Doctor Strange manages to expand the Marvel Cinematic Universe while also telling a satisfying story in its own isolated corner.
Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a world-renowned neurosurgeon - taking on hopeless cases that no other doctor would dare attempt. Unfortunately, Strange's motivation for fixing irreparable spines and removing inoperable brain tumors is a self-serving one - as the doctor loves fame and fortune more than the gift of saving lives. While speeding along a mountainside roadway, preoccupied by which medical case he should accept next, Strange collides with another car and is tossed down the hillside - mutilating his hands in the fall. Months, and millions of dollars in experimental procedures, later and the doctor is still impaired by nerve damage in his fingers - damage so severe that he is no longer able to perform surgery.
In a last ditch effort to repair his hands and resume his work, Strange travels to a mysterious place of healing known as Kamar-Taj in Nepal. There, Strange discovers that, for centuries, Earth has been protected by a secret society of sorcerers - men and women responsible for defending the laws of nature and physics from supernatural threats. Led by the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), and mentored by fellow sorcerer Baron Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Strange becomes a powerful magic wielder - but when an old enemy of Kamar-Taj returns for vengeance, Strange must decide whether he will use his new-found abilities to fix himself and return to his former life or step-up to a greater calling - one of self-sacrifice and servanthood.
Following thirteen successful installments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Doctor Strange not only serves to expand the interconnected MCU narrative through the inclusion of mysticism and alternate dimensions, the film also continues to push the larger franchise into new sub-genres and fresh cinematic language. Where aspects of Doctor Strange borrow heavily from the Marvel Studios formula, especially via origin story setup and a dull villain, director Scott Derrickson (Sinister) conceived a blockbuster movie experience packed with spectacle and unique action set pieces - while laying a satisfying foundation on which to explore Doctor Strange in the current story and beyond.
Where most MCU films have become near-inseparable from the shared timeline, Doctor Strange only makes passing references to The Avengers and prior universe-level events. Doctor Strange is, in spite of far-reaching implications and future connections, a satisfying self-contained adventure - in which many of the best moments stem from the drama, humor, or action at hand (rather than what these moments will mean for Avengers: Infinity War or Doctor Strange 2). As a result, casual filmgoers should find Derrickson's film more approachable than most MCU installments, since the movie prioritizes a focused (though customary) introduction to its main character and does not get bogged down by cross-narrative complications. Still, even though the film can stand on its own, there are also plenty of enticing MCU connections (big and small) as well as easter eggs for established fans to dissect.
In many ways, Doctor Strange is a vibration of the MCU, both its strengths and its shortcomings, thus far - especially as Derrickson pushes franchise boundaries while also fitting his film under the MCU umbrella. It's an ambitious undertaking and, even if it isn't the studio's most engaging story, Doctor Strange is Marvel's most visually arresting film. The psychedelic dream world of Christopher Nolan's Inception is a fair reference point for the mirror dimension depicted in Doctor Strange - a kaleidoscopic reflection of the real world warped by M.C. Escher-like cues. Derrickson ensures that spells, incantations, and magical artifacts (especially the Cloak of Levitation) find a satisfying sweet spot in magical realism; yet, the mirror dimension is where the director differentiates Doctor Strange from standard MCU formulas, presenting physics-bending action choreography as well as playful exploitation of the current MCU rule set - exploitation that, beyond eye-popping effects and one-off jokes, serves to explain, at a character level, why Stephen Strange is the Sorcerer Supreme.
Since Doctor Strange is an origin story, tasked with introducing Stephen Strange, sorcery, and alternate dimensions into the MCU, there isn't much room to define the film's supporting cast - meaning Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), and Wong (Benedict Wong) are mostly foils used to define Strange as well as frames on which to build sequel storylines. The film's antagonist, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), is a step up for the MCU, which has repeatedly struggled with bland power-hungry warlords; though, Kaecilius is still a relatively weak aspect of Doctor Strange as a whole. Mikkelsen is an ominous presence and, thanks to some genuinely striking sequences that contrast Strange, played with a straight face by the actor, Kaecilius is a compelling villain - only to unravel in the third act. Derrickson imbues Kaecilius with sincere (and relatable) motivations at the outset but, as the repercussions of his actions ripple outward and larger threats are unmasked, Kaecilius becomes a blunt tool for the movie - rather than a fully-realized antagonist, both physically and mentally, for Strange.
Tilda Swinton's Ancient One is provided the most development outside of Doctor Strange and her role in the larger film, as well as the lessons (both good and bad) that she teaches the Sorcerer Supreme, are a effective blend of heady exposition and grounded character drama that anchor even the most outrageous aspects of Doctor Strange with intimate tethers and believable stakes. Moviegoers have a right to express opinion on Derrickson's choice to hire a white actor in a traditionally Asian role; however, Swinton is great in the part - and presents a layered Ancient One: insightful, skilled, tormented, and inspiring, but still very human.
Most importantly, Benedict Cumberbatch is charming as the Sorcerer Supreme. Even if Strange is guided through a standard MCU story template, Cumberbatch adds enough nuance and humor to move his character into a standout position within the shared universe - while, at the same time, delivering one of Marvel's better solo character profiles. Certain jokes land more than others and Derrickson doesn't supply Cumberbatch with a particularly groundbreaking platform to perform but Strange (and the 2016 film as a whole) is a refinement of the Marvel origin story formula - reminiscent, in both tone and execution, of Jon Favreau's Iron Man. Similarly, Cumberbatch stays within his comfort zone, portraying a hero that is equal parts arrogant and brave, but the actor sells Doctor Strange's zany supernatural elements (which could have been dismissed by viewers as eye-rolling nonsense) through the relatable experience of a normal man who, in his quest to help himself, discovers a greater purpose.
NOTE: Doctor Strange is also playing in 3D as well as an IMAX "experience" and premium formats are worth the added ticket cost where available. Doctor Strange is the most stunning Marvel movie to date - and while 3D or IMAX are not mandatory, especially for viewers who typically avoid 3D, Derrickson's inventive application of the mirror dimension, in both cinematic spectacle and physics-breaking action choreography, get worthwhile use out of enhanced presentations.
Thanks to a sharp lead, inventive visuals, and fresh world-building materials, Doctor Strange manages to expand the Marvel Cinematic Universe while also telling a satisfying story in its own isolated corner. Much like Guardians of the Galaxy before it, Doctor Strange is a smart place for casual moviegoers to hop into the MCU without being overwhelmed by shared universe storytelling. Meanwhile, Marvel fans can relish in Derrickson's supernatural spectacle, and for those who have begun to tire of Avengers-heavy MCU staples, Doctor Strange offers a rousing change of pace.