'Doctor Strange': Benedict Cumberbatch is peerless in this psychedelic comic book trip

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Benedict Cumberbatch as Marvel's Doctor Strange.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s hard-core fans feel a certain proprietary interest in that most-beloved Sherlock star.

So it’s understandable that they’ve been gripped by dread since the British actor decided to carry a massive Hollywood blockbuster on his shoulders with Marvel’s ambitious $165 million Doctor Strange.

To be sure, the 40-year-old British thesp has good shoulders – the sort that make some people go wobbly all over. Or so I’m told.

[Read more: Doctor Strange is from Philly]

But what if the movie were awful? What if Cumberbatch, that dreamy, witty, lanky, tall drink o’ cider, were to crash and burn?

Beathe easy: It isn’t. And he doesn’t.

Based on the character created by comic book masters Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, Doctor Strange is the 14th flick in Marvel's infernal – and apparently never-ending – orgy of spandex and CGI pretentiously called Marvel’s Cinematic Universe.

While I’m tired of the wretched tyranny of comic book flicks, I admit I liked Cumberbatch’s picture. For the most part.

A caveat: Like most of Marvel’s recent offerings, the film refuses to engage with viewers on any but the most superficial level. It’s a shame, given that Christopher Nolan’s Batman films and Zack Snyder’s Watchmen paved the way for more serious, grown-up comic fare.

Despite this, the film is surprisingly engaging. It’s fun.

Directed with devilish aplomb by Scott Derrickson (Sinister, Deliver Us From Evil), Doctor Strange is an origin story that recounts how an arrogant Manhattan surgeon named Stephen Strange was transformed into a wizened, cloak-wearing hero.

The film pains to excel in two areas often ignored by other genre entries: characterization and visual storytelling.

It has a cohesive ensemble cast. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, and Benedict Wong play Strange’s friends and allies, while Mads Mikkelsen, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Scott Adkins are his villainous enemies. And it features characters who feel, for the most part, like real people with genuine emotions. Relationships are well-drawn, particularly the ambiguous, combative emotional fencing bout Strange has with ex-lover McAdams.

True, the script and storyline aren’t exactly worthy of the Royal Shakespeare Company. But Derrickson makes up for the story’s thematic vapidity and predictable structure with exciting visuals.

The movie has a wild, rhythmic comic-book-on-acid trip feel, bursting at the seams with well-conceived and well-executed digital effects. The urban landscape, for one, constantly changes and shifts in a kaleidoscope of colors and shapes.

See, the characters in this particular part of Marvel’s world have the power to reshape objects at will – including skyscrapers and bridges. They chase one another and fight in tableaus that recall the staircases and hallways of an M.C. Escher print, visual rhymes that break apart and come back together into twisty labyrinths. True, Nolan has already mined this visual style half a dozen years ago in Inception, but it’s put to good effect by Derrickson.

The reference to psychedelic drugs isn’t gratuitous: Doctor Strange - which features a particularly luminous turn by Tilda Swinton as Strange’s teacher, an ageless Tibetan guru named The Ancient One - is about magic and magicians.

Characters don’t fight with physical weapons, but by casting spells that create swords and shields out of luminous strands of light and fire. These form patterns that recall mandalas, those ancient geometric designs found in Hinduism and recycled in the 60s by New Agers, stoners, and graphic artists.

The least interesting part of Dr. Strange is the actual story, a boilerplate comic-hero narrative we’ve seen a hundred times before.

When a car crash destroys Strange’s hands, ending his career as a surgeon, he wanders the earth for a cure. He finds so much more when he goes to a Tibetan sanctuary run by The Ancient One, a martial-arts master and magician who spouts really cool-sounding, if tiresome, New Age-y bon mots about spirituality and the soul (it’s real), reality (it’s multiple), and multiplicity (it’s good). The Ancient One and her disciples are guardians of our particular universe, which is one of an infinite number of worlds. They guard humans and plants; they guard New York and Hong Kong; and they even guard the laws of nature, the greatness of ice cream, and the infield fly rule.

Thing is, a horrible being from the Dark Dimension named Dormammu is gobbling up all the other universes like Pacman chomping down dots, cherries, and ghosts.

Besieged by evil, Strange and his buds fight to preserve reality itself. In the process, Strange learns much about his true self and his capacity for love.

Yes, Cumberbatch is awesome as Doctor Strange. But it’d be a shame if he decided to short-change Real Drama by making too many comic-book pics.


MOVIE REVIEW

Doctor Strange

2½ (Out of four stars)

Directed by Scott Derrickson. With Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Mads Mikkelsen, and Tilda Swinton. Distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

Running time: 1 hour, 55 mins.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (sci-fi violence and action throughout, and intense crash sequences).

Playing at: Area theaters.