There are different thoughts on how to combat what’s been termed “superhero fatigue” at the multiplex. “Guardians of the Galaxy” did it with throwback mixtape tunes and an atypically offbeat tone. “Batman v Superman” tried to do it by pummeling us into submission with its double shot of unrelenting caped gravitas.
Marvel’s Benedict Cumberbatch showcase “Doctor Strange” tackles the issue by touring audiences around patches of genre real estate they haven’t necessarily seen before. The mystical settings that this “sorcerer supreme” navigates make for exhilarating sensory overload, powerfully expanding on classic visuals from pioneering Marvel artist Steve Ditko. The upshot: The movie develops a distinctively trippy identity.
There may be echoes of “Inception” — and M.C. Escher — in scenes of Strange fighting black-magic renegades amid cityscapes that bend every which way, but the effects are the latest, greatest variations. Meanwhile, surprising director Scott Derrickson (“Sinister”) delivers something unique with his hero’s vertiginous, humbling introduction to an infinite array of parallel dimensions. No wonder the terrified newbie ends up screaming most of the way.
Typically, Stephen Strange is a whole lot cooler. In a vintage back story that still holds up, the character starts out as a brilliant, egotistical neurosurgeon who cherry-picks only the flashiest medical cases, and who consistently dazzles his colleague-with-benefits (underutilized Rachel McAdams) in spite of herself. In short, he’s not so strange at all, as Cumberbatch divertingly essays a hip-talking playah rather than another character whose intellect casts him purely as alien, as other. (See Sherlock, Khan, etc.)
When a car wreck leaves Strange with career-ending nerve damage, his bitter quest to be healed eventually leads him to Kathmandu, and the guidance of a mystic called the Ancient One. In an inspired reinterpretation, Derrickson chucks the stereotyped, cloistered Asian guru of the comics and instead offers up-for-anything Tilda Swinton with no hair and an urban-temple hangout. Chiwetel Ejiofor is a safer pick as Mordo, Strange’s intense fellow disciple and ally (for now), while Strange’s sidekick, Wong, also gets a contemporized, prickly makeover from Benedict Wong of “The Martian.” (Two Benedicts? Wong as Wong? Cast that guy for his name alone!)
Strange doesn’t find his miracle cure, but he does return with mad magic skills, a signature levitation cloak, and a mission to stop a fanatical sorcerer played with familiar menace — and freaky raccoon eyes — by Mads Mikkelsen. And just as their conflict begins to feel noisily routine and Marvel-glib in the late going, the movie comes through with a twist to rekindle our interest. Pretty good trick.
Directed by Scott Derrickson. Written by Jon Spaihts, Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Mads Mikkelsen. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs, Jordan’s IMAX Reading and Natick. 115 minutes. PG-13 (sci-fi violence and action throughout, intense crash sequence).Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.