THE multiplex dominating Marvel formula gets a neat and visually dazzling new flavour with this distinctly mystical big-screen introduction to one of their, well, strangest heroes.

Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant but arrogant neurosurgeon who lives a well-off and rewarded life in New York City. This privileged existence and livelihood is shattered when he’s involved in a horrendous car crash which renders his hands effectively useless for continuing his surgical work.

Looking for answers of how to heal his injured limbs, he heads off to Kathmandu, Nepal, where he meets the mystical Ancient One (a bald-headed, scenery-chewing Tilda Swinton) who reveals to him that this world is only part of an infinite multiverse. Our would-be hero is a man of science and stubborn reason forced to embrace a world of faith and spiritual magic.

He is then brought into the fold and taught the ways of mysticism – in part by the enigmatic Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) – that will allow him to create magical weapons and interdimensional portals in preparation for a potentially world-ending attack perpetrated by Kaecilius, a treacherous and powerful former student (played by the charismatic though here underused Mads Mikkelsen).

More than any other Marvel outing to date, this is a visual movie in the purest sense of the word. Director Scott Derrickson – most known for horror films like Sinister and The Exorcism of Emily Rose – has created a wonderfully trippy world that, using some truly spectacular visual effects, gleefully plays around with time and space in a way that even the Thor movies aren’t afforded.

It’s a thrilling concoction of expectations and subversions thereof; just when you think it’s settled into a groove of its admittedly quite standard hero arising plot, it throws another curveball of a mind-bending action sequence to throw you off guard. Characters using their surroundings to leap around while cities fold in on themselves bring to mind Christopher Nolan’s Inception but it’s a far loopier, more eccentric view of distorted reality – or rather anti-reality – in action.

Even in its obligatory big final showdown, there’s a sense of uniqueness with a sequence that almost feels like a statement of defiance against those fed up with the traditional cityscape destruction that has plagued blockbuster cinema as of late.

Not content with introducing fantastical objects to the real world, we’re often catapulted head first into another resplendent, logic-defying one initially via a sequence that of all things brings to mind 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s an exciting prospect for the MCU going forward, joining the ragtag Guardians of the Galaxy in showing that it doesn’t have to be just about The Avengers saving an earthly city from apocalyptic destruction.

It’s also a film that’s tremendously light on its feet, peppering its preternatural narrative with nimble and witty dialogue that makes sure the film never takes itself too seriously. Cumberbatch throws himself into the lead role with gusto, weirdly convincing and comfortably making us like and care for him in spite of the character’s inherent hubris.

This playful, inventive entry into the indefinite big-screen Marvel adventure is an astonishing feast for the eyes that wears the absurd with a badge of honour and thrusts its audience unashamedly into a weird kaleidoscopic world that provides a welcome detour from the norm.