What They Say:
Dr. Stephen Strange casts a forbidden spell that opens a portal to the multiverse. However, a threat emerges that may be too big for his team to handle.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Having long been a fan of Doctor Strange going back to my first exposure to the character at the end of his series in the early 80s, and enjoying my time reading him in The Defenders before that ended as well, I came away from the original film enjoying it for the most part but wishing it had leaned into the lore a bit more. It had a great ending, solid casting, and I understood what it was trying to do in view of the larger context leading to Avengers: Endgame. So after that film, I was really curious to see if they would engage in the other elements of it. We got teases of it through the What If animated series where the character had some key roles and now we have this work that ties in through the WandaVision series, though in reality this is a storyline for Wanda that began when full introduced in Avengers: Age of Ultron. It’s perhaps a little frustrating that it’s not Stephen’s story but this is also the role of the character in dealing with such grand threats.
And the Scarlet Witch is certainly a grand threat.
The premise for this film is pretty basic in its ideas and I will again tap the sign above that spoilers are ahoy because to really talk about it means getting into it. Pinning part of the story on a completely new character is always dicey but bringing in America Chavez as our youthful eyes into what’s happening works well enough because she is not the central focus. Stephen is. But through America we learn about how she’s able to jump from parallel timeline to timeline when in panic or scared. She doesn’t have control of it but she’s been able to avoid being caught by some being that has sent various demons after her to capture her for their own nefarious purpose. We see this play out at the start with her accidentally escaping into the main MCU timeline but only after the Stephen that was protecting her tries to kill her so that she can’t be captured and her power abused. This Stephen quickly realizes exactly how disastrous it would be if it fell into the wrong hands.
When America does end up in the MCU main timeline, foolishly eventually called 616 later in a way that must frustrate many comic fans, she ends up under Stephen’s protection. There’s an early wariness that you’d expect and it’s handled well and it’s fun to see this kind of lighter Stephen Strange after everything that happened. I’m also glad that his being dusted meant Wong became the Sorcerer Supreme and that Stephen is fine with that, making their dynamic a hell of a lot more interesting and allowing for Wong to pop into other films as a key player, as he did in Shang-Chi. What the pair have to do is basically protect America which initially is in the form of a giant eyeball monster that can’t be properly named and it gives us a good bashing up New York City sequence that is the heart and soul of many Marvel Comics issues. And, naturally, it leads to a sit-down meal between the three to figure things out.
Thankfully, the film doesn’t spend a long time trying to tease out the villain in all of this. Stephen knows that Wanda has some real power behind her and goes to visit her, which she thinks is about what happened in West View. His lack of morality on it will bother some but I can understand the strange pragmatic view he has of it and the way that power corrupts. But through their casual dialogue he realizes quickly that she’s behind the creatures being sent after America and is the one that’s the greatest threat here. There is some mild nod to blaming the Darkhold on this as time goes on in the story but they don’t push it hard and it feels like it’s trying to provide an out for why Wanda is doing this. She’s so intent on crossing to a world where her boys exist so that she can have them in her life again as opposed to the dream she created that disappeared at the end of WandaVision. And with all that’s happened, she’s focused and uninterested in the morality of what she’s doing. She just wants her children.
I’m clearly not supporting this as a good thing because it’s not. But in terms of character? I think it largely fits her. We saw through the flashbacks just how bad her childhood was in Sokovia after her parents died. We saw how Hydra treated her. She saw her brother die trying to save people and she in turn accidentally killed a lot of people while trying to be an Avenger early on. The created the rift that broke the Avengers and caused a lot of problems there and then everything with Vision happened during Infinity War and the discovery of what happened to his remains afterward by SWORD. The emotional grief and lack of seeking real support after all of it lead her to what happened in West View, which lead to her unlocking the Nexus being aspect and truly becoming the Scarlet Witch. And in my reading from the 70s through the mid-90s, the character was always moving back and forth across the line from hero to villain. So it did not shock me and my mind can make the reasonable leaps as to how it unfolded here over the thirteen years of MCU-time that has taken place.
So this then leads to the great chase that takes us across a couple of different universes as America’s power isn’t easily controlled. There’s a fun montage of it that makes you want to explore more the absurdity or physics within them, which is what’s fun to do in a visual medium like this even in brief, before we get them on one world where they start to try and figure things out, get touches of the past with what haunts them, and do a little character building. I do like that the film allows us to see why America is as she is with her powers and the loss of her family with her feeling at fault while at the same time seeing Stephen having to finally come to grips with losing Christine as she’s married someone else. Seeing her in another timeline doesn’t have him trying to win her over but rather just realizing that this phase of his life is done and over. As it should be, between the Blip and everything else. Which is why I loved the post-credits bit that gives me hope of a far more interesting dynamic if he gets another film.
Of course, the big thing with this film before the final confrontation with Wanda involves the Illuminati. A concept I enjoyed in the comics as it played out in time but difficult to insert here without feeling a bit forced, especially since you’re drawing in cameos for characters that haven’t existed. The Mister Fantastic part was pure fanservice and I loved it and I was so glad that they provided a chance for Patrick Stewart to get to interact in the MCU proper and to be more than just a blip of a cameo. Even Anson Mount, a real favorite of mine from Hell On Wheels and Strange New Worlds, gets a chance to revisit his Inhumans character of Black Bolt done right, not the cheap joke that got foisted on him years ago. It’s fanservice and I get it with it all being filmed separately and all, but it was tied well with Mordo getting to run the show and giving me Captain Carter for as much as we did. And giving Lashana Lynch the opportunity to play Captain Marvel really hits a sweet spot for me as I had just rewatched that film a week before this.
When it comes to dealing with Wanda, the range of reactions is understandable. There is still a lot of resentment for the way she seemingly got away with events in West View without any repercussions.Even Stephen talks about “getting back on the lunch box” because they haven’t really understood what went down there and just how bad it was. Again, a familiar aspect from comics and I really like that the MCU took the opportunity to not just let her go bad but, overall, not give her a true redemption. She’s as close to going through with it all as she can but it’s only when she realizes that she’s become the monster that she stops and the Darkhold has less influence briefly enough for her to do something about it. She should be remembered as a villain at this point and I suspect it’ll be papered over with just conspiracy theories dominating after that. But the resolution to events worked well for me and it brings to a close, at least in this timeline, for now, the Darkhold itself.
I enjoyed this movie overall and I really appreciated some of the differences that director Sam Raimi was able to bring to it, with the scene changes and the like as an example. I know a lot of people were hoping for a real horror movie but this is again a game of expectations being opposed to what the project is trying to do. Raimi was able to do a lot of interesting things and his style clearly shows throughout, but if he wants to make an actual horror movie he would do it elsewhere. Here, he plays well in the sandbox and the toys to create something with his sense of fun and zip with big action sequences and a huge production behind him that can bring it to life. It’s not the horror of his youth from forty years ago but it shows his expansion from the Spider-Man trilogy to this. There are areas to really get into the weeds about and that’s fine, but as a more casual experience and something as part of the larger narrative, I really enjoyed it and am looking forward to owning it and adding it to my playlist rotation.
Streamed By: Disney+