In terms of narrative and character, Doctor Strange is something of a Marvel retread—Iron Man lite. Like Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a master of his particular universe, in this case a world-famous surgeon who is brought to his knees by a car accident. Seeking healing, he finds it far from modern medicine, instead joining a secret society that practices the “mystic arts.” There he learns powers he never before thought possible, as well as a hint of humility.
The character arc is routine, then, as are the world-threatening stakes that come into play. Yet the root of what makes Doctor Strange unique as a superhero—his status as a quasi-spiritual figure who operates outside of time and space—is also what makes Doctor Strange compelling as a piece of cinema. At its best, this story is an excuse for director Scott Derrickson and his team to manipulate reality in inventive, thrilling ways.
Consider an early fight scene, in which a mysterious sorcerer (Tilda Swinton), pursued by threatening figures, evades them by twisting a building sideways and manipulating its shape, Inception-style. (Later, there’s another showdown that even one-ups Inception, so that Manhattan is turned inside out like an inverted Rubik’s Cube.) Strange and his fellow mystics can also open portals in space to travel elsewhere—like the doors in Monsters, Inc.—and eventually Strange even learns to manipulate time. We first see this during a clever sequence in which the camera swings back and forth in front of an apple as it decays, reforms, and then decays again, all while Strange seems to turn an invisible dial in the background. In the climax, he employs this power to fantastic effect: Strange and his colleagues take on the megalomaniacal villain (Mads Mikkelsen) in real time while the Hong Kong street around them rewinds to a point before disaster struck.
These are all incredible tricks, yet though expertly done, they aren’t given any deeper thematic resonance. And so unlike something like Inception, Doctor Strange entertains, but never haunts. Still, I will give the movie this: even for a comic-book lightweight like me, the moment Strange first dons the Cloak of Levitation is electric. It’s a fashion show as fight move and—along with those space-time sequences—one of the key ways Doctor Strange manages to be somewhat idiosyncratic.