SPOILER WARNING: I’m going to do my best to be as spoiler-free as possible, but I also want people going to see this movie to be, you know, surprised.
It seems like the majority of people posting negatively about this movie hit the Venn Diagram just right of those that enjoy negatively posting on holidays as well. Now, I may be one of the most cynical people you’ll ever meet, but it turns out that I actually want movies to entertain me. And when they entertain people other than me, I can accept their audience, move on and enjoy the movies that entertain me without dwelling.
So yes: this is a superhero movie. It’s a blockbuster. It’s the 28th movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. You also have had to have some cursory knowledge of Wandavision — there’s this great thing called YouTube that has these things called recaps, you know — and What If? yet you can enjoy this without that. And yes, this has Sam Raimi coming back to direct a superhero movie.
Even more importantly, this is the return of Sam Raimi to movies about cursed books.
Doctor Strange director and co-writer Scott Derrickson left over creative differences — his movie The Black Phone is coming out someday, right? — and that left Raimi and Michael Waldron (Heels, Loki) to start over.
From the original trailers, I was worried that this would cover the same ground as Loki, with Strange being called on the carpet for his abuse of the multiverse. Yet the movie does an early rug pull and places — there’s that spoiler reminder one more time — Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch — into the role of big bad.
Some backstory: Wanda was born in Eastern Europe, where her parents were killed by a Stark Industries missile, and she and her brother Pietro (Quicksilver) survived and were augmented by Hydra’s Baron Wolfgang von Strucker. Working with Ultron, she tried to destroy Stark and the Avengers before learning that the robot’s real goal was destroying the human race. This led to her, the Vision (a clone of Ultron turned to the side of good) and the Avengers stopping Ultron and then her joining the team. She and Vision become a couple, join Steve Rogers’ side during the Civil War event and then she must destroy Vision to protect the Mind Stone from Thanos, which means nothing, as he uses the Time Stone to undo her and Vision’s sacrifice. After a five year-plus battle with Thanos, she and the Avengers win, but her grief at losing Vision causes her to basically abduct the entire town of Westview and create her own sitcom reality — she learned English as a child from watching American TV — and raising sons Tommy and Billy with the Vision before her illusion is shattered by Agatha Harkness. The truth is that she’s destined to be the Scarlet Witch — the MCU version of Dark Phoenix, the Harbinger of Chaos more powerful than the Sorcerer Supreme — at which point Wanda traps Harkness in the town and leaves to study a book called the Darkhold, the Book of the Damned, created by the Elder God Chthon, written in blood on flesh pages (hey Sam Raimi) and bound into book form by Morgan Le Faye, not so coincidentally the villain of the first Dr. Strange movie on TV in 1978, long before the MCU was even a thing.
Yet Wanda’s quest isn’t predicated on evil. She learns that there is more than one reality and that in each of these — you can glimpse these realities in your dreams — her children still exist and haven’t gone away when the spells she cast at Westview were negated. All she wants is her children, but to get them, she’ll destroy entire realities.
Meanwhile…take a breath…there’s America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), who was born outside the multiverse and has the power to open doors between worlds. The first use of her powers pushed her parents into another reality and sent her running from the Scarlet Witch, who wants to absorb her power — killing her — so that she can find a world with her children and be a mother again.
We return to the central MCU reality — Earth-616 also the same number as the comic universe — where Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is attending the wedding of the love of his life, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) when a giant monster — which can’t legally be called Shuma-Gorath and is called Gargantos — attempts to take America, who is saved by Strange and Sorcerer Supreme Wong (Benedict Wong). Of course, our hero has no idea that Wanda is the Scarlet Witch, but soon figures it out. The entire magical training world of Kamar-Taj attempts to protect America, who must escape with Strange through the multiverse.
And that’s where I really feel like the spoilers would be too much, right?
So let’s just discuss the merits of the film.
I can’t lie. I walked out of the movie with a huge smile on my face, but any film that combines the bull alien Rintrah and a cameo of the Living Tribunal with the look and feel of a Raimi film — multiple dissolves of faces and objects like a comic book panel, wild POV shots, heroes getting slapped repeatedly and comedy mixed in with horror. Now, it’s not full-on Evil Dead, despite the idea that this is the scariest MCU movie ever. I’ve seen a lot of folks upset about that, but what did you expect? Did Raimi make the Spider-Man films gore-filled epics?
I also do like the idea that Dr. Strange continues to evolve from the self-possessed braggart he started as and the man who said to Spider-Man “In the grand calculus of the multiverse, their sacrifice means far more than their deaths.” Whereas in Spider-Man: No Way Home, that line showed that Strange would do anything to protect the multiverse, when Defender Stranger says it in the beginning, it’s to prove that Strange believes that he alone can save the say, when by the end, he realizes that he’s not the only hero. When he said to Starlord in Avengers: Infinity War that there was only one way to win, now he realizes that just as there are so many realities, there can also be so many solutions. He’s also learned from each different version of himself — Defender Strange, Earth-838 Strange and Sinister Strange — the same one from What If? — that he must make personal growth in addition to protecting the Earth. I loved the scene where he fixed his watch and bowed to Wong, showing that he understands his place.
That’s some pretty astounding character growth for a character in a blockbuster.
Also, for Raimi fans, the 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88 shows up. Bruce Campbell shows up — twice. Even a Grindhouse Releasing logo shows up. Throughout, I didn’t feel like he was compromised. The music fight alone is incredibly inventive, as is how Strange makes his way back to Earth despite being trapped on a ruined world.
Perhaps most moving is a line that a certain wheelchair-bound hero says in the film: “Just because someone stumbles and loses their way, doesn’t mean they are lost forever.” That’s an important message to understand. So is the fact that America has two mothers, a fact directly from the comic book and presented as such: it’s just an ordinary way of life. As for America, her look and powers have emerged directly from the comics and work perfectly within the film, as she shows by the end that she may be smarter than any of the adults locked in this battle.
I’d hope that even non-comic fans give this a chance. It’s a visual-filled odyssey through worlds of magic and I had so much fun throughout. It did what all good films should: it made me forget life for a fleeting moment — something needed more than ever — and gave me joy.
You can’t ask for more than that, even if you rarely get it.