It’s rather impressive how, in the midst of a glut of superhero movies, the Marvel Cinematic Universe remains fresh and exciting.
“Doctor Strange,” the 14th of the series, offers more of what’s been satisfying in the movies, and something refreshingly different.
Oscar-nominee Benedict Cumberbatch is the key, bringing vast amounts of charm and skill to his performance as Stephen Strange, a skilled, successful, arrogant surgeon.
While speeding in his sports car, texting about who his next lucky patient will be, he crashes, severely injuring his hands and ending his career.
Soul-searching, he winds up in Kathmandu and meets the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). She doesn’t exactly promise that she can heal his hands, but if he studies with her, he can heal his spirit.
The movie is full of bracing bits of pop-mysticism that are like a tonic in this bitter election year.
Of course, there’s a bad guy, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen, in a calm, menacing performance), who steals pages from an important spellbook and hopes to bring a dimension of darkness to earth.
This kind of exotic, mystic material can often be grimly, icily serious. But, remarkably, “Doctor Strange” mixes in generous measures of playfulness among its many action scenes and explosions.
One of the best fights has Strange challenging three powerful minions when he, himself, is still unsure of his own powers; he must learn on the job, and Cumberbatch lets a tiny bit of bewilderment creep through his battlefield concentration.
Benedict Wong is very funny as the stone-faced keeper of the spellbooks, and Rachel McAdams lends warmth as Strange’s former lover and current friend-colleague. As the troubled Mordo, Chiwetel Ejiofor shoulders much of the film’s weight, though he also has one of its funniest lines.
The movie’s weirdest choice is director Scott Derrickson, who made the bland remake of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” and tepid horror films such as “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” and“Sinister.” Here, he shows a sure touch on spectacular visuals, begging the question of just how much control a director has over mega-films like this one.
Some of the action scenes race too far from the characters and grow dull. This, however, might be the result of the supremely annoying 3D effects, and glasses, foisted on viewers nowadays.
Ironically, it’s in two dimensions that these super-characters spring more cheerfully to life.
Three and a half stars
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tilda Swinton, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Mads Mikkelsen
Written by Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill
Directed by Scott Derrickson
Running time 1 hour, 55 minutes