Stunning visual effects and great performances save ‘Doctor Strange’

Benedict Cummberbatch plays Doctor Strange, a mystical Marvel superhero in the film by the same name now playing in theaters. (Illustration by Alexandra Ehrler)

Combine a dash of comic book heroism, a pinch of Eastern mysticism, a heaping helping of stunning CGI visual effects and a cornucopia of A-list actors, and the result is this year’s most anticipated superhero blockbuster, “Doctor Strange.”

However, Marvel’s creative team clearly had trouble translating some of the stranger facets of “Dr. Strange’s” source material, resulting in a slow start with a brick wall of exposition, but one that is clearly worth climbing over and plunging into a stunning and psychedelic sensory experience that is the film’s second half.

The film’s overload of exposition begins with the introduction of Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a hotshot brain surgeon whose celebrity in the medical world has left him cocky and narcissistic.

This changes when Strange gets into a car accident while speeding and looking at case files on his phone. The accident leaves him unable to work.

Devastated, Strange travels to Nepal in hopes that an ancient spiritual sect can help heal his injuries.

There Strange meets The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), an all-knowing sorceress who agrees to teach Strange how to harness the spiritual energy of the multiverse. However, Strange soon finds himself pulled into a world of mind-bending mystery, danger and temptation as he begins to discover the secrets within the universe and within himself.

Although this plot may seem deceptively simple, like the universe within the film itself, it is not. There are too many details weighing the plot down and the film gets lost within itself as a result. There is just a bit too much padding here that makes the beginning of “Dr. Strange” difficult to get through.

Another aspect that makes the film drag is that Doctor Strange himself is so utterly unlikeable in the first half of the film. Audiences will have trouble identifying with or feeling sympathy when the self-obsessed millionaire as*hole falls from grace.

This seems to be more of a symptom of the script than of the performance. Cumberbatch attempts to inject a bit of humanity into his character with his clever witticisms and winning smile, but the character is ultimately too annoying to win us over until the second act after Swinton’s Ancient One arrives to spice things up. Swinton is a standout here, effortlessly blending interesting philosophical ideas (especially for a superhero film) with compelling badassery.

The second act is where the film drops its extra padding and finally embraces action and excitement. After Strange becomes comfortable with his powers, the film is finally able to explore the depths of its many universes.

The result is a series of action sequences that are as visually engrossing as they are exciting. I may even go as far to say that “Doctor Strange” may be the modern pinnacle of computer generated effects. It is incredible to watch as cityscapes bend in impossible angles as the sweeping cameras catch the actors running up the sides of skyscrapers, battling it out with supernatural splendor.

As a result, “Dr. Strange” makes up for the heavier aspects of its characters and plot in favor of grand and marvelous action sequences that might just revolutionize popcorn movies as we know them.