So, MARVEL Studios made another really good movie.
Yeah, I know, stop the presses.
You've got to admire the image that MARVEL has created of its operating procedure (being that they've spend nearly a decade becoming the most reliably machine for churning out well-liked hits not featuring singing princesses) of the studio as a somewhat absent-minded uncle who occasionally trips over a wayward comic character or concept, dusts it off, and offers it to the movie-going public with a smile and a shrug.
A public which has, increasingly, responded thusly:
For reference, Doctor Strange, as a character, hasn't been a reliable money-maker for the comics publishing giant, even compared to relative "second-stringers" like Iron Man. However, the MCU's approach to this verse of "take a lesser-known character and turn them into a marquee draw" is to set him up as a symbolic replacement for the obviously-not-long-for-this-franchise Tony Stark. Once Robert Downey Jr. decides he finally has enough dump trucks full of money, the Marvel Cinematic Universe will be down a handsome middle-aged man who's brilliance is rivaled only by his arrogance. Enter Tumblr's lord and savior, Sherlock himself, Benedict Cumberbatch. And in the annals of obvious fan-casting turned actual casting, ol' BC lands firmly in the bullseye of "Yep, that's why everyone thought he'd be perfect."
And luckily, he has a movie to play off of that's worthy of him, even if its structure isn't terribly original.
In fairness, there are worse templates to follow than that of the original Iron Man (which, itself, borrowed liberally from Sam Raimi's Spider-Man), and Doctor Strange does more than enough to distinguish itself from the pack. Stephen Strange, brilliant neurosurgeon, loses everything when his hands are destroyed in a car accident, and unlike Tony Stark building a suit of armor in a cave, Strange gambles everything he has on one experimental procedure after another in a desperate bid to do "the impossible." Strange's self-destructive narcissism is cast in a much darker and less quirky light than Stark's here, which - combined with the depiction of magic that is just as often frightening as awesome - makes for a film with a tone that's markedly different from the "usual" MARVEL fare while still feeling connected to the universe of the Avengers. And Cumberbatch is so effortlessly adept at being the smartest guy in the room, that the film dryly subverting that makes for some excellent - but never over-played - comedic beats once Strange leaves the world of science behind.
Strange's search takes him Kamar-taj, a secret temple in Nepal where sorcerers from all over the world learn from the Ancient One how to harness the mystic arts and protect the universe. And. . . here's where Doctor Strange gets slightly, as they say, "problematic."
See, as unlikely as it might seem, things used to be a little more openly racist 'round these here parts. Even nominally forward-facing outfits like MARVEL - who were publishing the X-men as an allegory for the Civil Rights Movement with a cast chock-full of white people - weren't totally immune to this. One of the basic elements of Strange's origin involves him learning from an Asian master in a Tibetan monastery so that he can become the Sorcerer Supreme. For those not up on the modern parlance, that kind of "Super Special White Guy is the only one who can master the Super Special Ethnic Secrets" trope is called "cultural appropriation." So, to avoid that (and to avoid casting a Tibetan actor in a studio environment where wooing China is a matter of serious import), Doctor Strange opts to make the previously male Asian character a white woman.
This is why parsing out problematic racial casting issues can be a real can of worms. Strange also switches Baron Mordo's previously Caucasian ethnicity, and Chiwetel Ejiofor makes the most of every moment of screen time as a conflicted comrade-in-arms for Strange. For that matter, Swinton commands a scene exactly like you'd expect her to as "Bald, Weirdly Hot Dumbledore," but for all the obvious trying, MARVEL seems to have found themselves in something of a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation with this one.
Luckily, the rest of the film really works. The pacing rockets along like a J.J. Abrams joint (but with more narrative cohesion than most Abrams scripts, courtesy of damn solid work by Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill), and Sinister director Scott Derrickson proves he has genuine blockbuster chops with what is absolutely the most astounding visual imagery the MCU has seen to date. At a brisk 115 minutes, Strange feels like it could have used one or two more character beats to breathe a bit more life into a couple transitions or story developments, but nothing feels seriously short-changed (like in, say, The Incredible Hulk or Thor: The Dark World), and the finale is not only home to some wicked effects mojo, but also has a particular story beat that's a near-brilliant synergy of intelligent heroic problem-solving dove-tailing with the natural culmination of a film-long character arc.
It's not quite the "My name...is Neo" moment from The Matrix, but it's in the conversation.
While Doctor Strange doesn't quite eclipse Captain America: The First Avenger as my favorite MCU hero origin story, it's definitely as strong a melding of genuinely personal stakes and inventive action as last year's Ant-Man, with some seriously trippy eye candy to boot. There's a quietly lovely theme about the acceptance of broken things being a part of what makes us whole that plays into multiple character paths. And while the forces marshaled by Doctor Strange may seem both phenomenal and cosmic to audiences used to magic hammers and super soldiers, the commensurately larger threats the good Doctor faces ensure that our spell-binding hero never feels safe. Even if the audience likely will.
Now, maybe someone will finally try making a decent Dresden Files movie. . .?