In their latest adaptation, Marvel Studios tries hard to update “Doctor Strange” for 2016 but they still saddle poor Benedict Cumberbatch with that awful skinny goatee from the original comic.
Facial hair is the triggering issue for Stephen Strange, for whom day-to-day labor is, in fact, brain surgery until he suffers a severe car accident that shreds the nerves in his brilliant hands. When he grows out a beard, it’s a sign that he can no longer operate even a safety razor. In his rage, Stephen says many regrettable things to colleague Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) and departs his old life looking for answers.
In the most bizarre passage of the film, he tracks down the only guy to have successfully recovered from such severe nerve damage, Jonathan Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt), who had a severed spine. In the miracle man’s own words, “I sat with gurus and sacred women,” and regained use of his legs using only his mind. It’s odd that he uses this mighty power just to play pickup basketball under a highway, but Stephen is sold. Jonathan tells Dr. Strange to find the answers he seeks at Kamar-Taj in the Himalayas, and Stephen immediately decides to take a late stage gap year in Kathmandu.
He arrives at a lovely hostel where West (Wi-Fi) meets East (monks) and begins training with a master called the Ancient One (an aged Nepalese played by Tilda Swinton, another instance of Marvel’s astonishing willingness to make their films even whiter than their comics). The cherubically bald Ancient One explores where the rational meets the astral plane and Strange learns to reprogram himself on a cellular level (and properly shave once more). He’s joined by fellow sorcerer Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who gives him the standard advice about entering a school devoted to exploring alternate dimensions, “Forget everything you think you know,” and Kamar-taj librarian Wong (Benedict Wong) who has the correct response to Dr. Strange’s flat pop culture jokes: silence.
The thrills of the film are all inside the fascinating but somewhat under-explored play of the images inside the Mirror Dimension, where matter is folded such that regular skyscrapers can be crunched into Frank Gehry twists of glass and back again.
Stange and crew are threatened by Kamar-taj dropout Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), another Marvel villain with huge powers gone rogue. With his rebel acolytes, he seeks the secret to eternal life, which for some reason involves wearing really fabulous eye makeup – their ocular cavities look like amethyst geodes edged with ashes. For giggles, Kaecilius has also carved a Charles Mansonesque rune between his eyebrows.
“Doctor Strange” was always an especially nerdy comic, so director Scott Derrickson relies on the cool charms of Cumberbatch, who does what he can even though he’s stripped of his jazz hands and British accent. He does sport grey hair attachments at his temples, feathered almost as exquisitely as Paulie Walnuts’ on “The Sopranos.” And he plays with some fun toys, like the Cloak of Levitation that allows flight and the Eye of Agamotto that manipulates time (these are important proper nouns requiring capitalization, like the International House of Pancakes).
Good guys and bad, battle through kaleidoscopic mandalas like more expensively done Bond film openings or adult coloring book images filled in with really expensive pens. Doctor Strange must prevent Kaecilius from his main ambition – to set free Dormammu, a despicable despot from the Dark Dimension. In that place, time doesn’t exist and everything looks like a laser tag arena – a diverting place to spend a couple hours, if not an eternity.