The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) continues expanding with an ever-growing cast of heroes and villains. 2016’s “Doctor Strange,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the titular Strange, offers a refreshingly different origin story. Boasting quite possibly the finest visuals seen in a comic book adaptation yet, “Doctor Strange” is a near perfect superhero flick.
The sorcerer Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) infiltrates the Kamar-Taj complex, decapitates the librarian, and steals a ritual from a sacred book. The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a powerful sorcerer who teaches at Kamer-Taj and instructed Kaecilius, pursues the thieves, but they escape. Meanwhile, Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch), a renowned neurosurgeon loses the use of his hands in a near-fatal car crash. Former romantic partner and fellow doctor Christina Palmer (Rachel McAdams) attempts to convince Strange to abandon the pursuit of regaining the use of his hands, but to no avail.
Driven to find a cure, Strange is instructed to visit Kamar-Taj by Jonathon Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt), a paraplegic who regained the ability to walk. Strange encounters the Ancient One, and another sorcerer Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Under the careful guidance of Mordo and the Ancient One, Strange transforms into a sorcerer, eventually joining forces with his fellow sorcerers to prevent Kaecilius from sacrificing earth to the powerful villain Dormammu (Cumberbatch as well).
“Doctor Strange” is pure, unadulterated origin story. While it’s definitely connected to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole, “Doctor Strange” centers solely on Strange. There’s a brief shot of Tony Stark’s Avengers Tower, as well as a conversational reference to The Avengers. Where “Captain America: Civil War” feels like another “The Avengers” film, “Doctor Strange” opts to center entirely on Strange. Plus, “Doctor Strange” opts for a mystic, not scientific, narrative. It’s more akin to “Thor,” but even more fantastical.
However, the most substantial MCU connection comes a la a powerful relic, the Eye of Agamotto. Librarian Wong (Benedict Wong) mentions that the Eye is an infinity stone. From several post-credits scenes, as well as films including “Guardians of the Galaxy,” and “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” it’s clear that Thanos (Josh Brolin) is on a quest to obtain the Infinity Gauntlet and Infinity Stones.
As a film, “Doctor Strange” is a near masterpiece. The original score by Michael Giacchino (who also composed the Medal of Honor soundtracks) is awe-inspiring. Cumberbatch plays Stephen Strange wonderfully, evolving from cocky surgeon to lost wanderer, and finally powerful sorcerer. Swinton is delightful as always, stealing nearly every scene she’s in.
The visuals elevate “Doctor Strange” to another dimension. Mind-bending images channel everything from “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Akira,” to “Inception.” It’s simply a pretty film to watch, with hallucinatory dreamscapes, varying from eye candy to horrifying. If you have the opportunity, “Doctor Strange” is best seen in 3D.
Occasionally, “Doctor Strange” shuffles into all-too-familiar territory. Ultimately, it’s a comic book adaptation, and a few tropes do arise. Strange’s trip to Kamar-Taj hearkens back to “Batman Begins” with the classic “rich playboy undergoes transformative experience” plot line. There’s also the obvious impending emotional twist. Technical brilliance, acting, and a more esoteric vibe lend “Doctor Strange” a uniquity that ultimately prevails.
Yet “Doctor Strange” is loaded with plenty of originality to offset minor predictability, and its 115 minute runtime feels over far too soon. Arriving after a long line of Marvel flicks, “Doctor Strange” posits itself as one of genre’s finest with its combo of brilliant cast, eye-popping visuals, and mysticism over science.
Pro tip: there are two post-credits scenes, and lookout for a hilarious Stan Lee cameo.