The newest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a giddy, good-time trip starring Benedict Cumberbatch
This latest superhero origin story doesn't radically alter the state of comic book movies, but Doctor Strange is a giddy, good-time trip. Steering the Marvel Cinematic Universe into the 'Multiverse' of Marvel Comics' most hallucinogenic 1960s title, director Scott Derrickson (Sinister) has a blast. Familiar tropes become fresh and fun: even the hero's cloak gets a personality pep-up.
That garment eventually flaps behind Benedict Cumberbatch's brilliant, arrogant Manhattan neurosurgeon Stephen Strange, but he's brought down several pegs first. We're on sturdy plot footing initially, which is welcoming but hardly in psychedelia's destabilising spirit. When Strange mangles his hands in a car crash, the 'smart-ass genius humbled' set-up recalls the MCU's debut, Iron Man. And when Strange visits Kathmandu to be reborn under the mystical tutelage of Tilda Swinton's Ancient One, DC's Batman Begins gets a nod.
But Derrickson spikes the brew as Swinton punches Cumberbatch into alternative dimensions. For the city-warping, mind-scrambling visuals, imagine MC Escher and Inception on funny fungi. As Strange and fellow necromancer Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor, underused but rich in sequel promise) fight Mads Mikkelsen's guyliner'd sorcerer-gone-bad Kaecilius, landscapes warp thrillingly to characters' mutable wills.
Weaponised by dynamic scripting, the A-class cast sell the concoction well. Rachel McAdams' surgeon is underused and one final cosmic face-off overdoses on shouty bombast, but a scene-stealing, inwardly smiling Swinton lands her Yoda-isms lightly and Cumberbatch's dangerously familiar loftiness feels cannily refreshed. And writers Jon Spaihts, C Robert Cargill and Derrickson disarm any hints of pomposity with well-measured puns without succumbing to mere larkiness: one reverie on death swirls a little wistful poetry into the quip-firing, city-wrecking formula.
The pothead poetry extends to Michael Giacchino's music: if you don't stay for the post-credits scenes (and you should), stay for the sitar duels of the MCU's most luxurious score yet. Clearly, Marvel still has rabbits to pull from the hat.
General release from Tue 25 Oct.