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Doctor Strange: 5 things to know about Marvel’s best-looking movie yet

The visual effects here are truly breathtaking. The story is … less so.

Doctor Strange
Your magic spells, cast today! No money down!
Marvel Studios
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Doctor Strange, Marvel’s latest journey into its ever-expanding cinematic universe, exemplifies both the best and the worst of the comic book movie studio.

On the one hand, the movie is visually inventive, peppered with solid jokes, and beautifully acted. On the other hand, the story’s a bit of a mess, with a script that’s roughly two-thirds exposition and a main character arc that doesn’t make a lick of sense.

But this is still a movie people are probably going to want to see — especially Marvel die-hards.

Some of the images that director Scott Derrickson cooks up are the sort of things you’d never imagine appearing anywhere other than the pages of a comic book, and if nothing else, Tilda Swinton's performance as a guru who seems largely disinterested in whatever we pitiful human beings are up to is a lot of fun.

There will be time for a fuller review, with more comics context, closer to when the film opens on Friday, November 4. But for now, here are five things to know about Doctor Strange.

1) This might be the first Marvel movie to win an Oscar*

Doctor Strange
The world folds in on itself in Doctor Strange.
Marvel Studios

(*for Best Visual Effects)

Yeah, this isn’t going to suddenly be the Marvel film to make awards bodies take Hollywood’s most successful studio seriously as a prize magnet (something I’m dubious should happen anyway), but its endless, kaleidoscopic visuals are exactly the sort of thing that stick in your head long after viewing the film. More than a few critics will likely compare the overwhelming visuals of this movie to The Matrix in terms of special effects breakthroughs, and they won’t be too far off the mark.

The film leans heavily on the trippy imagery Steve Ditko dreamed up for Dr. Stephen Strange back when he was a comics character. Reality reflects and refracts itself, like it’s trapped in an endless series of mirrors. Buildings split down the middle. Characters open up portals to other dimensions and fight their way through them.

It’s a lot, but Derrickson and his visual effects artists make every step of it crystal clear. Many Marvel films struggle with visual geography, with helping viewers understand just what’s happening to which characters, and where and when it’s happening. Doctor Strange has occasional issues with this, but the sheer amount of visual information thrown at the viewer makes that confusion more pleasurable than it probably should be.

As such, I’d peg this as one of the favorites to win the Oscar for Visual Effects. Its chief competition — the photorealistic computer-generated animals in The Jungle Book — is going to be tough to overcome, but if any movie can do it, it’s this one.

2) You are going to love Tilda Swinton in this movie

Doctor Strange
Tilda Swinton (pictured here with Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mordo) sure seems to be having a great time.
Marvel Studios

Let’s be upfront about this: There’s no good reason to have Tilda Swinton in a part that very easily could have gone — and maybe should have gone — to an actor of Asian descent, especially when an early gag essentially boils down to, "Oh, you thought the ancient master of the mystical arts was this old Asian dude? Nah, it was this white lady!"

But Swinton is having so much fun playing this character that you’ll probably find yourself enjoying what she’s doing in spite of everything you might find troublesome about her casting. She’s one of our slyest, cattiest actors, and even when she’s unleashing tons of exposition about Dark Dimensions and grave threats with ridiculous names, she’s got her tongue buried in her cheek.

There is absolutely no way many of the character arcs in Doctor Strange make a lick of sense, but I’ll be damned if Swinton didn’t make me believe them all the same. When she tells Strange that he has immense goodness in him — without much evidence on offer in the film to that point — you want to believe her, even as you don’t really buy it.

3) Strange’s character arc doesn’t make a ton of sense

Doctor Strange
Doctor Strange is kind of a jerk, until he’s abruptly not.
Marvel Studios

Strange is a hyper-arrogant, self-involved jerk for roughly two-thirds of the movie, until it’s time for the film’s climax and he has to become a good guy. There’s really no progression to his arc, or even an attempt to hint at one. He’s a jerk, and then he’s revealed to have a selflessness to him that was there all along. (Does that sound a bit like Iron Man? Yep. Was Doctor Strange finally greenlit when it looked like Robert Downey Jr. was slowly phasing out of the Marvel universe? Also yep.)

We’re supposed to think the car accident that ruins the hands he uses to perform delicate surgeries (yes, he’s a literal doctor) is a comeuppance of sorts, but it’s not clear he learns anything from it. It just sets him on the path that takes him to his eventual mastery of mysticism.

That this works at all is a credit to Benedict Cumberbatch, the man who plays Strange with a certain swagger and joy at the thought of being such an asshole to everybody around him. But I was hoping for something more out of the character beyond, "I’m a jerk, but I can back it up," being followed by a slightly kinder and softer version of that same dude.

4) There is a lot of exposition. A lot of exposition.

Doctor Strange
What’s that? You’re going to find out!
Marvel Studios

Doctor Strange has to set up a bunch of complicated concepts, like how its characters can access various parts of the multiverse, or the villains’ ultimate plan (which is surprisingly nuanced and complicated). But there are times when it feels like many of the characters speak only to inform the audience of what’s happening or what they’re about to do.

This is particularly true of Swinton’s character and Chiwetel Ejiofor's work as Strange’s compatriot Mordo. There’s a scene fairly late in the film where Mordo explains at length the difference in his philosophy of how to use magic compared with Strange’s philosophy, and it not only doesn’t feel like it fits with his character from earlier, but it also seems like something that would have been much better expressed in the actions of the two characters.

This is ultimately just sloppy screenwriting, attributable to a script by Derrickson, Jon Spaihts, and C. Robert Cargill that attempts to just do too much. Trim this back by a few characters — Strange’s love interest, Christine (Rachel McAdams), is trapped in a particularly thankless role — and simplify the film’s conflicts to best express the characters’ differences, and it would feel a lot less messy.

5) This is a Marvel movie for people who aren’t yet Marvel fans

Doctor Strange
Everything gets a little blurry around the edges when the Dark Dimension is involved.
Marvel Studios

If you’re not the sort of person who follows the Marvel Cinematic Universe with great excitement, Doctor Strange might be the gateway you’re looking for. There’s a very brief reference to the events of Captain America: Civil War early on, but not one that will detract from the experience for non-fans. And outside of a post-credits scene and a handful of references to the Avengers, the movie stands entirely on its own.

Some of this is because Doctor Strange is an old-fashioned origin story, about a man discovering great power. And while Marvel is rarely at its absolute best in origin story mode (as we saw in 2015’s Ant-Man), it’s also hard to screw up an origin story too badly. If you’re not a superhero fan, but the story of a brilliant doctor discovering he’s also a super-awesome sorcerer appeals, well, hey, you might like this movie a lot.

Marvel producer Kevin Feige has longed to bring Strange to the screen almost since the inception of the MCU. And, as such, Doctor Strange has pulled out all the stops. Michael Giacchino's score — which neatly blends the influences of New York, Hong Kong, and London, three cities important to the story — is the best Marvel score yet. Those visuals are really something to behold. And even the villains’ plot makes more sense than it does in most Marvel movies.

Doctor Strange isn’t perfect, but it feels like Marvel trying to push itself out of its comfort zone. And that, in and of itself, is commendable.

Doctor Strange opens in theaters Friday, November 4.