Most Marvel movies open like Robert Downey Jr.’s stand-up routine in “Iron Man” before it goes south. They deliver quips and silky come-hither nonsense, only to end up like a big green monster stuck on rewind: “Hulk smash!” again and again, ad infinitum. In between start and finish, there are moments of levity and discovery in the machined product, but too often you can’t see the movie for Marvel’s action plan. Its latest, the giddily enjoyable “Doctor Strange,” is part of Marvel’s strategy for world domination, yet it’s also so visually transfixing, so beautiful and nimble that you may even briefly forget the brand.
You don’t need to know Dr. Strange to know his story. A tale of hubris — with foolish pride and an inevitable fall — it opens in contemporary New York, where Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), is flying high as a supersurgeon. After a crippling accident, he abandons his old life (partly embodied by Rachel McAdams, dewy and funny) for a grand exploit, traveling simultaneously into his soul and to the misterioso Far East. He meets leaders and fellow travelers, studies books and unlocks secrets, in time becoming a superhero with magical powers, a dubious goatee and a flirty cape that dries his tears.
Dr. Strange first popped out of the glorious head of Steve Ditko, the comic-book visionary who brought him to life with Stan Lee (a pairing best known for Spider-Man). Dr. Strange’s travels east evoke the inner and outer magical mystery tours of the 1960s, summoning visions of head-tripping and “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” In a, well, yes, strange bit of timing, Dr. Strange appeared in 1963, around the time Harvard fired Timothy Leary and a colleague for conducting experiments with hallucinogens. Five years later, in Tom Wolfe’s “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test,” the Merry Prankster Ken Kesey was downing acid and absorbed in “the plunging purple Steve Ditko shadows of Dr. Strange.”
“Doctor Strange” tethers its plunging purples, acid greens and altered states to a hero’s journey with its call to adventure, its mentor, its allies and its enemies. After his crisis, Dr. Strange lands in Nepal, where he meets a guide (Chiwetel Ejiofor, as brooding and sincere as Hamlet). There, he studies the way of the hero with the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a Celtic sorcerer, who in the comics emerged from the Himalayas and the West’s long fascination with, and appropriation of, Eastern mysticism. (The screenwriter C. Robert Cargill has said that some of the changes involving the sorcerer, originally from Tibet, stemmed from concerns that depictions of Tibetans might anger China, a movie market powerhouse.)
Dr. Strange’s voyage of self-discovery is as old as the ancients and as familiar as Christopher Nolan’s 2005 “Batman Begins,” where men become near-gods while training amid hazy, low-key lighting. And just as Mr. Nolan borrows from the original Dr. Strange, this “Doctor Strange” borrows from Mr. Nolan. It owes a conspicuous debt to his delirious 2010 fantasy, “Inception,” and that movie’s vision of a city folding in on itself. In “Doctor Strange,” the director Scott Derrickson and his crew push the medium’s plasticity further, creating spaces that bend, splinter and multiply. A wall folds open like a spreading hand fan while cityscapes fragment into whirring, shifting fractal forms.
These impossible visions at times evoke the work of M. C. Escher, who used perspective to destabilize otherwise realistic images. Elsewhere, the movie’s pinging-ponging characters seem caught in one of Rube Goldberg’s mischievous machines, like the witty chase in which Dr. Strange runs atop a platform while an enemy runs below him upside down, transformed into a gravity-defying doppelgänger. And, as with the dreamscapes in “Inception,” the special effects in “Doctor Strange” serve beauty and meaning rather than the grimly tedious destruction that drains energy out of most contemporary superhero movies. Here, you remember the wit, not the rubble.
The space-and-time warping and mirrored realities in “Doctor Strange” are a blast. They’re inventive enough that they awaken wonder, provoking that delicious question: How did they do that? At the same time, Mr. Derrickson resists the temptation to loiter. Drawn-out set pieces have become endemic in effects-driven vehicles and can stop a movie dead as filmmakers show off their cool toys (and budget) and ignore everything else, the story and restive audience included. In the modern-era superhero movie, this kind of grandstanding has nearly assumed the level of a genre prerequisite, especially in finales that never seem to end, but end and end and end (then die).
Mr. Cumberbatch’s affable screen presence works up a strong, steady counterbeat to his character’s narcissism. As is the case when he plays characters like Sherlock Holmes, Mr. Cumberbatch comes across in this movie as at once supremely capable (it’s easy to accept him as a neurosurgeon) and more than a little goofy, with the kind of lopsided beauty and spring-loaded physicality that seem ready-made for silly faces and walks. Dr. Strange’s arrogance ruins his career, but Mr. Derrickson makes sure that it doesn’t weigh down the story. The character’s conceit is a mask that’s always in danger of slipping, which complicates his heroism with moments of bluffing, comedy and doubt.