Doctor Strange ★★★★½

Dr. Strange, the latest film from the behemoth Marvel Cinematic Universe, goes back to the origin story well for a film about a brilliant yet arrogant surgeon whose career is cut short when a car wreck claims the use of his hands. Where Thor and Guardians of the Galaxy opened the door for Marvel to explore the cosmic side of their characters, Dr. Strange opens the world up to the mystical, as Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) travels the world in desperation for extreme and unorthodox means to heal himself.

Despite following a very typical superhero origin narrative that feels part Iron Man, part Batman Begins, Dr. Strange is so inventive it leaps from the screen like a breath of fresh air in a year when blockbusters have been almost wholly disappointing. Director Scott Derrickson (Sinister, The Exorcism of Emily Rose) brings a barrage of visual techniques to the table, making full use of a story about characters with the ability to alter space and time. These sorcerers fight among society, but inside a mirror dimension that allows for the world as we know it to be warped and bent in on itself at their will, all without the knowledge of the muggles passing by. Derrickson cleverly utilizes the fine lines between these worlds, such as during a fight scene between two astral projections within a physical space, and a climax during which the physical world rewinds in slow motion around characters who fight in real time. There is Strange's surreal introduction to dimensions beyond perception during which Strange spins out into space and then through a series of progressively more bizarre and haunting images. The visuals in the trailers have drawn comparisons to Inception, but with set pieces that render the world as an M.C. Escher brought to life, this is really on a whole other level from that film or really anything in the Marvel canon so far.

Cumberbatch is well-suited for the role, and I can't knock anything he's doing here other than the casting being maybe so perfect as to feel uninspired. Having seen the film I'm even more convinced the more interesting way to cast this would have been with Ethan Hawke in the title role. I wish the film had gone to a little more care with Strange's personal struggle to become a sorcerer and a better person, as it feels a bit lacking in drama, but the film's pacing overall is great. There is room for character interactions that breathe, memorable and diverse set pieces, and great supporting presences from Chiwetel Ejiofor committing like he's going for an Oscar, Benedict Wong who steals the show like Michael Peña in Ant-Man, and Tilda Swinton who at this point should just be cast in every role ever.

The film has the typical Marvel issue in which Mads Mikkelsen's villain is unremarkable despite the actor's charisma, but the exterior threat in the Marvel Universe is always more ancillary than the personal demons threatening to keep the heroes from saving the world. While on the surface Strange feels an awful lot like Tony Stark, the central theme at work here is faith, and the willingness to admit that others might be not just more knowledgeable but actually better-suited for a task. Strange is the master of his own universe, but it is only in being willing to accept the limits of his own worldview that he is able to gain the skills needed to heal not just his body but his soul.

Dr. Strange is right up their with Iron Man and Captain America: The First Avenger as top-tier MCU origin stories.