“Things just got out of hand.” – Dr Stephen Strange
It’s hard to believe that six years have passed since the first Doctor Strange movie, but to be fair, the good Doctor (Benedict Cumberbatch) has been busy in the interim, playing a vital role in Avengers: Infinity War, Endgame and co-headlining Spider-Man: No Way Home. And speaking of No Way Home, which was my Movie of the Year 2021, I was certain that the events of that film were going to be the cause of what would happen in this film. In fact, were I a betting man, I would’ve put money on it. The trailer seemed to reinforce this notion.
To explain, in No Way Home, Strange tries to help Peter Parker resolve his problem of having his identity exposed by casting a spell to make everybody but a select few forget. But it all goes catastrophically wrong, the Multiverse, a never-ending series of alternate realities, opens and causes further, even worse problems that take three Spider-men to resolve. I was sure from the trailers and the fact that we’re back in the Multiverse, that we’d still be dealing with the consequences of that storyline, and that Strange himself would be held accountable somehow for having opened up the whole can of worms. They even showed us Strange being escorted, as a prisoner by some Ultron robots from Iron Man 2. This was going to be great!
Okay, scrap all that. The trailer campaign was a dazzling sleight of hand that cleverly misdirected us. The implied storyline that my imagination gloriously ran away with isn’t what happens at all. We’re on a completely different track here, and the film has no real relation to No Way Home. In fact, Spider-Man is only mentioned in passing in one verbal exchange. You don’t really need to have seen the earlier film at all to enjoy this one. But – and here’s a warning – you DO really need to have seen more than one of the series Marvel have produced for Disney+ AND it’s best that you’ve seen another, earlier series produced several years ago. (Yes, I know this is all very vague, but I don’t want to give any spoilers here – and it’s pretty difficult to discuss the plot in any detail without giving something major away.)
There’s a lot to enjoy here. I love the film’s opening, which drops us straight into the action, as Strange appears to be in another dimension, with a girl we haven’t seen before, trying to vanquish some supernatural menace. Just as things seems at their worst, Strange wakes up – it’s all been a nightmare. Later that day, while dealing with a monstrous supernatural threat, he meets the girl from his dream and we’re off.
The girl is named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) whose power is the ability to be able to move freely between realities in the Multiverse. But there’s an entity pursuing her for her power. Strange needs backup to help America (the girl, not the country), and the most powerful one he can think of is Wanda Maximoff, The Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen).
What follows is a mind blowing, visually incredible battle across different versions of reality, which kind of sounds like science fiction, but is presented by director Sam Raimi as more of a superhero horror movie, as Raimi plays to his roots and strengths as a horror movie director. It’s as if he mixes what he learned as director of the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man trilogy with what he learned as director of the original Evil Dead trilogy. And he does this very successfully. Super heroic as Doctor Strange is, Raimi gives us some horrifying visuals that might well disturb younger viewers. It’s rated 12A in the UK, and has images that are straight out of films like The Ring, plus a scene where Strange re-enters and reanimates his own rotting corpse. (Not that I’m here to tell you how to raise your kids, but…be warned if your kids are sensitive.) One of the high points of the film for me was seeing Evil Dead star Bruce Campbell in a cameo, reliving one of his classic comedic Evil Dead routines.
Much as I liked (and championed in the face of a tidal wave of negativity) Morbius, this is a much better fusion of the superhero genre and horror. That might make it a tough sell, but it’s definitely a bold move for Marvel Studios and as I’ve said before, Cumberbatch is perfectly cast in the role, bringing a gravitas and dignity to a role which could so easily plummet into hokiness, particularly with some of the dialogue he has. Benedict Wong as Wong brings a comedic world weariness and grounds some of the fantastical elements of the hero’s exploits which is a vital counter balance. Over the years, since Avengers: Age of Ultron, I’ve grown very fond of Elizabeth Olsen’s portrayal of Wanda Maximoff. She has brought a sensitivity and a vulnerability to a character I’ve been familiar with since the 1960’s who always seems to me to be second tier at best in the comic books. Her performance has grown stronger in every film, and that trajectory continues here. But the real standout is Xochitl Gomez, making her debut in the Marvel Movie Universe.
Now, much as I have enjoyed the film, I need to address something that’s been bothering me about the Marvel Movie Universe in general lately.
