By Jarrod Jones. Marvel has made exciting movies and it has made terrific movies (it has even made bad movies), but it’s never really made a weird movie. I mean, the entire concept of the Marvel Universe is pretty gonzo from the outset, what with its Rainbow Bridges and Cosmic Cubes ‘n’ such, so it was with great care that the studio harnessed the more out-there concepts of the Marvel Universe, embraced them, and forged a money-making template from which they could make even B-grade properties like Guardians of the Galaxy mainstream hits.

Of course with that care comes a certain amount of cinematic discipline, and with that discipline comes an unmistakable stuffiness. As freewheeling as these movies can be — plus or minus a few memorable character moments, stunning action set pieces, or a really well-placed gag — the difficult truth of the matter is that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has grown visually stagnant. (Let’s face it: Civil War was about as drab as these movies have been.) Guardians piqued our interest far more than the last Avengers ever did, mostly by virtue of being more peculiar and far more daring. And yet there was (and will always be) a monolithic franchise to consider. What to do.

Enter Doctor Strange, a wildly inventive black light poster given sentience, a Ditko-infused, flashback-inducing psychedelia that namedrops the likes of Bob Seger, Chuck Mangione, and Earth, Wind, and Fire, all while leaning on Pink Floyd to throw us into interstellar overdrive when the occasion calls for it. The energy that emanates from Strange comes from a time long past. Our grandfathers will love it.

The fourteenth film and the second in Marvel’s third Phase, Doctor Strange is as much a product as any of the films that preceded it. As a piece of art, Strange is a peculiar thing: It can’t aim for societal relevance, not when it clings to the dusty and iffy “white man finds enlightenment in the mysterious East” trope we only scarcely tolerated in Batman Begins. So instead it aims for heart and thrills, thrusting our eyeballs into incredibly realized vistas while blandly checking off the boxes of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, which places it closer to the headspace explored in Marvel’s Phase One.

Doctor Strange feels less like a Phase Three B-side and more like the first Iron Man, and it expands the MCU in a way that hasn’t felt this huge since the first Thor movie. There are clues that suggest it exists closer to those halcyon days than we realize, too: It tosses in an Iron Man 2 reference that implies that the film takes place some time before Captain America: The Winter Soldier (where Stephen Strange got his first hat tip in the Marvel Cinematic Universe). It makes the experience of cataloging these films more engaging, but for the uninitiated, that kinda crap will fly right over their heads.

Image: Marvel Studios

Image: Marvel Studios

Doctor Strange is certainly the most Disney a Marvel movie has been (even more so than Age of Ultron). Its cosmically horrifying villain turns out to be a day-glo version of Mufasa (and gets the piss taken out of it by comedy’s rules of repetition). Strange gets befriended by an animated cloak that probably goes to the same dry cleaner as Aladdin’s magic carpet. And then there’s its confident leading man, Benedict Cumberbatch, surrounded by a racially diverse cast of friends to properly introduce him to a whole new world. Doctor Strange is one musical number away from securing its own quadrant inside Disneyland.

There’s nothing really wrong about most of that — there are, however, winces to be found in Doctor Strange‘s treatment of women. Rachel McAdams’ Dr. Palmer arrives to soak up Strange’s abuse (and provide some help in a pinch), only to then disappear entirely. Tilda Swinton’s already-notorious turn as the Ancient One is given more room to breathe — and Swinton luxuriates in the space provided her — but you don’t need a comic book degree to suss out what ultimately awaits the character.

Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo is given the most to do besides Cumberbatch; we’re meant to find some inner disturbance shifting underneath his camaraderie, but Ejiofor’s warm smile and innate kindness keeps that particular dimension from fully taking shape. (I guess that’s what after-credits sequences are for.) Ejiofor and Benedict Wong (as Wong) end up taking the role as facemen for the Ancient One’s school (a place that lies somewhere between a dojo and Hogwarts).

Both actors attempt to answer the question marks swirling around Mads Mikkelsen’s… er… (*scans Wikipedia*) Kaecilius, the latest baddie to strut out of Marvel’s stable of one-note villains. (Mikkelsen seethes in the film’s margins until the film decides to get a move on with its hasty final act.) As for the rest of the movie, sorcerer supremes and malevolent mystics conjure mirror blades and ornate plates out of thin air and go at each other like the better bits in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It’s easy enough to accept, in large part because it is a Marvel movie.

Fortunately, it’s a weird Marvel movie, the weirdest the studio has made yet. With its patented template at play it can only go so far, but there’s something to be said about Doctor Strange‘s dalliance into the lysergic — it’s never been this socially acceptable to turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream.

Directed by Scott Derrickson.

Produced by Kevin Feige.

Screenplay by Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill.

Story by Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson, and C. Robert Cargill.

Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt, Scott Adkins, Mads Mikkelsen, and Tilda Swinton.

Rated PG-13 because sometimes sorcerer slap fights can get bloody.

7 out of 10