Sam Raimi brings horror to the Marvel Universe…in a mostly good way!
It has been a while since Doctor Strange had his own film though the character has played a key role in developments since his introduction six years ago. Director Sam Raimi has form in this area having helmed the trio of Spiderman movies in the 2000’s and is able to bring in some of his trademark horror to the tale in which the concept of Multiverses is explored in more detail. It is very much a film for people who like Marvel movies and even touches on some of the tv series that most of us haven’t seen so it might be an idea to check on those storylines to bring yourself up to speed.
Spoilers beyond this point
There’s a human theme to what may appear at times to be a story over crowded with monsters, creatures and some brisk action. Wanda Maximoff who is now the Scarlet Witch just want to find her two children. Admittedly she created them using magic (this is alluded to and inspires the film’s best line) and by stealing the power of the mysterious America Chavez, a teenager who is able to flit between Multiverses though uncontrollably, she will be reunited with her boys. A simple enough idea that provides the narrative with a strong through line because in a way you’re supporting her aims if not her methods which would seemingly involve having to kill America (yes it is a distracting name isn’t it?) and tearing many Universes apart to get what she wants.
Doctor Strange meanwhile sees some of this in his dreams- an arresting opening sequence shows him trying to stop The Scarlet Witch killing America in the middle of colourful floating starscapes and bits of buildings. He’s killed in this section though this version of Strange does re-appear later as an animated cadaver bothered by nasty looking demons. Well it is Sam Raimi! So in our world Strange vows to stop Wanda taking the girl’s power with the help of Benedict Wong’s always welcome presence together with his sorcerer’s fortress in one of the film’s other great set pieces in which they try to repel the Witch’s attack.
As the story progresses we are party to increasingly odd worlds- a swift pass through several Multiverses is a hoot even including an animated one- and we learn there are at least eight hundred of these places. It does become increasingly like a chase as it progresses with as many remarkable escapes as there are Multiverses but the film’s comparatively short running time compared with recent Marvel movies means this doesn’t drag. The plot is slight but the action and effects are lively and edited to great effect and there is quite an array of creatures to be seen.
So there’s plenty to engage with even if you don’t want to follow the ins and outs of the overall concept and I do feel it’s a bit unfair to pivot a big screen film on a subscription tv series a lot of the wider public would never have even heard of. On the other hand as any franchise grows it would be silly not to acknowledge back story and the Marvel films work hard to establish a separate identity and mood for each. This is the twenty eight MCU movie now so it would probably be even more glaring where there to be no continuity references.
Of course what the Multiverses also provide is a handy escape route both literally for the characters and conceptually for the writers. This was used to great effect in Spiderman No Way Home and here we have a deeper dive into the idea. There are moments when it feels like its being used to progress the plot at the expense of believability. They just about get away with it this time but I feel we’ve seen enough of multiverses for a while now.
Sam Raimi pulls in quite a few horror elements to add a different shade to the movie. There are some interesting cameos from characters far and wide, some you’ll know, others maybe not but because there are all these multiverses it doesn’t really matter what may happen to them in this story. I suppose anyone can keep coming back if they want.
Despite the serious issues the dialogue is kept light- Strange has a wry, dry sense of humour and Benedict Cumberbatch accentuates this quality so the character never becomes too cheery even when things are going well. Elisabeth Olsen is excellent and has a lot to do, effectively playing two very different roles. It is her ability and the way the script paints Wanda that makes her one of the franchise’s most effective antagonists to date. America is played by Xochitl Gomez and makes her mark though at times the character feels a tad underwritten and used more as a McGuffin and there are already enough of those in this story.
The plot also addresses Christine Palmer whom Strange left at the end of his first film and who inevitably turns up in one the Multiverses. It doesn’t pan out the way you expect but it fits in with the story’s theme of what is important to people. Strange doesn’t exactly mellow but by the end seems more willing to make considered decisions which take account of other people. Near the end it looks as if the film will overpower itself with just a few too many displays of sizzling energy, glowing eyes and hulking monsters but the denouement has enough domestic touches to make us feel as if we have come back down to earth.