Any other actor in a high-collared burgundy cape and goatee would risk looking like a lounge magician. But Benedict Cumberbatch is so unmannered, so smart, so playful, he makes the title character of Doctor Strange one of the best Marvel movie superheroes yet.
Stephen Strange, a neurosurgeon whose hands have been mangled in a car accident, travels to Nepal to seek out a mysterious healer, the Ancient One. She’s played by a bald Tilda Swinton with timeless wisdom and a rather alluring British reserve, something like a cross between Yoda and Anna Wintour. (This non-Asian incarnation, which prompted some media debate over whether the character was being “whitewashed,” is described vaguely yet pointedly as “Celtic.”)
What makes Cumberbatch’s performance so enjoyable — what gives it shape and comic tension — is that Strange comes to embrace the mystical, ritual and cosmic lessons of the Ancient One fully but very, very slowly. You get the sense that he regards most of his time spent with the antediluvian Celt and her disciples as a vexingly steep deductible he has to pay as a part of occupational therapy.
He’s not much nicer to Rachel McAdams, in a somewhat decorative role as a hospital colleague and confidante who tries to help the doctor get a grip on things, literally and otherwise. But here, again, Cumberbatch tempers the doctor’s arrogant brilliance with unforced charm.
With a few plot detours, the movie could evolve into an unusual rom-com with him in a tug of war between Swinton and McAdams.
Strange’s journey eventually lands him in the middle of a galaxy-spanning, dimension-warping war: His principal enemy is a former ally of the Ancient One, Kaecilius, a name that suggests a minor Roman official who might have gotten his kicks taunting gladiators. Mads Mikkelsen plays him with a stony lack of self-consciousness, even though his distractingly odd makeup makes him look as if he’d been blinking away glistening magenta tears for decades or even centuries.
Mads Mikkelsen never disappoints.
The special effects in Doctor Strange are visually richer than usual for a Marvel film. Or, to put it another way, they’re a lot more trippy. Floors, walls and rooms collapse and whirl out and away in kaleidoscopic patterns. Entire streets roll up on themselves like yoga mats — sort of like Inception, sort of like M.C. Escher. And that burgundy cape has a life (and a consciousness) of its own. You’d unfriend most of the people you know on Facebook if only that cape would accept your invitation.
Fun fun fun!
In theaters Nov. 4, PG-13.