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Second-tier superhero makes an impression
MARVEL'S cinematic universe has yielded some strange fruit before but an origins story about an egotistical neurosurgeon who is crippled in a car accident and travels East in search of salvation from a divine source just might be the most exotic of them all. Eastern mysticism, spiritual awakenings, astral dimensions and eye-popping special effects feature prominently in Doctor Strange - making it a worthwhile trip in more ways than one.
Cross-cultural exchange can be a defining experience in real life - witness say, The Beatles' much-documented stay in 1968 at an Indian ashram and subsequent introduction to Transcendental Meditation, which inspired much of the material in The White Album - while in the comic-book realm the impossibilities are endless, as the film's pithy tagline informs us.
Doctor Strange, directed by Scott Derrickson and co-written by him with C Robert Cargill and Jon Spaihts, tries mightily to live up to that claim - and often does, to entertaining effect. Doctor Strange may be a second-tier superhero in the Marvel pantheon but, as portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, he makes an excellent case for promotion.
Much has also been made of the movie's deviations from the original comic-book storyline, especially the casting of Tilda Swinton as the sage-like Ancient One - the character was changed from a Tibetan man to a Celtic mystic - but her quality performance is more than enough to render the point moot.
Instead, viewers will be discussing the mind-bending scenes reminiscent of Inception, featuring folded space and matter, characters opening portals for instant travel across the seas, and creating mandala patterns of light as weapons and shields.
Stephen Strange is an arrogant but brilliant surgeon, rather too in love with himself and his (admittedly) formidable surgical skills. It's up to fellow doctor and ex-flame Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) to keep his ego in check, but it's an impossible task - even after he crashes his Lamborghini one evening and ends up with his hands horribly damaged.
His career in tatters and unable to repair his hands through conventional medical means, Strange travels to Nepal where he meets Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) - a disciple of the Ancient One - who advises him to "forget everything you think you know". At first, the mystic arts are too foreign for Strange, but then he meets the Ancient One, a persuasive force who tells him: "I know how to reorient the spirit to better heal the body."
Strange is a fast learner and thanks to a superior intellect and a photographic memory, he laps up the required reading while also indulging in some friendly banter with Wong (Benedict Wong), the keeper of the ancient texts. He doesn't know it, but Strange is boning up on the mystic arts to do eventual battle with Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), a rogue former student who has stolen some pages from a book to conjure up a spell that, well, spells doom for planet earth.
The action criss-crosses from London to New York to Hong Kong, fuelled by abundant special effects, a sharp narrative and an ample dose of humour. The Marvel formula calls for a climactic showdown between superhero and villain but the build-up is perhaps more compelling.
Strange's transformation from a desperate, anger-driven soul to a magic-cloak-wearing, potential Sorcerer Supreme is a wild and mostly enjoyable ride. Doctor Strange may not have been anyone's favourite superhero but if he keeps this up in the next instalment, well then - the impossibilities are endless.