With Doctor Strange being the 14th movie to be substantiated into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you'd be forgiven for wondering if there was anything new really left to offer. Although all our heroes need to start somewhere, much like their comic-reading counterparts, audiences are enjoying the continued tales of the established universe Marvel has cleverly woven. Guardians of the Galaxy has probably been the biggest gamble Marvel Studios has taken as far as being otherworldly and less established characters.
While Doctor Strange summons something new into our familiar MCU (mysticism) there's also the familiar incantation of the origin story. The unavoidable routine of the main character's overbearing arrogance keeps them at a distance from those around them, but enough charisma and charm to avoid our disdain. Tony went through it and so did Thor. So we know that it may only be a matter of time before Stephen Strange realises the error of his ways and turns into the guy on the poster. However, Scott Derrickson is canny enough to get casting this particular spell early on and drape over it a cloak of inventiveness that it feels just as fresh as Tony's first foray into Afghanistan or Thor taking on the Destroyer in New Mexico.
Strange opens with intrigue and brutality, but it's not long before you get a taste of the detailed delights to come. With a deliberate wave of the arms a London side road transforms, brick by brick, into a kaleidoscope of Tibetan detail. Prayer wheels slot over columns and begin to rotate as the entire street begins to shift and tilt. While the looting conjurers we follow seem familiar with the world shifting, it's something beguiling to see for the first time. It's a neat trick in that, by keeping it swift, you want to revisit that wonder. As a result any tedium of the arrogant man soon to become a hero is expelled. With that in mind, Benedict Cumberbatch deftly handles the elevated ego of Strange without ever derailing him into apathy and thus a new hero materialises.
Sadly, the rest of the cast don't get quite as much to do. Although they aren't sinfully underused, the story rattles along at such a pace any fleshing out is lost. Mads Mikkelsen exudes the single minded zealot, unflinching in his goals, but Kaecilius may have benefited from a little more back story to flesh him out. Chiwetel Ejiofor does a lot with what would have beeen very little on the page as Karl Mordo, but while you understand his views come the climax, you may not sympathise. Tilda Swinton, however, lifts the role of The Ancient One from Obi Wan Kenobi template to provocative tutor and guide through the mystic world.
Although it may not share the same japey tone, Doctor Strange has more in common with Ant-Man that it does any of the other Marvel franchises so far. Not only does it steer clear of the tired city-wide devastation we've seen before for it's climax and instead uses it's wheel house to try and overcome the odds, but it's also not afraid to have a little fun. The Cloak of Levitation could be interchangeable with Ant-thony, but it makes fun of it's incredible premise without making excuses for itself. The humor is self aware enough to not undermine it's basis without getting too broad in the way that Thor: The Dark World had.
If you found the visuals in the trailer enticing, they are just the tip of the iceberg. There are set pieces in Doctor Strange that go beyond mind bending. Not only do cityscapes fold in on themselves, but there's Escher-infused chase scenes and slotting buildings facades used as weapons. That's all before we get to the introduction of a convincing type of conjuring-kung-fu, runes that manifest as swords and shields as well as a geographic thermostat - you'll know it when you see it!
The reason Doctor Strange triumphs against the odds, much like the Sorcerer Supreme himself, is because while it embraces the ground it has to re-cover it never lacks imagination.
4* - Dr Estrangedlove