***1/2 out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for sci-fi violence and action throughout, an intense crash sequence, and some language)
Released: November 4, 2016
Runtime: 115 minutes
Director: Scott Derrickson
Starring:  Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Mads Mikkelsen, Benedict Wong

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This is the one I’ve been waiting for.

Doctor Strange – a stunning eye-popping spectacle – takes an increasingly uninspired Marvel Cinematic Universe and, quite literally, flips it upside down before turning it inside out. It’s not often that you hear multiple, audible, reflexive “Wow”s from an audience, but that’s what happens when a movie conjures up some of the best 3D visuals ever made. There are trippy psychedelic wonders to behold in this magnificent Marvel multiverse.

More importantly, this clean, focused, and fascinating origin story isn’t bogged down by an overstuffed, under-utilized ensemble wielding its mishmash of superpowers. In every regard (cast, script, direction, and overall execution), Doctor Strange is the best Marvel movie yet – and by a considerable margin over every post-Iron Man effort.

Coming from me, a person long underwhelmed by the MCU, that declaration may not be saying much. But it also says everything.

In one of this film’s TV ads, Tilda Swinton‘s mystic guru The Ancient One asks Stephen Strange “Are you ready to fight the battles the Avengers can’t?” She was, in effect, asking the same question of us, the audience, and my own answer was a resounding, “Dear God, yes. I’ve been ready for nearly a decade.”

As someone who’s found the MCU to be little more than bland pyrotechnics – nay, a box office behemoth of high octane mediocrity that masks its risk-averse formulas with a vomitorium of digital effects (even Guardians of the Galaxy’s admirable goofy swagger quickly wore thin on my sensibilities) – Doctor Strange hits screens like a cinematic oasis in the midst of a franchise desert.

It is so refreshing to have an entire Marvel movie that is completely liberated from the confines of the MCU and its increasingly burdensome checklist. To sit down and not be one step ahead of a manufactured narrative that exists primarily to set up the next one (thus undercutting the stakes of the one you’re currently in), well, it’s an absolute thrill.

Like the title character himself, we are finally set free into a whole new world. In it, challenges that arise don’t necessarily have inevitable outcomes and, unlike the gutless special effects game of Superhero Footsie otherwise known as Captain America’s overhyped civil war, some actions actually have irreversible consequences.

In a movie that could’ve easily coasted on its visuals alone, Doctor Strange doesn’t settle for what’s marketable. The script takes the genre’s regular tropes (human gains superpowers, faces evil, defends our very existence from utter annihilation) and actually makes them fresh again. The expansive possibilities of the supernatural realm certainly help.

This isn’t a plot machine just churning out mythology, and it even doles out wisdom that goes deeper than fortune cookie triteness. “Silence your ego, and your power will rise.” Seriously, meditate on that challenging nugget for awhile. Sounds like “Die to self” to me, especially when Tilda Swinton says it.

The story is inventive and surprising; it even takes risks. Characters and narrative are both complex, and there’s a synergy between them, inextricably linked and feeding into each other. Too often, the stakes in these movies feel perfunctory, with emotional repercussions coming off as rote formulaic necessities. But here, things resonate.

Sure, this may be calculated brand expansion for Marvel honcho Kevin Feige, but for director Scott Derrickson it’s an actual legit movie with a specific sense of style (and a big assist from composer Michael Giacchino, whose themes expand the score beyond typical orchestral noise). This isn’t just another product fresh off the Marvel assembly line lacking an artistic signature.

Derrickson may borrow liberally from Christopher Nolan’s Inception, but it’s not an artless carbon copy. If anything, he expands on Nolan’s invention and makes it wholly credible to this specific hodgepodge of pseudo Eastern mysticism and its various dimensions, with several new flairs of its own.

Stephen Strange, too, may initially appear like a variation on a familiar form (namely the cocky Tony Stark) – and well, let’s face it, he is – but he’s a more laid back scientific genius, with a wit that favors off-hand sophistication over biting snark (and reportedly honed by an uncredited Dan Harmon of Community fame). Benedict Cumberbatch feels liberated, throwing off the precise dramatic formalism that’s marked his career in favor of some really sly (dare I say American) comic charm, yet still able to exert gravitas when the moment requires.

That range is seen across the entire cast. Swinton and Mads Mikkelsen are, respectively, equally formidable master and enemy. Chiwetel Ejofor brings an arresting intensity to a compelling character arc (particularly down the stretch), Rachel McAdams does some of her career-best work elevating a character fighting for screen time, and Benedict Wong is a scene stealer as the dryly comic (but still daunting) sorcerer guard of the ancient archives. In truth they’re all funny at times, not reduced to one-note stock roles.

Though inevitable, it’s still unfortunate that at some point Doctor Strange will be absorbed by the amorphous MCU and marginalized as another cog in the Avengers wheel. It will be an emasculating reduction for a character – and mythology – that deserves to stand on its own. (Thankfully we’ll get that, no doubt, as the post-credit stinger at the very end indicates, actually raising the stakes over offering up a cheap chuckle.)

In every conceivable way, Doctor Strange sets a new standard for what every Marvel movie can be. More importantly, it’s what every Hollywood blockbuster tentpole should be.

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