Doctor Strange

Directed By: Scott Derrickson

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt, Scott Adkins, Mads Mikkelsen, and Tilda Swinton

The world is truly topsy-turvy these days.  Donald Trump has more than an outside shot at stealing the presidency next Tuesday from Hillary Clinton.  The Chicago Cubs have broken a 108 years long losing streak by clinching the World Series earlier this week.  To top things off, Doctor Strange — this weekend's latest release from the Marvel Cinematic Universe — feels more like Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan's superhero movies in tone than The Avengers or Guardians of the Galaxy.  One thing that hasn't changed is the fact that Marvel continues to tinker with their formula for success.  We had the old guard in Captain America: Civil War earlier this year, while Stephen Strange continues to usher in the new superheroes on the block.  Offering an uncharacteristically dark film that still manages to find plenty of humor, Marvel uses some cinematic sorcery to conjure up yet another great installment in its ever-expanding universe for the fourteenth time.

Arrogant, ostentatious, and wildly successful at what he does, Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a neurosurgeon at a hospital in the city who sees and enjoys the dividends that years of study and practice are now paying for him.  Interested in doing something bigger than saving one life at a time, he shuns offers from his onetime girlfriend and current colleague Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) to work with her in the ER.  Strange instead opts to continue his research looking to make the impossible possible by coming up with lifesaving treatments for some of the worst neurological ailments plaguing men and women across the globe.  While driving to go help some patient anonymously, he ends up in a rough car accident.  Facing severe injuries, there's extensive nerve damage to his most crucial limbs as a neurosurgeon, his hands.  To get back into his profession and make a difference in the lives of others, Strange will do anything to make the impossible happen.

When western medicine fails him in doing this, Strange turns to Jonathan Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt), a paraplegic who faced a similar challenge and found that healing one's spirit does wonders for the body as well.  Following Pangborn's recommendation, Strange goes to Kamar-Taj in Kathmandu, Nepal where he meets the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and her followers Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Wong (Benedict Wong).  After the Ancient One — a Celtic mystic and the Supreme Sorceress — powerfully shows Strange that he knows next to nothing about what is actually a multiverse, Strange wants nothing more than for her to teach him about the mystic arts.  Reluctant at first, the Ancient One agrees to show him how to tap into his power and see the world for what it really is.  She introduces him to the sanctums — the three temples around the globe that protect the planet from all sorts of supernatural dangers around the globe.  She warns him of the dangers that certain realms such as the Dark Dimension pose.  She advises him to prepare to defend himself and the world from foes such as Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a onetime student of the Ancient One who wants to destroy the sanctums and put the planet in peril of entering the Dark Dimension.  All in all, Strange begins to find new purpose in studying under the Ancient One, something more than just healing his hands and going back to his ordinary life.

It's a really impressive feat for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to be able to reinvent itself year after year and again and again while maintaining consistent entertainment value and a cohesive mega franchise.  Boldly dark, reliably funny, and visually inventive, director Scott Derrickson's Doctor Strange takes the MCU in yet another direction.  With grittier cinematography than usual and a grim outlook on the state of the mystic world, Doctor Strange is noticeably darker in tone than its thirteen predecessors on the big screen.  Somehow, it still manages to infuse the film with plenty of the humor that is characteristic of this sprawling brand.  With impressive direction of a talented ensemble of veteran actors, Doctor Strange delivers a healthy dose of that rarefied beauty known as movie magic.

While Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man created whole new worlds for the MCU to explore, Doctor Strange has the unique task of peeling back the very veil of reality and showing us what lies beneath it.  That's an incredible visual challenge that Scott Derrickson and his crew impressively embrace.  Leveraging all sorts of colorful visual effects in glorious 3D to bring this to life, Derrickson serves up visual aesthetics that are unlike anything on which our eyes have feasted, possibly ever.  When I saw the trailers for the film, I thought that this would be Marvel pulling a page out of the Inception playbook.  However, Derrickson takes this in a different direction.  It ultimately pays big dividends as mystics bend both time and space and wage war with magical weaponry all across the globe.  These creative, vibrant visuals are vital to the victory lap Marvel is taking with Doctor Strange.

The cast is firing on all cylinders here.  For his part as our titular character, Benedict Cumberbatch offers a burgeoning sorcerer not totally dissimilar to Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark. Flashy and cocky with a penchant for breaking the rules, Cumberbatch ultimately humbles himself to the mystic arts to acknowledge that there are some things even he with all his intellect will never understand.  Cumberbatch's sharp-witted character ultimately has a lot of heart that gradually comes out as the film unfolds.  Cumberbatch is joined by his antithesis in the form of Chiwetel Ejiofor's Karl Mordo.  A stalwart supporter of following the natural law and the chain of command, Ejiofor gives us the moral compass of the mystic community.  One could make the same case for Benedict Wong in his portrayal of the Ancient One's feisty librarian Wong, though he provides plenty of comic relief as well fueled by pop culture references.  Finally, we have Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One.  My love of her work on the big screen is well-documented all over STMR.  This time around, the British thespian channels her inner Yoda and delivers one smooth, formidable master of the mystic arts who brilliantly facilitates the introduction of this aspect of the MCU to moviegoers.

I think I'm finally convinced that the Marvel Cinematic Universe can truly do no wrong.  We had an epic superhero royal rumble in Captain America: Civil War earlier this year.  We've got Luke Cage serving up a timely offering of a bulletproof black man on Netflix.  We've even got the righting of past wrongs with Ghost Rider burning one soul after another on Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.  With the success of Doctor Strange now at hand, I don't know what else Kevin Feige and Disney have to prove.  They are the kings of the comic book genre, and I can't wait to see what they have next.  A thoroughly entertaining origin story, Doctor Strange gets a strong 0.03% rating.  Have some wine coolers with this one.