At the end of Doctor Strange, I realized I've been wrong to think that Marvel movies are for nerds. These blockbusters are really designed to appeal to the people who beat up nerds — they reek of overconfident cool like a jock doused in cologne. They're big and bold and swaggering, a generic aggro personality plopped on every character in the franchise like a one-size-fits-all fedora. Pop quiz: Which Avenger is the cocky-funny one? Um, all of them except Captain America and Hulk.
Marvel's film operation has never been pureblood geek. It can't afford to be; each movie needs about 35 million people to buy a ticket just to break even. That's 1,325 people for every public high school in America — they can't all be the shy kid reading comic books in the cafeteria. Let's get real: When Marvel resurrected superhero flicks with Spider-Man, they made Tobey Maguire web-sling to Nickelback.
But Doctor Strange, the story of a physician turned magician, is for that kid in the corner doodling in his notebook. For the first time, a Marvel movie draws that pencil line from dream to screen. Where the earlier films felt hard and shiny and steel-colored — the look of bashing action figures on a sidewalk — Strange is ink-smudged and obsessive. It's defiantly old-school — not the cozy, apple-scented nostalgia of the first Captain America film, but that cold, back-of-the-library whiff of eraser nubs and mold. Forget modern touchscreens: Here, even the books are locked up in chains, and instead of Nickelback, we hear an owl, a harpsichord, a tricky ’60s spy jangle, and an egghead argument about flügelhorn legend Chuck Mangione.
Except for a pivotal bit where we learn not to text and drive, lest one be forced to become an omnidimensional warlock, this story of Strange's rise to power could take place in any era. In the opening scene, we see monks in burgundy robes tiptoeing around a silent temple with their fingers pointed at the sky. Then evil wizard Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen in doom-metal eyeshadow) rips a page from one of their imprisoned spellbooks, and when the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) gives chase, we're flung through a fire portal into a 21st-century city so fast I had whiplash. Unlike most Marvel movies, which ignored civilians until the studio decided to make hundreds of collateral deaths a plot point, the Ancient One protects normos by hiding her fight behind a crystalline wall. A pane of glass shoots from her hand and spreads like a cancer. Behind it, the buildings start to move. Bricks spin, windows rotate, Greek columns march back and forth like DMZ soldiers. It's at once very, very grand and very, very small, as though the camera has shrunk to the size of a flea and climbed inside a cuckoo clock.
Behold the first glimpse of Doctor Strange director Scott Derrickson's bored-in-algebra fractals, as though he can't stop drawing lines on top of lines until the bell rings. It's Adderall perfection: During one hallway fight scene, the hardwood planks multiply and ripple across the floor as though Strange dropped a stone in a pond. When Strange meets the Ancient One on a healing quest, she teleports him to a universe where his face pops out of his own scream, a matryoshka of wailing men that looked like a cheap GIF, and I loved it all the more for its hokeyness. The cosmos is blacklight-on-black-velvet orbs of teal, red, and purple. It didn't look cool — it looked pleasingly dusty, like being at a rave at 6 a.m., right before the janitor starts sweeping. And even when the film is forced to get conventional with another megalopolis battle — one of three, as Marvel still can't think of anything more exciting than flinging someone into a skyscraper — the streets fold into cubes, the buildings flip upside-down like hanging tinsel, and the whole city gets even more compressed, like Derrickson swapped out our 3-D glasses for kaleidoscopes.
Derrickson is taking the same CG world and smashing it to bits with a hammer. In pieces, it felt new again. But there's Tony Stark's tower looming over the New York hospital where Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) yanks bullets out of dying men's heads while his ex-girlfriend and co-surgeon, Christine (Rachel McAdams, empathetic but sidelined), struggles to look unimpressed. Strange himself isn't so fresh. He's one part House M.D., a know-it-all alienated by his genius, and one part Stark himself, a successful man alienated by his ego. (The film's style is new, but close your eyes and the character sounds like all the rest.) Here's a typical exchange, spit back and forth over an operating table. Jealous physician: "You can't do it freehand!" Dr. Strange: "I can and I will." Look, every superhero can do the impossible. Do they all have to brag?
Still, Strange is no god. The film stresses study and practice, two things Thor wouldn't know if he hit himself over the head with his own hammer. The first time we see Strange, the film zooms in on his sensible navy sneakers — even Cap dresses better than that — and later, when cloaked in a blood-red cape, he's irritated. The cape's high collar flops against his cheek and he whines, "Stoooop."
It's a cheap laugh, but I liked it. Derrickson and his screenwriting team try harder than most to remember that we're supposed to be rooting for real people. When the doctor needs a spot to lick his wounds, he doesn't head to a shadowy lair — he teleports to a hospital. And when Christine gets a look at his wizard cosplay, she gasps, "What are you wearing?!" In our dimension, you can't get away with origami-folded robes unless you're, well, Tilda Swinton, who swans through the film looking fabulously herself and delivering speeches that would win her an Oscar nom in any other movie not saddled with flaming lassos. Her character's been switched from a Tibetan man to an ethereal, vaguely Celtic woman (Derrickson's effort to avoid the “Fu Manchu magical Asian” cliché of the original comics, which doesn’t solve the problem so much as evade it). The whitewashing puts Swinton in a tricky spot; her commitment is a parachute out of it.
Swinton and her sidekick, Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), are so sincere that they balance out three dozen of Dr. Strange's quips, which, like most Marvel one-liners, feel like they're aimed directly at the audience and echo back in from outside the film, like hecklers hooting when someone gets punched in the face. No one on-screen reacts, except maybe to scowl. Cumberbatch is funny — it's the most I've enjoyed him, well, ever — but his zingers push this insane contraption of a film so close to self-awareness that I feared it would collapse under their weight. And then suddenly, at the very end of the story, Strange cracked a joke and his friend Wong (Benedict Wong) giggled. I can't remember another time I've seen two Marvel characters connect over a chuckle. I adored Doctor Strange's madhouse of pixels, but that laugh was the best special effect of all.