By Richard von Busack
Will Rogers, who was sort of the Garrison Keillor of his day, once was asked to pronounce on the future of the movies: “Run ’em backwards, it can’t hurt ’em and it’s worth a trial.” The most unusual material in the highly likable Doctor Strange is a battle scene in Hong Kong. Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a magus of great power, a rocky American accent and some little superciliousness, arrives at a typical scene of Marvel Comics civic destruction. He casts a time-reversing spell. Even as Strange fights off a small pack of evil sorcerers, the buildings reassemble in the air, burst water-mains slow to a trickle and reconnect themselves and neon signs unshatter into glittering clouds of glass and return to blazing life. It’s like the kind of housekeeping Mary Poppins once did, but on a larger, wilder scale.
In the crash of his over-powerful sports car, the talented but insufferable surgeon Stephen Strange had his hands ruined. Given a clue by a recovered patient (Benjamin Bratt), Strange heads to Kathmandu, following the path blazed by Lost Horizon’s Robert Conway, Lamont “The Shadow” Cranston and Bruce Wayne. He comes to a small monastery run by the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a Celtic sorceress who tries to persuade Strange to open his mind to the mystic world. When that doesn’t work, she shoves Strange’s astral presence right out of his body.
During Strange’s rocketing through kaleidoscopic dimensions, director Scott Derrickson (Sinister) evokes the pop-art craziness of the 1960s graphics of Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby, even as composer Michael Giacchino flaunts a little sitar and harpsichord on the soundtrack. Doctor Strange is the most drug-friendly movie in some time.
And being a little bit stoned would take some of the edge off the dialogue, such as the transition from TV medical show snark to the New Age fortune cookie affirmations offered by the Ancient One.
The movie is very much Harry Potter for adults. As a novice, Strange’s spells sputter like a defective 4th of July sparkler; as a well-trained magician he sweeps mandalas of fire into being. When you get really good at magic, you can even fold cities like origami. That one brief scene in Inception of Parisian streets rising up like drawbridges is expanded here into sequences of London and Manhattan turned inside out and upside down.