I’ve been a Marvel fan since the sixties. More of a DC fan, but hey, I enjoy both as is my right. No toxicity here. I’ve absolutely loved and enjoyed the Marvel Movie Universe not only since it began with Iron Man, but before that – beyond Sony/Columbia’s Spider-Man films and Fox’s X-Men saga (patchy, though they are) to Blade. But recently, they seem to be faltering.
I think two elements come into play. The first is admittedly their own doing – how on Earth do you follow the unbridled epicness of Infinity War/Endgame for sheer breadth and spectacle? The second is the pandemic lockdowns. Maybe some momentum has been lost during those two years when cinemas were closed for most of the time, while we were all in lockdown?
But (and this is my own personal opinion) since Endgame, with the exception of the two really great Spider-Man films, Marvel Studios seem a bit directionless and dependent on their second tier. Phase IV seems to be meandering aimlessly. (Before you start gathering at the gate to Geek Central with flaming torches and pitchforks let me explain.) Phase IV started with Black Widow. (It would’ve made more sense to start it with Spider-Man Far from Home, but there we go.) Black Widow was a flashback movie that really would’ve been better had we seen it before the character died in Endgame. We knew she was going to survive this film because we knew when in the future she was going to die. Other than that, it was great – a Bond movie if Marvel made Bond movies, but spoilt by its odd placement – it should’ve been produced and released before Infinity War to REALLY resonate. Shang-Chi and the Ten Rings was fun, but again, a second-tier character, and it was the co-star Awkwafina who really made the film work The Eternals was a huge mis-step and is universally regarded as possibly the low point of the series. Again, not really characters known in the mainstream and presented here in a high handed, almost pious manner. The film didn’t inspire me to seek out the source material – the total opposite, in fact.
Part of the problem is we’ve been spoilt by having major characters introduced and killed off, and they’re not being replaced by other major characters. Shang Chi is not a main eventer, and frankly nobody I’ve spoken to seems to care whether we ever see The Eternals in a film again. The solution to this is simple. Now Marvel Studios have the rights, it’s time to introduce some of really high-profile heavy hitters into the ongoing Movie Universe. Bring on The Fantastic Four, debut The X-Men. They’ll re-invigorate the whole franchise and take it to a whole new level. Individually, where’s Daredevil? Where’s Punisher? Let’s have Namor facing the Fantastic Four, and for the love of Stan Lee, let’s have PROPER Doctor Doom!
Overall, I feel these films, mostly good, just aren’t as great as they used to be, when we had the stunning events not only of Thanos’ menace looming, but the rise of HYDRA, the fall of SHIELD, Captain America’s old partner showing up as an assassin. I miss those twists that would resonate for several films and have repercussions like the dropping of an entire city which The Avengers paid a heavy toll for. Here, it’s as if nobody even remembers that the fabric of reality was being torn open only a few months previously.
The other problem I can see is particularly with this Doctor Strange film, to fully appreciate it, you need to have watched some of the TV series, including an older one that was cancelled after a handful of episodes. I can understand a mild crossover to tie up loose ends, but when the enjoyment, appreciation and understanding of a film becomes heavily dependent on the cinema goer having watched a certain series, you’re going to lose a lot of your audience. And once they’ve been turned off a franchise, it’s hard to get them back.
Just my two cents’ worth.
This has been a spoiler free review but there’s one solitary item I feel the need to explain. The mid credits scene. Who? What? Where? And I’m going to put that in The Spoiler Zone. Not that it spoils the film in any way or gives out any plot points – but it just seems the decent thing to do.
But before we go there, Here’s my rating.
Rob Rating: 7/10
Ready? Here we go. The Spoiler Zone
WARNING – YOU ARE IN THE SPOILER ZONE! LEAVE NOW OR FOREVER KNOW WHAT I’M ABOUT TO TELL YOU.
So, halfway through the credits, we cut to Doctor Strange in civilian clothing walking along a street, when suddenly he’s stopped by a woman in tight purple clothing telling him he’s started something and needs to go with her to the Dark Dimension, unless he’s scared. He goes. (There’s another sting right at the very end, but this is the vital one)
The woman is played by Charlize Theron, this is the sorceress Clea. She, in the comic books at least, becomes Strange’s lover and later his wife. The Dark Dimension is the domain of Dormammu – the demonic entity Strange battled and vanquished in the first film, so no rest for the good Doctor as the final card on the credits assures us that Doctor Strange will return.
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