‘Doctor Strange’ bends the limits of visual splendor

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Marvel Studios’ fourteenth entry to their cinematic universe “Doctor Strange,” follows neurosurgeon, Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a successful, yet arrogant man who loses the use of his hands after a severe car accident.

When Western medicine fails him, he travels to Nepal in hopes of finding a way to fix his hands. He gets more than he was expecting when he meets the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a Celtic mystic, who introduces Strange to the hidden world of magic and alternate realities and dimensions. Enchanted by this new discovery, Strange trains with the Ancient One and her top student, Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), to increase his potential in life.

Strange is then forced into facing one of the Ancient One’s former students-gone-rogue, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who believes the Ancient One to be a hypocrite and wants to disrupt the natural order of time. Strange and company try to stop Kaecilius before he’s able to unleash chaos.

The film is one of the most visually striking and awe inspiring films of the year, if not of the last six years when “Inception” was released. The scene where the Ancient One shows Strange the parallel dimensions is the most psychedelic sequence in a major blockbuster release enhanced by a spectacular IMAX 3D presentation.

Marvel Studios’ producer, Kevin Feige, made the right choice in hiring Scott Derrickson (“The Exorcism of Emily Rose” and “Sinister”) for the directing chair. Derrickson hasn’t worked on a large-scale film since the mediocre 2008 remake of “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” but he had the right take on how to present the trippy imagery of the comics to a major audience. His previous work in the horror genre sneaks its way in a few brief moments, but it never distracts from the mystical and playful tone as seen in previous Marvel films.

Derrickson’s biggest struggle is with disruptive exposition and shooting up-close fistfights. Obviously it’s a challenge to find ways of organically explaining different realms and magical spells to an audience who isn’t familiar with this world. It’s not as bad as “The Last Airbender,” but it could’ve been improved. As with most of the close-up battles, it was not smart to shoot these fights in tight shots when characters are using glowing whips/shields and giant glass blades that obscure the actors’ faces and the frame.

Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Strange could be compared to Robert Downey Jr.’s take on Tony Stark in “Iron Man.” He thinks is the best at anything and he will take every opportunity to show it off. His ego gets in the way of his potential relationship with co-worker Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). After the car accident, he feels worthless when he can’t return to his medical position. While his training and transformation into the Sorcerer Supreme is unfortunately rushed — possibly to avoid comparisons to Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins” — once he dons the Cloak of Levitation, a sentient artifact, he effortlessly embodies the character.

With all the fun the film provides, it also continues the disappointing trend of Marvel’s bland antagonists. Mikkelsen is a brilliant actor, as seen in “NBC’s Hannibal,” “Casino Royale” and “The Hunt,” which makes it even more of a shame that his character didn’t have much depth.

His backstory and “motivation” is clichéd, which would’ve been okay if we could’ve seen more of his transformation to the dark side to understand his choice. Even with these shortcomings, Mikkelsen gives everything he can into his performance and is more active than most Marvel villains — especially Corey Stoll’s Yellowjacket from last year’s “Ant-Man.”

There’s no way to talk about this film without addressing the controversial casting of Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One. While she does a fine job in the film, it is disappointing that this is another case of Hollywood’s whitewashing. Granted, the original comic character was a Fu Manchu stereotype and the creative team wanted to move away from that, but it wasn’t smart to cast the actress who was pale enough to play the White Witch in “The Chronicles of Narnia.”

“Doctor Strange” is a must see for fans of the comic book film genre and for audiences wanting to experience something on the biggest screen possible. If “Deadpool” didn’t get released earlier this year, then this would’ve been the year’s best comic book film. As always, stay in your seats when the credits start for some special teases as to what’s to come next in the MCU.