Comic book publishers, especially those with a huge interlaced continuity (which, to be fair, is pretty much all of them) have a tendency to employ a house style across their line of titles. Designed to solidify narrative consistency with visual consistency, house style was particularly dominant when comics were at their most popular from the 60s through the 90s. Different artists would have different flourishes, but for the most part, a Marvel book looked like a Marvel book and a DC book looked like a DC book. When forging their blockbuster shared universe of superhero films, Marvel Studios and lead guru Kevin Feige brought the house style concept along for the ride, giving the Marvel Cinematic Universe films a visual template that would remain from project to project even though so many different directors and cinematographers would be handling the films. And for the most part, that's remained true, even when considering the biggest departures in setting and tone (Guardians of the Galaxy and the first Iron Man still feel of a piece with each other). Part of the reason this has been so easy to pull off is that, no matter how far flung the powers and settings may be, everything remained corporeal. That's all changed now thanks to Doctor Strange.
The world of Doctor Strange is one of magic, of weapons conjured from thin air, of parallel dimensions where the laws of physics and nature are mere suggestions. It doesn't start that way, though. After a table setting cold open that gives a taste of what is to come, the first act of Doctor Strange is more an episode of ER than a superhero beat-em-up. Dr Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) has his title due to being one of the foremost surgeons in his field, able to perform delicate brain surgery while being quizzed on the name and release date of random songs. This human Shazam app has the cocksure swagger of someone who knows without question he is the best, and isn't afraid to hide it even if it pushes away colleagues like Christine (Rachel McAdams). A car accident entirely of his own making takes away those perfect hands, however, and the man who bases his entire identity on the swoop of an expert scalpel can no longer perform his magic. Stricken, and frustrated by physical therapy that offers no results, Strange travels the world before landing in Nepal on a tip from a spinal paraplegic who regained the ability to walk. Strange soon discovers a world of magic he scarcely believes true, but soon learns to harness the power under the tutelage of The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and Baron Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). As Strange learns the mystic arts, the sorcerers come under fire from Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who has forged a compact with an evil being of the dark dimension.
So they fight. It is a superhero movie, after all.
Narratively and tonally, Doctor Strange is right where Marvel Cinematic Universe films always are. It tells an origin story capably, features a villain with a similar if theoretically stronger powerset as the hero to be overcome by a combination of wit and guile, and features quippy dialogue that often cuts the tension right when things get too dire (even monastic societies have wifi passwords, it seems). Everything that happens between the cold open and the end credits stinger is expected, leaving it to director Scott Derrickson to try to find something to differentiate his film from the dozen Marvel movies that came before. Derrickson came from horror, so many expected that sensibility to inform how he would approach the material, but there isn’t much horror to speak of beyond a few well-placed jump scares. Instead, Derrickson and his crew turn Doctor Strange into a psychedelic smorgasbord, each trip into the astral plane or any sort of reality-bending dimension being treated as 2001: A Space Odyssey’s “Beyond the Infinite” segment pushed beyond even Kubrick’s limits. Inception-like folding cities and rotating corridors are commonplace, but the film really takes off when it leaves everything earthly behind, generating wild kaleidoscopes of color and impossible images, the endless abilities of computer animation and artistic imagination brought to the giant screen. It’s mighty impressive stuff, but perhaps most important of it all is it feels surprisingly weighty for sequences built entirely within computers. There are a few moments when that CG body double who is a little too much of a rag doll rears its head again (and superhero movies have been struggling with this since Spider-Man), which is the worry when everything isn’t real, but this feels like a notable step forward in the visuals department for both Marvel and superhero blockbusters as a whole.
Cumberbatch’s Strange is cut out of the Gregory House mold, prickly and cocksure and thoroughly uninterested in the feelings and opinions of his colleagues. It thus falls to The Ancient One and Mordo to smack some sense and humility in him, which he takes to (eventually, when the plot demands it). Cumberbatch isn’t a blow away star here or anything, but he looks the part and is perfectly adequate as a lead. Ejiofor is more set up for the sequel, which is a bit disappointing for an actor of his caliber, but he does what he can with what he’s given. Perhaps most let out in the cold is McAdams; there’s essentially nothing to her character beyond a pretty standard undeveloped love interest that has been so popular in modern action films, another example of the MCU narrative proclivities showing through.
Most impressive, though, are Swinton (no surprise there) and Mikkelsen. Mikkelsen’s performance is especially notable, as his character follows in the grand tradition of utterly uninteresting superhero villains with vague backstories and vaguer motivations, hell bent on destroying the world for not all that good of reasons. But Mikkelsen is an old pro at playing baddies, and his serene confidence and conviction make him an interesting presence on the screen, even though his character never is. Swinton has a similar serenity to her foil, her hairless appearance making her a sort of pale lantern in the dark, an old soul but not a stuffy one. She is responsible for bringing some of that MCU levity to the table (it’s a very Joss Whedon character), and delivers it well, Most importantly, she succeeds in disarming Strange, in breaking down his preconceived notions and penetrating his skeptical armor. Her presence, as well as Mikkelsen’s elevation of his underwritten antagonist, make the story of Doctor Strange feel far more engaging than the sum of its familiar parts.
Doctor Strange could have (and perhaps should have) been another Thor: The Dark World, Marvel’s most execrable misstep so far. Structurally, it is very similar to the second Thor vehicle, with a carbon copy villain with a silly name and nothing narratively exciting to him and a story involving parallel worlds that leads to mind-bending conclusion. Yet Scott Derrickson manages to deftly sidestep nearly every pitfall that fell Thor: The Dark World, and while Doctor Strange certainly isn’t flawless (it continues Marvel’s biggest continuing flaw - undermining its own stakes - in a pretty frustrating way), it feels so much fresher, with a better actor to play his silly villain and the conviction to break all the visual rules set forth in the MCU for something far more grand and rich than anything that has come before. The mystic realm is an entirely different beast than anything Marvel has done to this point, and Derrickson, Feige and the rest of the Marvel brain trust deserve credit for shrugging off the visual house style and letting their imaginations run wild. Underneath the layers of visual excitement, Doctor Strange is the same sort of movie Marvel Studios has been making since 2008. But the approach to the material feels fresh enough to cover up the wrinkles.