It's easy to shrug Doctor Strange off as yet another success for Marvel Studios. But it's only because The House That Iron Man Built makes it look that way: Marvel knows what it does best, but at the same time, they are constantly learning from their mistakes and aren't afraid to take big risks. That's only led to big rewards, so far.
In Doctor Strange, Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) gets a proper origin story, two years after being name-checked in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. A car wreck leaves the renowned neurosurgeon with damage to his hands that effectively ends his career. After Western medicine fails to "fix" him, he travels to Nepal to find the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). Under her tutelage, Strange learns that while the Avengers have been tasked with battling Earth's physical threats, she and her fellow sorcerers face the mythological.
Strange's dimension-hopping ways certainly warrant a primer the first time out, though the hero himself will be far more familiar. Cumberbatch is serving more than a few shades of Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark in his portrayal of Strange. Cumberbatch plays him slick and cocky, volatile and seemingly untouchable, whose ego leads to his own downfall. Big man, but take away the spells and what is he? Genius, millionaire, playboy, philanthropist.
That makes Rachel McAdams, playing the put-upon love interest E.R. doc Christine Palmer, the Pepper Potts, charming and competent and great at bantering, just as Gwyneth Paltrow was before her. It's easy to watch Doctor Strange and see Strange being groomed as an Iron Man replacement, whenever RDJ inevitably leaves the MCU. (He's locked in for Spider-Man: Homecoming and the next two Avengers movies, though, so that won't be for a minute.)
(Sidebar: I'd love to watch Christine and her Netflix counterpart, Claire Temple, get drinks and discuss some s**t. McAdams is just as game as Rosario Dawson and equally worthy of fan favorite-ness.)
Strange's extradimensional threat arrives in the form of Kaecilius, a one-time pupil of the Ancient One who has gone rogue. As played by Mads Mikkelsen, Kaecilius could bear more than a passing resemblance to Ronan the Accuser, the Kree zealot portrayed by Lee Pace in Guardians of the Galaxy. The studio seems to have taken in feedback, though -- Marvel has a villain problem -- and Kaecilius is given additional layers that Ronan lacked, nuances to his evil scheming that result in an antagonist more interesting than grandiose plans to destroy the universe. It's a lesson learned and played across the board; even the Ancient One exists in shades of grey. While Swinton is as strangely delightful in the role as you would hope Tilda Swinton to be, it won't negate the controversy over her character's whitewashing, but here too, Marvel will learn and they will course correct. The casting for Spider-Man: Homecoming is a promising start that will hopefully continue for Asian actors as well as increased diversity in terms of all races, genders, and sexualities.
More than anything, Doctor Strange is a gloriously trippy sight to behold. Guardians seems practically conventional in comparison, while Ant-Man's Quantum Realm barely scratched the surface of the weirdness the MCU had to offer. (It's worth noting that Doctor Strange is not as ostensibly comedic as either of those films. That said, there are chuckles, including a bit about Beyoncé. Yes, Doctor Strange marks the first mention of Beyoncé in the MCU.)
With director Scott Derrickson (the horror maestro behind The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Sinister) at its helm, Doctor Strange unspools as if shot through a kaleidoscope, equal parts dazzling and delirious, and it makes Inception look like a documentary. Cityscapes fold in on themselves as buildings stretch into the sky and streets tangle into one another. Strange is sent spinning through a number of hypnotic alternate dimensions. Some of the visuals are oddly beautiful, others nightmarishly disturbing. Some look like Tumblr GIFs. There is one astral projection fight sequence that has absolutely no business working, but it does.
Everything culminates in a climax that cheekily does the exact opposite of what Marvel and other big superhero blockbusters have all been criticized for doing, before whirling off into a direction I guaran-f**king-tee you won't see coming. As the credits roll and you're dropped back into reality, you likely won’t help but feel the twinge that there is so much left to explore. Alas, another day, another dimension, another go-round of Marvel building off of what they do best, fixing a mistake here and there, and, boy, I can't wait to see what risk they take next.