Russell Baillie writes about movies for the Herald

Is Doctor Strange Marvel's best superhero yet?

Oh good. Another rich prick gets a cape and a suit. Wait, come back. This isn't that sort of superhero movie. Yes, it's from Marvel and part of that whole Avengers/Marvel Cinematic Universe thing.

It's also got another brilliant arrogant guy needing to reassess his priorities. After a car crash workaholic egomaniac neurosurgeon Dr Stephen Strange (a terrific Benedict Cumberbatch) has lost his manual dexterity and therefore his reason for being.

He finds a possible solution in a Kathmandu retreat ruled over by the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) with the assistance of Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor).

The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) star in the film, Doctor Strange. Photo / Marvel
The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) star in the film, Doctor Strange. Photo / Marvel

There, Strange eventually puts aside his scientific scepticism, hits the books in the library and starts taking his own leaps into the cosmic. He's on his way to become part of the sorcery squad defending the world from threats from other dimensions just as the Avengers deal with physical ones.

And as soon as he's zapping from the Astral to the Mirror to the Dark Dimensions, Doctor Strange starts going, well, strange. More a grand fantasy with martial arts overtones than a superhero battle royal.

Think surreal Harry Potter for grown-ups partly set in a Kung Fu Hogwarts, partly in similar territory to Christopher Nolan's world-bending, time-warping Inception.​

Fortunately, despite abundant eye-popping visual effects, the high-class actors involved actually get to do some high-class acting.

Yes, sometimes they are burdened by some extra-chewy mystical dialogue. But there are some face-offs between Cumberbatch, Swinton, Ejiofor as well as Mads Mikkelsen's villain, which, have a theatrical immediacy.

Swinton is particularly good as a dry-witted pale bald Yoda. Her parting scene with prize pupil Strange is quite something.

Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) star in the film, Doctor Strange. Photo / Marvel
Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) star in the film, Doctor Strange. Photo / Marvel

So there are human touches beneath the spectacular visuals doing topsy-turvy MC Escher things with the cityscapes of New York, London and Hong Kong. Or staging fights on an astral dimension while one of the combatant's real bodies is lying in hospital being defibrillated.

What it is, though, is fun in a way Marvel movies are rarely these days.

The film and its cast takes themselves just seriously enough. Especially, Rachel McAdams has a small but effective role as an ex-flame and medical colleague adjusting to Strange's strange return: "After all this time you show up here ... flying out of your body."

Director Scott Derrickson and his co-writers seem to have captured the spirit of the unconventional source material nicely.

Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Doctor Stephen Strange in the film Doctor Strange. Photo / Marvel
Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Doctor Stephen Strange in the film Doctor Strange. Photo / Marvel

While much of the Marvel superhero comic-book world came cooked up in Cold War atomic radiation, 1963-born Doctor Strange seemingly came baked in LSD.

Aside from all the Eastern mysticism the movie spends time on, Stan Lee's traditional cameo in this has him reading Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception and there's a hint of lava-lamp era Pink Floyd on the soundtrack.

He might have been on the stoner margins of the comic book universe, but on screen, Doctor Strange feels like he's headed for the major league in this first outing. Even if he might need drug testing.

It still does the things big superhero movies are meant to do - right down to the post-credit scenes suggesting the good doctor has an appointment with the forthcoming Thor: Ragnarok directed by whatshisname from down the road - but it's spectacular, refreshing and enjoyable in its own way. And well worth seeing in 3D.

This doctor, it seems, has a cure for superhero fatigue.

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mads Mikkelsen, Rachel McAdams
Director: Scott Derrickson
Rating: M (violence)
Running time: 115 mins
Verdict: Puts the marvel back into Marvel

- NZ Herald

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