Like an Escher painting with heroes and villains, Doctor Strange delivers a solid story and some mind-bending visuals.
To get a sense of Benedict Cumberbatch's Dr Stephen Strange, first picture in your mind Hugh Laurie's character from House. Tall and lanky, with a gravelly voice begging to be coughed into clarity and an unyielding arrogance that offends all who meet him, House is the super surgeon whose primary demon is his crippling fear of failure. To get, then, from House to Strange, just add a pinch of traumatic injury, mix in some eastern healing and meditation, and serve it up with a magical cape and the ability to manipulate space and time.
Okay, yes, that's quite a leap, but as a departure from the last thirteen superhero flicks from Marvel Studios, Doctor Strange is as refreshing as it is successful.
Strange's transformation from surgeon to sorcerer is an altogether conventional one – a Matrix-style 'forget everything you know' sequence comprised of training, studying and martial arts under the guidance of a mystical Tibetan monk named The Ancient One (a fantastic turn by Tilda Swinton). Driven by a solipsistic determination to heal his wounded hands, Strange's focus slowly shifts to larger matters – chiefly, saving the world – as his psychadellic journey of discovery reveals a multiverse of infinite possibilities and supernatural threats that only sorcerers can repel. As one character explains, the Avengers deal with threats on earth, but threats to the earth? That's where these guys come in.
Like Ant-Man before it, Doctor Strange offers a more intimate, individual tale compared to the ensemble juggernauts of The Avengers and Captain America. That's not to say it's a small-scale production, however. Visually, this is Inception dialled up to eleven, a world-bending, shape-shifting and time-distorting Escher painting filled with heroes and villains duelling over the possibility of immortality. As always, there are Marvel's well-timed comic touches, as well as a pair of end-credit scenes (so do stay through to the very end for a hint as to Strange's next villain).
A solid supporting cast boasts Rachel McAdams as Strange's love interest, Chiwetel Ejiofor as his sparring partner and Mads Mikkelsen sadly under-utilised as something of a two-dimensional villain. Wordier and more offbeat than the standard Marvel fare, Doctor Strange nonetheless rightly and proudly earns its place in the franchise's extraordinary universe, offering a visual feast unlike anything else seen this year.