Doctor Strange 2 (as I’ll be referring to it for brevity), is the first MCU instalment to surprise me since Avengers Infinity War was released in 2018. Mainly because it tries to switch things up with the tone. It tries very hard to lean into the cosmic horror aspects of travelling alternate realities, and sometimes even succeeds at it, but is often let down by still feeling like a generic Marvel movie any time something fantastical isn’t happening.
The movie follows a Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) trying to protect a girl called America (Xochitl Gomez), who can travel to different realities, from the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) who wants to use America’s powers to find a reality where she can settle down with the children she lost in her own reality. But existing in another reality for too long when you’re from another one would apparently cause the whole thing to get destroyed and also the Scarlet Witch would have to kill the other version of herself who is the mother to her kids in that reality in order to replace her. A simple plot with some odd complexities to it.
As you may imagine, lots of fantastical stuff happen; Doctor Strange fights a big octopus thing, and then a big floating mummy, and then has to escape the Scarlet Witch and somehow fight her. All the action in this movie is very unique, as far as the MCU goes. A lot of it is played for suspense, horror and shock over pure spectacle, which is new. There’s a scene where they’re hiding from the Scarlet Witch and she is hunting them by finding their reflections in water and mirrors. It’s played as a straight horror sequence and lends itself well to establishing her as a scary villain. And even the more generic action sequences pack much more of a punch than most other Marvel movies because of how they indulge a bit more in violence. Seeing CGI blobs use world-ending powers on each other only for them to bounce off a wall or two gets old, and this movie makes it feel fresh as we see these powers use to blow people’s brains out and cut people in half.
There’s been a lot of online discourse about how this movie “pushes the limit of what a PG-13 movie can show”, but that simply isn’t true. There are spooky aspects to this movie and violent scenes, but more than anything it’s pushing what directors can get away with inside the MCU, rather than within the film’s rating. These films have been so widely circulated and so safe until now that this one coming along to be a bit edgier seems to have reminded people Marvel movies don’t have to be all the same. They can be spooky. They can be violent. And you don’t have to slap an R rating on it to get that kind of movie. More than anything, the fact this film only slightly veers away from the safe Marvel depictions of villains and violence and still got huge props for it shows just how accepting audiences would be of Marvel if they took a few more risks.
But if this slightly different movie can usher in MCU movies that are more different, then I’m down for that. Because the truth is this movie wasn’t particularly special. There’s a plot about protecting a girl and the movie, because it’s based in alternate realities, just invents new spells, powers and locations on a whim to get from A to B as soon as possible and just expects the audience to be okay with it. That’s always been one of my issues with Doctor Strange. Most heroes like Superman and Spiderman all have well defined powers so we know the limits of their powers, but Strange just invents new spells to cast as and when he needs them. There’s no telling how weak or powerful he is, only that he’s not as powerful as the Scarlet Witch.
The only thing I’d say is of any particular note is Elizabeth Olsen’s performance. She’s been the Scarlet Witch many times before, but this might be her peak in the role. She seems more comfortable in the role of a villain and brings a lot of sympathy to the character despite all the horrific things we know she has done and will continue to do, just through how she portrays her. I’m glad she got play a bigger role in this film as the primary antagonist, as she was normally relegated to the role of one of the less important Avengers in previous outings.
One final thing worth mentioning is how deep the MCU rabbit hole is now. It’s at a point where if you’ve watched a spin-off TV show exclusive to Disney+ you’ll perfectly understand exactly what Scarlet Witch’s motivations are, how they came to be and find her going from hero to villain to be a completely natural thing to do… But if you haven’t been keeping up with every Scarlet Witch outing in cinema and on TV, the most explanation you’ll get for her motivation is just the film telling you “this totally makes sense”, even if it doesn’t from your limited perspective. And I don’t blame people who have a limited perspective on the MCU; not everyone likes all these films. Some people just watch the ones with their favourite superheroes in, others just watch them casually and not as die hard fans. So one of this movie’s greatest strengths – how it pulls together Scarlet Witch’s character arc – is ultimately one of it’s greatest faults as it asks a quite lot from the audience to fully appreciate.
So even though I would like to recommend this movie to most people, again I’d only recommend it to MCU fans. But then, they’re the only people still in it for the long run at this point. So who else is there for me to recommend it to? I don’t know. I suppose it’s worth a watch just to figure out the answer to the title question. Can Marvel movies change?