Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5
USA, 2022. Marvel Studios. Screenplay by Michael Waldron. Cinematography by John Mathieson. Produced by Kevin Feige. Music by Danny Elfman. Production Design by Md Joni Hossain, Charles Wood. Costume Design by Graham Churchyard. Film Editing by Bob Murawski, Tia Nolan.
The master conjuror who can spin weapons out of thin air and cross the globe in seconds through rips in time and space is troubled by bad dreams at night, ones in which he has a bad ponytail and is floating through the universe trying to save a teenaged girl (Xochitl Gomez) from being killed by a magnificent, evil creature. Waking up, Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) gets dressed and attends a much scarier real-life function, the wedding of his beloved ex-girlfriend, Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), who has found her bliss with a new man after giving up on ever being enough of a priority in the good Doctor’s life. He good-naturedly wishes her the best of happiness, but his afternoon of fun and food is ruined when he is called away from the event by a giant, one-eyed monster (a leftover from the Suicide Squad reboot, it looks like) that is tearing up the streets of the city trying to get its hands on the same teenager from his dream, whose name turns out to be America Chavez.
Strange saves America (the person, not the country) and finds out that she is a multiverse traveler who has been voyaging from one dimension to the next, thanks to supernatural powers that she cannot control, and that the monster is the emissary of someone who wishes to take her powers from her. Recognizing the monster’s work as witchcraft, Strange goes in search of his old Avengers colleague Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) to help uncover the identity of the villain, and finds that the work is done for him upon arrival: Wanda has been taken over by her Scarlet Witch persona and is the one in pursuit of America (the person, not the country), her goal to voyage to an alternate universe where her family hasn’t died and she’s the happy mother to the two little boys who haunt her dreams (two little boys who are way more into spending time with their mom than any normal kid ever is, which is how you know it’s not real).
Dreams, it turns out, are not the synapses of our brains firing out our anxieties when we sleep, but are visits to different locations in the multiverse, what Strange saw when he slept was actually something that happened to America (the person, not the…oh you get it) and another version of himself; Wanda doesn’t accept her visions of her ideal life as something she must settle for at night, and wants to make it her daily reality. Unfortunately, what she wants also threatens, what else, the existence of the entire universe because of a laundry list of increasingly irritating jargon terms that get thrown at you in this typically creative, beautifully shot, overlong and insufferably humorless adventure, something about a book called a Darkhold (which is NOT a Necronomicon) that allows her to do her evil spells and another Book of the Vishanti that is the antidote, and the dangers of “dreamwalking”, which involves sending your spirit to another universe to use an alternate version of yourself as a bodily shell. By the time you reach the climactic third act, there’s no ignoring the fact that Sam Raimi has returned to directing as a way to basically enjoy remaking Evil Dead on a multibillion budget, throwing in a zombie sequence in order to lay claim to his own spin on the Ragnarok/True Grit plot mashup.
In trying to stop her, America and Strange get themselves into some pretty dicey trouble, sent to an alternate universe where Strange has to deal with a suspicious council of Illuminati who don’t hold his reputation in high regard, and faced with another version of Christine (McAdams is given a red wig to distinguish her from the first one) who has bad memories of a dissatisfying relationship with a different version of him.
Things move along swiftly and none of the sequences designed to show off the tech department’s magnificent computer skills overstay their welcome, it’s a fun diversion that is boosted by a high calibre cast (the best of them Olsen, who really deserves far better roles than just as a Marvel princess). The character of Doctor Strange is among the franchise’s most appealing properties, invoking the world of old-timey conjurors and magic shows that show a sense of self-aware showmanship not to be found in the bloated self-importance of most of the others. Regardless of what it does right, though, there’s no getting away from the fact that this, what feels like, millionth film in the Marvel Character Universe falls back on story elements that have all been done to death too many times before, multiverse theories as a key element of a plot has been done to death in popular cinema at this point, and the overuse of it is starting to feel very stale (the device is basically the new time travel, an excuse for writers to avoid the finality of many characters’ story arcs and get a few cheesy cameos with returning cast members).
Modern viewers can comfortably appreciate the film’s bending over backwards to reflect modern cultural standards by being as inclusive as possible (including a brief glimpse of lesbian moms and, if you haven’t yet guessed it, choosing a name for its Latine heroine meant to conjure up thoughts of the fight to save America’s soul, the country, not the person), but it’s surprising how aggressively retro its sexual politics are. The take on the gender binary breaks its characters down to rational, responsible men and emotionally overwhelmed and unsure women in ways that even David Mamet would find simplistic and offputting, likely thinking that making the girls “badass” (whatever that means) compensates for such unimaginative sexism (on the same day that I saw this I also rewatched Troop Beverly Hills, and can tell you that it’s a much more cogent feminist defense of women’s right to be taken seriously while holding on to whatever values labeled feminine that they choose to hold on to). America (the character, I know, I’m being a pill) having phenomenal powers that she can’t understand is a very old stereotype of women in fantasy stories, and Wanda’s unstoppable magic seems powerful enough to bring all existence to its knees, and yet all she wants to do with it is be a mom, which basically makes her Mary Poppins (and, in case it sounds like I think being a mom is such an insignificant thing, it should be pointed out that Wanda has godlike powers but seems to have no idea what being a mom actually means).
In short, this movie is a familiar trip down MCU lane, fun, always a bit too long, the money shows up on screen and the performative wokery is a smokescreen for something that I suspect encourages the bitterness of alienated people who are ripe for being taken over by fascist ideology. But don’t take that to mean I don’t recommend it.