Thanks to Doctor Strange, capes, graying temples, oversized medallions, and mystical mumbo jumbo are back in style. Which means your crazy uncle can finally return to Thanksgiving dinner without a police escort, and a visit to your local multiplex may be in order.
Doctor Strange, Marvel Studios' 14th comic-book feature, whirls with yin and yang duality. For every risky tic or labyrinthine chase sequence in the magical evolution of Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), director Scott Derrickson (Sinister) rips a crumpled page from the Marvel playbook. Like Strange's "mirror-verse," where sorcerers cast spells and warp time without impacting our physical realm, his comic-book vehicle delivers bursts of psychedelic wonder with little lasting effect. Doctor Strange is wild on the surface and straitlaced at the core, like that friend who smokes pot once and swears he's hallucinating pink elephants. Or your uncle before he started wearing that cape?
That doesn't mean Doctor Strange isn't for you. Here's what you have to ask yourself before crossing over to this plane of moviedom.
Can you deal with one more superhero origin story?
Doctor Strange exists outside Marvel's main Avengers saga while still setting the mega-franchise up for a soft reboot. Cumberbatch plays Strange as a sardonic, self-obsessed surgical genius who discovers the healing art of multiverse-bending after losing use of his hands in a horrific car accident. He's Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man with flaring runes instead of plasma blasters, an A-hole in need of superheroic redemption, a leader-type ready to take up a multi-picture mantle.
And like Tony Stark, Strange spends his two-hour introduction climbing from the bottom, crippled and resisting anything outside his medical purview, to the top, the magic-wielding "Sorcerer Supreme," Earth's only hope for defeating Kaecilius (Hannibal's Mads Mikkelsen), a spellcaster with a chip on his shoulder. (And in his eyes? Magic is weird.) There are quips, there are training sessions with the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), two stoic reality-benders from Kathmandu, and there are emotional beats where an underwritten romantic interest -- in this case, Strange's fellow surgeon Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) -- tells the hero he needs to be his true self. Doctor Strange's most dangerous spell is déjà vu.
Do you have the metabolism to process hardcore nerdisms?
Everything in Doctor Strange has a name, and keeping up with the who/what/where/when can be a chore for casual multiplexers. There's the "sling ring," Strange's spellcasting bling; the Eye of Agamotto, a device that allows the sorcerer to wind back history like an egg timer; Dormammu of the Dark Dimension, a celestial, sentient cloud that Kaecilius -- the name equivalent of "Rural Juror" -- hopes will devour our plane of reality; and about eight tons of faux-interdimensional speak, whispered by Swinton with such ethereal cadence that it might as well be Tolkien's Elvish -- it just drifts through your ears. If you've spent any portion of your life reading comic books, memorizing the Dungeons & Dragons monster manual, or plowing through World of Warcraft, the oddities of Doctor Strange will come naturally to you. If acceptable forms of "magical fiction" extend to Game of Thrones and David Blaine specials, you may want to catch Doctor Strange with subtitles. And you thought talking raccoons were crazy.
Were you negatively affected by Pokémon's strobing effects?
As our hero delves deeper and deeper into the arcane art of astral transcendence, Doctor Strange pushes the boundaries of visual coherency by rotating, refracting, and boring down into recognizable landscapes. When the Ancient One first "enlightens" Strange, the surgeon collapses inward through a black hole, drifting between quantum and universal spaces, tripping balls in lush 3D. Later, New York streets become sides of a Rubix cube, Kaecilius having his Inception way with the pursuing doctor. Strange can go crazy too; a mansion corridor spirals like a kaleidoscope as the sorcerer fends high-kicking assailants off with an energy whip. Like cartoonist Steve Ditko's prismatic Doctor Strange illustrations from the 1960s, the movie will twist your brain in knots -- no pharmaceuticals required.
Is action your priority when watching an action movie?
For all the whiz bam boom provided by world-inverting magic, Doctor Strange struggles to compete with the excitement of Captain America or Iron Man. Two minutes of shattering London into a fractal of platforms for Super Mario Tilda Swinton to bounce across is breathtaking. Five minutes devolve into a screensaver. When Derrickson scales down, a needed breath from the crazy, he can't summon the mano-a-mano side of Doctor Strange. Close-quarter battles suffocate guys like fighter-actor Scott Adkins, whose martial-arts skills could pump adrenaline into the special-effects-heavy movie. There are serious thrills in Doctor Strange, but it isn't an action movie.
Do you identify as a "Cumberbitch"?
A superhero movie is only as strong as its superhero, and Cumberbatch does the job. There's no time for the actor to wrestle with Strange's trauma, but he sells it. He can't forge relationships with any of the shades of humanity around him -- Mondo gives him the Wi-Fi password in one scene, so I guess they're buds -- but he pretends they're all family by the end. Snappy snark honed on Sherlock serves him, but Downey Jr. continues to be the Usain Bolt of Marvel one-liners. Cumberbatch will be passable to most and the Christopher-Reeve-as-Superman to the owners of BenedictsCumberCollective.tumblr.com.
How do you feel about cultural appropriation?
It must be said: Casting Tilda Swinton as the immortal, Celtic leader of a Nepal-based sanctuary is odd. Naming the only Asian-American actor in the film "Wong" (played by Benedict Wong) is odd. Styling the lavish costumes, magical artifacts, and tai chi-conjured spells to echo Eastern iconography, while hustling to remove the mystic beliefs from reality, is... odd. Swinton's bravado, Wong's bookish diligence, and the spectacle do impress, but Doctor Strange can't escape the comic's stereotypical origins. It's a delicate topic, one that everyone involved hoped to avert, but certain sets of eyes may not take kindly to this interpretation.
Are you invested in the ongoing exploits of The Avengers?
"Doctor Strange will return" reads the movie's final title card. A pair of post-credit stingers tease just how he'll do it, tying the sorcerer directly to characters we know. If you want to keep up with the upcoming Marvel slate -- that's Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017), Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017), Thor: Ragnarok (2017), Black Panther (2018), Avengers: Infinity War (2018), Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018), Captain Marvel (2019), and an untitled fourth Avengers sequel in 2019 -- then you don't have much of a choice: You're seeing this damn movie. Cumberbatch is the reason you don't have to feel too bad about it.
Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.