“Dr. Strange” (**** OUT OF ****) ranks as the best Walt Disney Studios and Marvel Comics’ collaboration since “Iron Man.” Mind you, I’ve confined myself strictly to the Disney/Marvel franchise and excluded the Marvel Comics/Twentieth Century Fox franchises: “X-Men,” “Deadpool,” and “Daredevil.” Not only is director Scott Derrickson’s sixth movie a dazzling example of bizarre superhero histrionics, but it also qualifies as a splendid origins epic in every respect. Wisely, Derrickson confines this supernatural masterpiece to 115 minutes without either slighting any character or leaving any threads undone in its formulaic template. Benedict Cumberbatch is truly a revelation as Dr. Steven Strange, and his character follows quite an arc before the film concludes. Audiences should know that “Dr. Strange” has two scenes before and after the end credits that are essential to the film. Steven Strange possesses an abrasive attitude, and “Dr. Strange” adheres to the Disney/Marvel formula that originated with “Iron Man.” Dr. Strange is just as arrogant as Tony Stark. These two prima donnas begin as ordinary humans with extraordinary gifts before hubris and bad luck combine to topple them from affluence. Similarly, they recover from these seemingly insurmountable ordeals with the incentive of a powerful mentor and emerge as larger-than-life titans. Unlike the colossal collateral damage that has highlighted virtually every Disney/Marvel movie to date, “Dr. Strange” embraces an alternate strategy. This movie eschews the real world and lapses more often into the imaginary realm. The heroes don’t destroy cities in their efforts to subjugate the villains as they have usually done in previous Disney/Marvel extravaganzas. Furthermore, Derrickson channels “The Matrix” in the depiction of Dr. Strange’s makeover as he learns about how to exist in different dimensions. Meantime, in its biggest departure from the Marvel comic book series, Derrickson and company have broken a tradition. They have cast Oscar winning actress Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One who introduces Strange to the wondrous mysteries of the mind. In the comics, the Ancient One was a guy rather than a girl.
“Dr. Strange” serves not only as a sensational Marvel Comics adaptation but also as commentary on a national epidemic of distracted driving that has swept the country since the advent of cell phones. Protagonist Dr. Stephen Strange (Oscar nominated actor Benedict Cumberbatch of “The Imitation Game”) is an eminent, world-renowned surgeon who has achieved unparalleled feats with his hands. As he is searching for his next surgical triumph, Strange is careening along a swerving mountain-side highway without a care in the world. He has his phone switched on in his sleek sports car and it debating to accept a new patient when he loses control of his vehicle, smashes into another car, and flies off the highway like a UFO, and crashes miles below in obscurity. When he awakens after surgery, he finds his hands permanently mangled. Repeated surgeries gain him nothing, and gifted surgeons like he once was refuse to take his case for fear of ruining their track records. Eventually, Strange spends so much money than he loses virtually everything he had acquired, and he loses the woman that he loved the most, Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams of “The Vow”), who refuses to have anything to do with her after he insults her. Later, during his rehab, Strange alienates his rehab therapist. The therapist tells Strange about a similar man, Jonathan Pangborn (Benjamin Pratt of “The Infiltrator”), who triumphed over his limitations. Strange is shocked to learn that this patient recovered from an impossible spinal injury that nobody has conquered. Desperate to know how Pangborn accomplished this unheard-of feat, Strange accepts Pangborn’s advice and travels to a monastery in Nepal. Strange blows the rest of his dwindling funds and approaches the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) in the mountains. She shows him familiar pictures of the human body, and Strange accuses her of being a quack until she knocks him out of his body into an entirely different dimension. Performing an about-face, Strange humbles himself before her as he plumbs the depths of his mind that he never thought probable. Although he never recovers his long-sought after manual dexterity, he becomes a different person who can alter time and space. Little does he realize that the mystical world that he has entered has been traveled by others who endeavor to exploit their new-found power to destroy the world. Along the way, he establishes his identity as Dr. Strange, not as Mr. Strange or Master Strange. Like all memorable Marvel movies, “Dr. Strange” sacrifices the life of one of its primary characters to endow the film with a sense of depth.
“Sinister” director Derrickson, “Prometheus” scribe Jon Spaihts, and “Sinister” franchise writer C. Robert Cargill have created a thoroughly entertaining film fraught with nuance and detail. The villains are smart, strong, and resourceful adversaries that look truly malevolent. The villains are interesting but never sympathetic, and “Casino Royale” villain Mads Mikkelsen is perfectly cast as the leader. The titular hero must endure trial after trial before he acquires his unique powers as Dr. Strange. Like any worthwhile superhero saga, “Dr. Strange” puts the fate of the world at stake, and our resilient hero must contend with enemies far more formidable than he until he masters his skills as a sorcerer and defeats them. Derrickson and his writers have forged believable, sympathetic characters that we care about. “Dr. Strange” amounts to an enjoyable load of hokum embellished with mind-boggling visuals. When the heroes and villains tangle, they create worlds within worlds to stage their Armageddon-style showdowns without endangering the rest of humanity. The sight of cityscapes folding up like accordions is nothing short of spectacular. If you’ve seen the Leonardo DiCaprio thriller “Inception,” the sprawling cityscapes behave in similar fashion as our heroes battle to control the arena with the bad guys. You may figure out who decides to give up their life to ensure the safety of future generations. Provocatively, fadeout at the end doesn’t necessarily guarantee the triumph of good over evil.