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Movie review: ‘Doctor Strange’ trippy, but familiar

Benedict Cumberbatch in Marvel's "Doctor Strange." (Jay Maidment / AP)
Benedict Cumberbatch in Marvel's "Doctor Strange." (Jay Maidment / AP)
By Katie Walsh Tribune News Service

“Doctor Strange” makes a big promise to infuse the superhero story with a much-needed frisson of strangeness. But as a product of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s hamstrung by its own origins. Despite the inventive visual imagery, city blocks that fold like origami and air that shatters like glass, it’s the same formula as the rest of the movies, which feel more and more like predictable products – down to the post-credits teasers – than films. Thankfully, it is an enjoyable product.

It’s the origin story of a superhero who uses magic and spells as his weapons. Benedict Cumberbatch tries on an American accent and a snarky sense of humor to play the arrogant Dr. Stephen Strange, an egotistical, swaggering neurosurgeon. He’s got sports cars, fine watches and an ex in the ER (Rachel McAdams), but his most important thing is his flashy career and rock star reputation. When a car accident destroys his hands, he’s left in despair, searching for answers with his great big, logical brain.

He finds his new path in life at a temple in Nepal, where he’s welcomed by Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and a guru/sensei/sorceress called the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) shuffles around his mind and spirit to experience dimensions outside of our rudimentary understanding. During Strange’s orientation, director Scott Derrickson goes all-out with the trippy visuals and imagery, as he hurtles through space and time and black holes in what is essentially a planetarium visit on acid.

He’s soon pressed into the service of his magical masters, who are tasked with protecting the world from mystical threats, as the Avengers protect it from the physical. At the moment, that involves containing a rogue pupil, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who is toying with the Dark Dimension in order to access eternal life.

If the MCU is a bit like eating at a chain restaurant – you know what you’re going to get – then watching “Doctor Strange” is a bit like ordering pad thai at Applebee’s: It’s different than the usual, but still kind of bland. It’s safe to say that most of the Asian flavor in “Doctor Strange” has been diluted. The Ancient One, a Nepali sorcerer in the comic books, has been race and gender-swapped, the character now a Celtic woman though she maintains an affinity for Asian warrior garb.

Androgynous Swinton is inspired casting, and gives a fine performance in the role. You might have never known you wanted to see Swinton, Cumberbatch and Mikkelsen perform magic karate, and it’s fairly delightful. However, borrowing heavily from Eastern aesthetics and spiritual teachings but only featuring one Asian actor in a major role doesn’t sit right at all.

That the film scoots in at under two hours is a welcome surprise for the Marvel Universe films, which typically climax with a solid 20 minutes of thumping fisticuffs. There’s still a bombastic showdown, but with Strange’s abilities to slip, slide, squish and stretch time, it takes on its own unique tenor.

The film is merely an introduction to this character and his powers, and in Cumberbatch’s hands, with a clever script by Derrickson, Jon Spaihts, and C. Robert Cargill, Dr. Strange is an appropriate addition to the pantheon of smart-mouthed Marvel superheroes. He’s wry, dry and high-minded, but never above a silly pun, pop-culture reference, or visual gag. He’ll fit in with the gang just fine.

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