Say what you will about Marvel Studios, but they always lay the groundwork. Even when that groundwork costs $165 million.
Their latest attempt to add onto the Marvel Cinematic Universe is Doctor Strange, an odd but inspired choice to expand their world. Specifically, into the mystic: the Strange-verse forgoes high-tech armor and Super Soldier Serum to focus on sorcerers, magic, and dark dimensions where time doesn't exist.
As you might expect, this is a tougher tale to tell. And writer-director Scott Derrickson's movie can certainly get lost in lengthy explanations; when your ultimate bad guy is an amorphous, god-like creature with vast powers, it's difficult to pin anything down simply. Yet tremendous special effects and Marvel's still-impeccable casting make Strange more than just the latest entry in an endlessly sprawling endeavor.
Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a renowned, arrogant surgeon in New York City who loses the use of his hands in a horrible car crash. In the tradition of his superhero brethren, this unleashes an unquenchable desire to bounce back, one that leads him to Nepal and the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). She leads a team of sorcerers (including Chiwetel Ejiofor's Mordo) in study and training, with the goal being to keep the world in balance against unspeakable evils.
One of those evils turns out to be Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former Ancient One pupil who is fed up with her methods and wants to summon the aforementioned god-like being and grant everyone eternal life. This is where Strange loses its way a bit; it’s supremely difficult for an origin story to find time for a well-developed villain, and Kaecilius is no exception. His motivations are offered up alternatingly, from long swatches of exposition to brief comments delivered out of context; there's no show and all tell.
Derrickson does a great job in getting us from cocky Stephen Strange to the aspiring sorcerer with ease; he seems rightly confident that we can fill in any gaps ourselves. And—for the first time in years—I found myself saying, "Holy shit, these special effects." They'll remind a lot of people of Inception, and they get a little old by the last battle, but an opening confrontation in a building-bending London street and Strange's initial dip into alternate dimensions are both strikingly astonishing.
Meanwhile, Cumberbatch proves quite charming as Strange, a star-making turn that draws from his Sherlock work but entertains on its own merits. Swinton also shines in her Morpheus-esque turn, in part because you wouldn't expect Tilda Swinton to inhabit that role. But Mikkelsen has very little to work with, and Ejiofor only exists to set up future appearances as a potential, poorly inspired antagonist.
Many have compared Doctor Strange to Iron Man, as they both star rich playboys who get their comeuppance and learn to make a difference in other ways. And while they're of a similar structure, they couldn't be more different in what they hope to accomplish.
Iron Man was a confident first step toward an uncertain future, one that changed the next decade of big-budget filmmaking. Doctor Strange, on the other hand, comes from an all-powerful studio looking to write its next chapter. The purpose of this fourteenth entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is to bolster the overarching narrative and throw a new key character into the mix; the competency and success of the Good Doctor's origin tale is an important but ultimately secondary aspiration.
With that in mind, it's impressive that Doctor Strange (or any of the solo movies) turned out this good. And while detailing Marvel's strategy in all its inelegance can give a movie fan an upset stomach, one only needs to review DC's cinematic game plan to see what happens when you don't lay a proper foundation. It's awkward to blow a couple hundred million on creating a better protagonist for the next half-decade of Avengers adventures, but it's also proper storytelling. If Marvel has built a moviemaking factory, at least they hired a good architect.