By now, it should be clear that any Marvel movie should not be underestimated. The success of superhero films has changed Hollywood, making them reliant on blockbuster adaptations of popular comic book heroes and adventures. Yet Doctor Strange still seemed like a risky venture for the studio.

Even though Marvel made hugely successful movie franchises out of second-tier superheroes like Iron Man and Thor, and even fourth-tier characters such as Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange seems to belong in that third tier of popularity and cultural awareness. The Sorcerer Supreme has nowhere near the profile of Spider-Man or even Captain America, but certainly had a strong following among comic book fans and Marvel Comics readers.

(Some might argue with my third-tier slotting for the good Doctor. During my comic book-reading childhood, Strange was more of a cult character, but he’s become a rather important figure for the Marvel Universe in recent years, and figures to be key in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.)

Clearly, that doesn’t matter anymore. The Marvel brand is more powerful than any character or story choice that the studio might make, and is certainly trusted by diehard fans and general audiences. It also doesn’t hurt when Marvel loads one of its films up with an outstanding cast, and Doctor Strange might have one of the best yet.

Benedict Cumberbatch has grown a large following with the success of the BBC’s Sherlock and a variety of lead and supporting movie roles. Tilda Swinton is an Academy Award-winning actress. Chiwetel Ejiofor has been nominated for an Oscar. And Mads Mikkelsen is about to become a rather familiar face (if he wasn’t already for pop culture’s famed cannibal serial killer on NBC’s Hannibal) with his part in this film, in addition to December’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Each of the players does outstanding work here, elevating what could be viewed as a relatively standard superhero origin story. If there’s one knock against Doctor Strange, it’s that the story feels familiar. Brilliant neurosurgeon Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) has a wildly lucrative career and enormous ego, but is humbled when he suffers an accident that costs him his renowned skills. Seeking a cure for the injuries that have rendered his hands so feeble and painful that writing his name and shaving have become enormously difficult, he eventually looks in unconventional directions.

That takes him to Nepal and The Ancient One (Swinton), who sees the potential that Strange’s vast intelligence and relentless drive provide him. But that ego and his rational, scientific mind get in the way, preventing Strange from letting go and accepting abilities, forces and dimensions beyond conventional human understanding. (For Marvel, this is also letting go creatively, in trying to come up with the plausibly realistic explanation for extraordinary people and circumstances that was once necessary to make superhero movies more palatable to mainstream audiences.)

Once Strange accepts that there is a far bigger world than the one he’s worked his whole life to dominate and control, once he accepts that he’s capable of fighting for something more than himself, he develops into a heroic figure capable of protecting the planet from sinister mystical threats. Some will likely draw comparisons to Warner Brothers/DC Films’ 2011 Green Lantern, and there are some parallels with the story and character arcs here. The crucial difference may be that Doctor Strange does a far better job of establishing and utilizing its villain while also pointing to a far greater adversary, one that will surely factor into sequels and other Marvel movies.

Another significant difference is that the visual effects and action scenes are far better in terms of design and execution. Digital effects are always going to advance, so perhaps it’s a bit unfair to compare Doctor Strange to Green Lantern in that regard, but Ryan Reynolds’ CGI suit looked so goofy and ill-conceived (which Reynolds poked fun at in Deadpool, as many fans cheerfully remember) that it was difficult to get past. There’s no such problem here, as Strange’s costume (designed by Alexandra Byrne) is faithful to its comic book roots, but appropriately nods to the Eastern philosophies and attire that are fundamental to the story and its setting. As a result, Doctor Strange avoids feeling like a superhero movie because it doesn’t look like one.

However, the visual effects do far more than costuming and set design to distinguish this film from the 13 previous Marvel movies. The sequences shown in the trailers look influenced by the folding cityscapes and warped perspectives Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010), but those previews only hint at what you’ll see in the full film. Both the Ancient One and her top pupil Mordo (Ejiofor), who becomes Strange’s mentor and partner, mention several times that there is a natural law that must be protected. Yet with the constantly shifting, kaleidoscopic perspectives and fluid vistas, natural law most certainly does not apply to these characters and the power they’re tapping into.

If there’s a movie to shell out extra money for the 3D or IMAX tickets this year, this is probably the one for which to do it. (I didn’t see it in 3D and plan to see it again on the biggest screen near me with those clunky glasses on my face.) You really haven’t seen a film like this before, let alone a Marvel superhero movie. What might be even more impressive about the visuals is that the actors blend in with those environments so well. Nothing looks obviously digital and made out of pixels. Cumberbatch, Mikkelsen and Ejiofor really do seem to be standing, running and fighting on vertical surfaces, which just shouldn’t be possible. Yet it looks entirely possible, though obviously extraordinary on screen.

For me, skepticism toward Marvel making a third-tier character into a blockbuster was compounded by the choice of Scott Derrickson as director. I wasn’t a fan of The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Deliver Us From Evil or most especially, his awful 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still. But that movie showed talents and ambitions beyond the horror genre. Apparently, he just needed the right project to show what sort of movie he was truly capable of making. Besides the flashy visuals, Derrickson also directs some impressive action that is dynamic and completely coherent, despite the circumstances. This is not just actors standing in front of a blue screen, waving their arms and contorting their hands, which was my worst fear for a Doctor Strange movie.

If you’re a fan of the original Doctor Strange comic books and wondered if Steve Ditko’s trippy, psychedelic illustrations could be translated to the screen, the answer is emphatically yes. This truly is a Doctor Strange comic book come to life, which is the best any fan could have hoped to see.

Yet the script by Derrickson, Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill also makes this an exciting, contemporary story that doesn’t get too weird like some of those old Marvel Comics (with writers and artist clearly influenced by illicit substances) did. The dialogue is witty and the narrative keeps moving, even when it takes the main character a while to find his purpose.

Doctor Strange was truly a pleasant surprise, one I’m eager to experience again, and yet another reminder that Marvel is very, very good at this stuff. We’ll be seeing plenty more from these characters and their world.

About Ian Casselberry

Ian is a writer, editor, and podcaster. You can find his work at Awful Announcing and The Comeback. He's written for Sports Illustrated, Yahoo Sports, MLive, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation.

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