Doctor Strange has grown on me a bit since his first movie; the MCU has positioned him as a kind of group leader for phase four and Benedict Cumberbatch does have that presence. His own movies are still a mixed bag however, special effect extravaganzas that ultimately rely too heavily on special effects and often feel bloated and conventional from a screenplay standpoint. The MCU has brought Sam Raimi on now for what they’re calling their “first horror movie”, which creates its own set of problems.
This time Strange (Cumberbatch), fueled by dreams that turn out not to be dreams at all, must help America Chavez (Zochiti Gomez), a young girl with the power to open portals to other universes. Wanda Maximoff, the former avenger last seen “saving” all the people in a small town..that she took hostage, has now been overtaken by her alter-ego the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), who wants Chavez’s power to enter into another universe where Wanda can be re-united with the children she lost in her own.
Former “Spider-Man” director Raimi is often no match for the MCU’s chaotic action pieces- so overstuffed with falling buildings, characters gliding all about, and sparks, fire, lightning, and so on being tossed back and forth we can only wonder if any of this is producing anything of consequence. He is a director of visual flourishes and hits every so often- a scene where Strange and Chavez are knocked through several universes all at once is novel in the way it changes both characters’ body comps.
But visual tricks alone should not be a good horror movie make and there’s a difference between what the MCU wants Raimi to do and establishing a consistent tone. The story veers wildly- Wanda has her loss, Strange still pines for his Christine (Rachel McAdams), America has lost her two moms, then there’s mention of magical books, tomes of the damned, sorcerer supremes, cross-world possessions, and Strange possibly being the true villain here. Scary? No. It’s hard enough just keeping track of what’s happening.
The actors are also underserved, even Cumberbatch, who shows great mentor and leadership in “Spider-Man: No Way Home”, here just seems like a character stuck in his own rut- a rut that was far more compelling in even his episode of Disney+’s “What If”. Gomez is mostly here as a plot device and Benedict Wong, comic relief. Raimi staple Bruce Campbell only gets a silly slapstick cameo but some MCU fan favorites, and an actor who’s been very popular in the fan casting sphere, get some fun cameos here. Coming off the best though is Olsen, who really seems to get Wanda’s emotional damage.
All this amounts to much less than the sum of its many parts. Raimi, sometimes, gets to use camera gimmicks and his gifts for the macabre but for moments that really feel inspired, we have to wait for the finale. Otherwise, the film is too busy and chaotic for its own good- thinking that visuals alone are enough to distract from muddled plotting and a core that never feels truly scary or even all that demented- just overly intricate and alienating to anyone outside of the Marvel purview. It’s an MCU film, for better or worse.
5 out of 10