Marvel opens up its infinite universes as it lays the groundwork for bringing back old characters with new faces in this corporate outing
Director: Sam Raimi
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch (Dr Stephen Strange), Elizabeth Olsen (Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch), Rachel McAdams (Dr Christine Palmer), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Karl Mordo), Benedict Wong (Wong), Xochitl Gomez (America Chavez), Michael Stuhlbarg (Dr Nicodemus West)
Spoilers: The main spoiler would be looking at the cast list. I won’t name the cameos are but I do mention a main plot development revealed within 15 minutes.
Parallel universes have infinite possibilities. These are largely not found in this lumpen, fan-service obsessed and (whisper it) slightly dull film that fails to follow-up on either the promise of the first film (to which it makes awkward call-backs) or its main concept. It allows Raimi scope to indulge his Evil Dead style visuals, but all within the confines of producing another entry in the series that feels like a bridge between chapters rather than an interesting story in its own right.
Dr Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) attends the wedding of former girlfriend Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), when he’s torn away to fight a squid monster chasing a teenager, America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez). America has the power to travel between parallel universes – and is dragging behind her the dead body of a parallel Strange who failed to protect her from a mysterious foe trying to steal her power. Strange, Wong (Benedict Wong – the most engaging performance in the film from this under-rated actor) and the Sorcerers protect America – but Strange’s attempt to recruit Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) goes awry when it turns out its she hunting America, using dark magic in an attempt to find her parallel versions of her lost children.
DSITMOM has been called the MCU’s horror film: which by no means it’s The Exorcist. It’s a sort of very, very gentle entrée to the genre – like Cronenberg’s Videodrome was turned into a kid’s TV series or a comic-book version of Raimi’s The Evil Dead. It has a few flourishes, but none of this is allowed to get in the way of the corporate enterprise. It’s more interested in giving people what it feels they want and fitting itself into the timeline of a series.
In fact it sometimes feels like an attempt to mirror the success of Spider-Man: No Way Home (I wonder how many of the cameos were added after that film’s release?). It takes the elements of guest stars and parallel universes and presents them in ways that provide little insight or long-term reward. In No Way Home alternate versions of characters are used to explore how different events could have shaped our heroes. The returning stars aren’t just thrown in, they have arcs and emotional journeys. The whole is both fun and an engaging story but also nostalgic. Compare, as well, the TV series Loki (by the same writer) that brilliantly used parallel versions of its lead to deconstruct and develop his character.
DSITMOM does none of this. There are rich opportunities to see how Strange may have developed in different universes: after all this is the closest thing to an “ends justify the means” character in the MCU. Would different versions of him go more or less further – and how might it make our Strange reflect on his occasionally ruthless ‘big picture’ thinking (this is after all, as the film mentions, the guy who allowed half of all life to blink out of existence as part of a masterplan only he knew). We don’t get nearly enough of that. In fact, we get virtually none of it.
These opportunities are ignored in the two parallel universes we spend the most time in, where Strange is either a dead war hero or an insane hermit corrupted by dark magic. Neither of these characters is really contrasted effectively or interestingly with our version. A faint plotline of Strange learning trust from the mistakes of others is threaded through, but only lightly. Instead, the film focuses more attention on Strange’s lost love for Christine Palmer, an oddly unsatisfying focus since Strange has appeared in at least four films since his first solo effort six years ago, and the franchise has failed to mention this motivating loss once (not even a throwaway line in No Way Home to build it up).
Mind you it’s better than the development Wanda Maximoff gets. DSITMOM is pretty much impenetrable unless you’ve watched WandaVision. Even if you have, as I have, you’ll probably be a little annoyed at the ‘development’ she gets here. At the end of that series, Wanda had accepted the damaging consequences of her grief and started moving on. Here though, she’s a sociopathic monster defined solely by her motherly grief and her ruthless determination to tear universes apart to heal it. It feels retrograde to, essentially, be saying “women who suffer loss go axe-crazy” or to double down on her willingness to harm others to cling to a ‘normal life’ fantasy (as well as contrary to the hopeful tone the series ended on).
That’s not to mention the clumsy fan service peppering the film. The main outing to a parallel universe is basically an excuse for fan-pleasing cameos. These amount to nothing more than a series of actors popping up say “Hello I’m Y” and promptly suffering terrible fates (because it’s a parallel universe and your plot armour means nothing there). Like Yoda fighting Christopher Lee, it’s cool when you first see it but risks becoming less and less rewarding overtime because it’s utterly insubstantial.
DSITMOM is basically insubstantial. It drags on – it’s a chase film that largely lacks momentum – it has a series of slightly bored looking actors (Ejiofor wins, with a Mordo who seems to have become Strange’s nemesis in the interim between this and the first film despite never being mentioned in any other film since), gets absorbed in a MacGuffin filled plot (there are no less than two Magic Books of Wham-a-bam that are being hunted or fought over) and flattens down most of Raimi’s style into a corporate product with little heart (compare this to his Spider-Man films which look like Citizen Kane or Vertigo next to this).
There are about two moments of invention: a sequence when Strange plummets through a series of bizarre parallel universes (including one where he’s made of paint) and a battle between two Stranges that utilises musical notes as weapons. Everything else feels production flattened, as do the actors, and ends teeing you up for a third film with another “whoop” cameo. Flat, lumpen and failing to capitalise on its possibilities, this is a big disappointment, an empty lightshow with brief but shallow pleasures.