The mystical world of Doctor Strange, where sorcerers clash in an interstellar battle royale, unfolds in a shape-shifting, time-bending, mind-blowing flurry of special effects. The facades of buildings turn and flip like the rows of a giant Rubik's Cube. Whole cities are vacuumed into the sky like wispy clouds of lint. Temporal loops destroy and reconstitute entire neighborhoods, which are made to seem like life itself sits on tectonic plates that no one knew existed below their feet. Reality as we know it becomes as malleable as soft clay.
Digital effects have advanced to a point where the impossible is possible, but that's not entirely great news for the latest star in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Doctor Strange is a visual marvel to be sure, beyond what was remotely conceivable when Steve Ditko first introduced the character in 1963. There are sequences that combine the subconscious dreamscapes of Inception with the bullet-time action of The Matrix, and scores that are settled without respect to gravity or the distance between locations. But the hidden cost of tossing out the laws of physics is weightlessness, a nagging sense that actions have no consequences and the rules are being made up as the film goes along.
As Stephen Strange, Benedict Cumberbatch does provide a critical ballast through his quick wit and charisma alone, offering a deft variation on free-spending playboy superheroes like Iron Man and Batman. Strange practices neurosurgery at a New York hospital, but only cares to take assignments of the most exotic and lucrative nature, the ones that might land him a new Lamborghini and a magazine profile simultaneously. Strange has the hands of a surgical artist, so the Gods of Irony dutifully punish him in an accident that mashes them into flattened hams, ensuring he'll never work again.
Desperate to restore his frayed nerve endings, Strange follows a lead to Kathmandu, where he hooks up with a band of mystical warriors, including Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and The Ancient One, an all-powerful Asian master played by notable non-Asian Tilda Swinton. As Strange gains newfound abilities as a super-sorcerer, Mordo and The Ancient One are locked into a conflict with ex-disciple Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who, like many a comic-book villain, wants to destroy the earth for an obscure set of reasons.
In her fourth time-traveling movie—following About Time, The Time Traveler's Wife, and Midnight In Paris—Rachel McAdams turns up as Strange's colleague and love interest, Christine Palmer, who appears mostly when he pops into the hospital from another dimension, in need of a quick-and-discreet surgery. McAdams isn't alone in being ill-served by the film's familiar origin story, which focuses on Strange's journey from a vain, arrogant physician to a purposeful hero at the expense of most other considerations.
Director Scott Derrickson comes to Doctor Strange as a horror specialist, with credits that include The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Deliver Us From Evil, and Sinister, and he proves to be an inspired choice, a dextrous technician with a good sense of humor. Even with the fate of the entire universe at stake, Derrickson keeps the tone appealingly light and jokey, and Cumberbatch's Strange isn't so cynical that he can't thrill at discovering his spectacular capabilities and the limitless universe that opens up before his eyes.
When it comes time for Strange and Kaecilius to square off, there's no choice but to surrender to the expensive effects that swirl around them, because it's impossible to tell what's happening precisely and how much damage they're doing to each other. But surrendering isn't such a terrible option when the eye candy sparkles this brilliantly: Doctor Strange is the rare 3-D experience that's worth the upcharge, because its visual depths expand to all four corners of the frame, inviting you to swim around the space like an astronaut. Giving in to the spectacle isn't quite the same as giving up.