PLOT A famous neurosurgeon loses the use of his hands and seeks help from a mystical cabal.
CAST Benedict Cumberbatch, Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton
RATED PG-13 (action and some unsettling imagery)
BOTTOM LINE Marvel’s psychedelic superhero is a gas thanks to Oscar-worthy special effects. Cumberbatch wears his Fu Manchu mustache perfectly.
A funny thing has happened to Marvel Comics, which once produced marginal pulp culture for overgrown adolescents. Marvel has become such a mainstream entertainment juggernaut that it can now produce its own alt-culture movies tailored to non-fans. “Guardians of the Galaxy,” a cheeky action comedy driven by 1970s pop, started the trend, followed by “Deadpool,” an ultraviolent, ultra-ironic hit that channeled Quentin Tarantino circa 1994.
The latest alt-Marvel entry is “Doctor Strange,” an appealingly weird blend of Eastern mysticism and caped crusaderism with a 1960s vibe. Its hero’s general outline will look familiar: Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a brilliant but arrogant neurosurgeon, loses the use of his hands and, in desperation, seeks help from the mystics of Kamar-Taj (a fictional enclave of Nepal). This is where he gets his superpowers, but they aren’t spiderlike or iron-forged. Instead, Dr. Strange develops the mental capacity to fold space, conjure parallel realms and even manipulate time itself.
“Doctor Strange” is a gas. Though this comic-book hero was born in the early 1960s, he’s been updated for the post-“Matrix,” post-“Inception” generation with the most eye-popping special effects ever seen in a Marvel movie. As our good Doctor hones his skills and prepares for a showdown with a renegade mystic, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), the streets and buildings of major cities turn into Escher-like mazes with infinite angles and planes. (A prediction: Marvel wins its first Oscar for this movie’s effects in February.)
Director Scott Derrickson and his co-writer, C. Robert Cargill, keep “Doctor Strange” balanced, just barely, between trippy psychedelia and plain incoherence. Cumberbatch helps ground us by playing Strange as a hard-nosed skeptic who only gradually opens his third eye (and grows an awesome Fu-Manchu mustache). The love interest role of Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) could use some sharpening, but Tilda Swinton is great fun as an imperious bald monk called The Ancient One. By rights, perhaps an Asian actor should have played that originally Asian role, but Swinton has always had an alien, Bowiesque quality that transcends ethnicity.
If superheroes were rock bands, then Thor would probably be Led Zeppelin and Doctor Strange would surely be Pink Floyd. The filmmakers clearly agree: Listen for a brief snippet of that band’s “Interstellar Overdrive.”
4 films with strange docs
Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Doctor Strange, the latest Marvel superhero to hit the screen. “Doctor Strange” is new, but there’s no shortage of strange doctors in movies.
FRANKENSTEIN (1931) — As Dr. Henry Frankenstein, Colin Clive was memorable with his gleeful shouts of “It’s alive!” after creating his monster. Clive reprised his most famous role in the excellent 1935 sequel, “Bride of Frankenstein.” He died from pneumonia two years later at 37.
DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1931) — Several actors have taken on this plum dual role, including John Barrymore, Boris Karloff and Jack Palance. No one did it better than Fredric March, who won an Oscar for his efforts, in this classic, though Spencer Tracy came a close second in the 1941 version.
ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1932) — Charles Laughton chewed up the scenery as Dr. Moreau, a madder than mad scientist who has created a race of half-human, half-beast mutants. Burt Lancaster and Marlon Brando played the evil doc in two vastly inferior remakes.
MARATHON MAN (1976) — Laurence Olivier was scarier than a case of gingivitis as Dr. Christian Szell, a deranged dentist and fugitive Nazi war criminal who gives Dustin Hoffman a checkup he won’t soon forget.
— Daniel Bubbeo