Although Doctor Strange’s aesthetic cues run the cinematic gamut—mid-century sci-fi, grimy kung fu, Japanese New Wave horror—its blend of psychedelic, M.C. Escher-inspired optical illusion is most directly indebted to Stanley Kubrick and Christopher Nolan. That’s an especially icy pair, and those two only barely got away with their respective gambits. 2001 earned its bursting, psychedelic abstraction by breaking with the monotony of its director’s rigid formalism; Inception sped on the over-clocked thrill of movement and the movies.
That Doctor Strange comes from a guy whose resume centerpiece is the Keanu Reeves-led remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still (buffeted by roughly a half-dozen C-grade horror titles) is proof that either Marvel has learned something from the Russo brothers or that the studio is the reincarnation of the studio system at its most anonymous.
Given Strange‘s devotion to ersatz Eastern mysticism, I’m leaning toward the latter. Marvel has famously pounded its product into homogenized swill, leaving the twisted bodies of the broader personalities who’ve dared approach in its wake. (See: Edgar Wright and Ant-Man.) Visually, Doctor Strange is something else entirely—an exceptionally distinct break from a house style defined by uniform competence. With the movie’s rotating corkscrew geometry and hallucinogenic detours into outer space, there’s a sense of daring in Doctor Strange missing in the studio’s A-tier, journeyman efforts.
Not that daring is everything. These movies have thrived on craftsmanship and quality control, especially in terms of choreography; Captain America: Civil War only reached knockout-status once its characters started knocking each other out. Perhaps fittingly, Doctor Strange is flipped—the conflict is a daze, the framing is ecstatic. Backgrounds bend and fold while crosshatches slice the foreground. The movie approaches Robert Zemeckis-levels of spatial ingenuity and all but demands to be seen in three dimensions.
Given the movie’s spare-parts design, it’s also fitting is Doctor Strange doesn’t add up to much. It’s a digital contraption: all of the kinetic beauty of a Swiss watch, none of the clacking weight. That’s probably for the best—the movie resoundingly rejects science in favor of mystic claptrap. Earlier Marvel efforts like The Winter Soldier proudly sported a fuzzy topicality, but comparing the latest Captain America to Alan Pakula is a lot easier to do in July; this close to Election Day, Doctor Strange‘s anti-elitist posture isn’t as enticing.
Those awkward attempts at larger relevance have distracted the series from what it does best: move. And as Marvel moves into its latest phase, those gestures reveal a kind of empty-headedness that may be the studio’s worst fear: that these movies aren’t as smart they’re supposed to be. But with Doctor Strange, they’ve never looked better.
Doctor Strange. Directed by Scott Derrickson. Written by Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Rachel McAdams. Opens in Kansas City November 4, 2016.