Hand it to them right now. It’s barely November, but the Oscar for Visual Effects is already in the bag. As great as The Jungle Book was, and as nifty as Rogue One will likely be, there’s nothing that’s topping Doctor Strange. A brain-melting acid trip of kaleidoscopic trickery that would make M.C. Escher faint, it’s a masterpiece of visual effects─the likes of which have never been seen. Ever.

Director Scott Derrickson has made his living to this point in the horror game, helming flicks like Sinister and Deliver Us from Evil. With Doctor Strange he gets to put on his big-boy pants (and work with a big-boy budget), and the result is one of Marvel Studios’ best efforts. Beside the effects, it’s also a genuinely solid movie.

Benedict Cumberbatch joins the tanks of certified thespians to don a comic book costume (Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Tom Hiddleston, etc.), and his presence gives Doctor Strange a sense that studio head Kevin Feige and company are still taking this whole thing seriously and, more importantly, that we should, too. Even better, Doctor Strange is a stand-alone origin story; but for one brief mention of The Avengers and a cameo by one of them in an end-credits bonus scene, there’s nothing really that ties the film to the Marvel Universe, making it infinitely more accessible than, frankly, every other Marvel film so far.

When the curtain rises, brain surgeon Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) is being his usual narcissistic jackass self, only taking on patients who can further his career and ignoring everyone else, including his colleagues. While texting and driving (don’t do it, kids!) in his Lamborghini on a windy mountain road, he crashes. Badly. Among other injuries, he sustains severe nerve damage to his hands, rendering him as useful in his chosen profession as a dead flashlight battery.

Rehab doesn’t help (and neither does his petulance), but eventually he hears of an Eastern healer in Nepal and sets off. Known only as The Ancient One, the healer (Tilda Swinton) has to work at it but finally convinces Strange that his recovery depends on a strengthening of his mystical side as well as his physical side. Before he can even muster an eye-roll, Strange is sent tumbling through astral planes and galaxies into the world of Now-I-Believe.

At the same time, our resident villain Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) has stolen some valuable pages from one of the Ancient One’s sacred texts and is planning on using them to cast a spell that will unleash darkness on the land. And it just so happens that he gets his plan going at the exact time Strange finishes training and can properly take him on. Phew.

The script, which Derrickson co-wrote with Sinister’s Robert Cargill and Prometheus’ Jon Spaihts, isn’t without its flaws, but it works much better than many Marvel efforts, including last year’s Captain America: Civil War and both entries in the Thor franchise. It’s complex without being confounding, and it’s also downright hilarious in spots. Rachel McAdams can’t do anything to shake off Marvel’s ongoing Useless Girlfriend Syndrome, but she turns in some nice work regardless. And Chiwetel Ejiofor joins Cumberbatch and Swinton in providing plenty of heavyweight talent.

But oh, those visual effects. I’m not one to re-watch a lot of stuff on DVD, and I seldom, if ever, bother with the bonus features, but I’ll be among the first in line to watch the behind-the-scenes featurette when Strange hits shelves. Visual effects supervisor Stephane Ceretti (Oscar-nominated for 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy) may actually have outdone himself; his work here must truly be seen to be believed. Thank heavens Derrickson went and built a great film around it.


4.5/5 stars

Worth the 3D glasses?

Absolutely and without question. It may actually be a punishable offense to NOT see Doctor Strange in 3D.