How strange is Doctor Strange? Not very, I began to think, watching Benedict Cumberbatch in the cinema’s new Marvel Comics makeover. To any couch vegetable who used to get House visits from Hugh Laurie’s caustic, tormented small-screen medic, here is another British actor wielding a stateside accent as a sawbones with a suffering past and sarcastic presence.
Doctor Strange is huge fun for half an hour. That’s the bit in which the dashing neurosurgeon’s car is heaved off a cliff road at night — serves him right for checking his phone while driving — and injuries compel him towards Kathmandu. Only the east’s wisdom can cure his inner and outer wounds. Representing the east are Tilda Swinton’s all-seeing Ancient One, not looking a day over 500, plus Chiwetel Ejiofor’s holy-as-thou henchman, two more Brits in charge of a far-flung Marvel protectorate. Cumberbatch becomes a willing mentee, their prisoner of Zen-dom, while Mads Mikkelsen’s sneery-swashbuckling villain guests through whenever needed.
“I once stood in your place,” Ejiofor tells Cumberbatch, presumably referring to their last screen meeting. In Twelve Years a Slave the black actor was the star and the white actor gnawed on supporting-role scraps. Sic transit racial movie revolutions. Never mind. Both are soon in supporting mode here, as well as Tilda and Mads, to the sporadic assault of spectacular imagery. With mystical exposition and cod philosophising growing by the minute, our senses are gratefully rescued by flashy fits of special effects. In Imax 3D these mind-mountain moments — projections of our hero’s new warrior imagination — are pretty stupendous. Characters whirl though an inner space made outer, its cosmic peaks and caverns gnawed by fangs of nightmare, its whirly colours coming from some ice-cream parlour of the opiated mind, as if daydreamed by a modern Coleridge.
Whenever we return to the dialogue, interest burns up on re-entry. It’s a fretting, frustrating alternation for audiences. But in case they want more, and some will, the end credits are interrupted by a scene teaser-trailering Doctor Strange Part 2.