Much like Ant-Man (2015), Doctor Strange is meant as a break from that routine – a zesty palate cleanser before Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2. But where Ant-Man used levity and a smaller (in every sense) story to break the rhythm, Scott Derrickson's (Sinister) Doctor Strange rolls the Marvel paradigm into a hefty joint and invites us to smoke it over the course of two stunning, psychedelic hours.
Strange's origin tale quickly establishes his aloof disposition as an arrogant, ambitious, egotistical, yet brilliant neurosurgeon wallowing in luxury. And it doesn't take long before the moment that will change his life. After mangling his hands in a car crash, doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) finds his illustrious career in ruins. Cruelly rejecting the help of friend and fellow medic, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), Strange is willing to try any form of advanced surgery that might repair his crippled digits – which ultimately leads him to Kathmandu, Nepal.
Upon reaching the Himalayan temple of Kamar-Taj, we embark on a phantasmagorical vision quest unlike anything the studio has done before. Forcibly ripped from his corporeal form, Strange is cast onto the astral plane for a two-minute sequence that plays out like a Salvador Dalí dream. We tumble into the void, passing comets and crystals before shooting into the event horizon of a black hole, along a tunnel of exploding fractals into a sea of kaleidoscopic colour. From there Strange is sucked down into his own eye while hands sprout from smaller hands at the end of his fingers and writhing naked bodies melt into the landscape of his mind. "Have you seen that in a gift shop?" quips Tilda Swinton's (Only Lovers Left Alive) enigmatic Ancient One who inducts him into the mystic arts.
Horizons broadened, Strange is introduced to both the magical arts and the threats they are used as a defence against – chiefly Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a former student of Kamar-Taj whose pact with a demonic entity threatens to end the world. It is a far from revolutionary story but the invention with which it is told is something else entirely. Gravity, time and reality all become weapons during the film's eye popping magical brawls. Cityscapes fold in upon themselves, Escher inspired architecture unravelling and reforming around the combatants as they wield burning geometric shapes. There are battles on the astral plane, a chase through time reversing and the introduction of an entirely new fighting style that might best be described as cape-fu. It is an audacious display of visual artistry that manages to pack more trippy creativity into one movie than all 13 of Marvel's previous offerings combined. Certainly, Derrickson and his designers live up to the surreal landscapes showcased in the original Steve Ditko created comics.
As the Sorcerer Supreme, Cumberbatch demonstrates an easy charm, overriding the character's playboy smugness and leavening talk of Dormammu, Agamotto and the Wands of Watoomb with a wry sense of humour. The others fare perhaps less well, with Rachel McAdams (About Times) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years A Slave) in particular being starved of both screen time and purpose, while Mikkelsen's threadbare antagonist is thinly drawn. But Derrickson and his co-writers Jon Spaihts (Prometheus) and C. Robert Cargill (Sinister) manage to conjure up enough originality – in spite of the inevitable showdown on which the fate of the world hangs.
Introducing spells and sorcery to the Marvel Cinematic Universe is Marvel's riskiest move to date, but the gamble certainly pays off. What could have been the studio's first serious misstep is a confident stride into new territory that reinvigorates a tired formula while expanding the shared universe. This is both a reality defying "CG fuckathon" and arguably the most dazzling spectacle of the year.
A bizarre and beautiful detour on the Marvel journey, which culminates in a mind bending, expectation inverting final act. Not to be watched under the influence.