.