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Marvel's "Doctor Strange" is as surreal and psychedelic as a blockbuster movie is likely to get and is the best introduction to a new superhero Marvel Studios has ever created.
Stephen Strange (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) is a New York neurosurgeon who is as skilled as he is arrogant. That all changes when a car crash leaves his hands disfigured, unable to wield a scalpel. After exhausting all the resources of Western medicine, and ticking off fellow surgeon and ex-girlfriend Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), Strange travels to Kathmandu, Nepal, to find a place called Kamar-Taj, where he's been told miracles can happen.
What Strange finds is Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a monk who advises him to "forget everything you think you know." Strange meets the supreme sorceress of Kamar-Taj, called The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who shocks him by showing him his astral body and revealing to him multiple parallel universes that look like the black-light posters in a stoner's dorm room.
Strange hones his skills with Mordo and The Ancient One, believing that the mystic arts can help him heal his hands and get back to his swinging New York life. But The Ancient One and Kamar-Taj's warrior-librarian Wong (Benedict Wong) tell him that these powers should be applied to a higher purpose: to protect Earth from Dormammu, the ruler of the Dark Dimension, and his followers such as The Ancient One's former protégé Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who is wreaking havoc on Kamar-Taj's outposts in London, New York and Hong Kong.
Director Scott Derrickson (who helmed the horror story "Sinister" and the remake of "The Day the Earth Stood Still") dives into the good Doctor's trippy journey. Inspired by the '60s artwork of co-creator Steve Ditko, Derrickson creates some of the craziest images in the Marvel universe, such as a visit to the "mirror dimension," where skyscrapers twist and skylines fold in on themselves like an M.C. Escher lithograph gone berserk. (This is a rare instance where springing for the IMAX 3-D is worth it.)
Derrickson and his "Sinister" writing partner C. Robert Cargill, rewriting Jon Spaihts' first script, mix in mystical notes and some sly humor into the action-packed story. The best source of comic relief is Dr. Strange's cape, The Cloak of Levitation, which has a mind of its own.
Cumberbatch, svelte and magisterial (and rocking the American accent), gives Strange the necessary severe gravity to the character's heroic profile. Swinton brings a puckish charm to The Ancient One that nearly overcomes the controversy over her casting. (The character was a Fu Manchu-style Asian stereotype in the original comics and has been "whitewashed" as Celtic for the movie, creating a no-win situation that will anger all sides.)
For all its hallucinatory qualities, "Doctor Strange" also fills its role as another chapter of the grand story of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (Stay all the way through the credits to see how.) With the good doctor on call, that universe just got a whole lot bigger.
The newest addition to Marvel's roster of movie heroes gets a splashy, surreal introduction.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Friday, Nov. 4.
Rating • PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action throughout and an intense crash sequence.
Running time • 115 minutes.