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The mystical mayhem of ‘Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’

May 9, 2022
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What if the biggest franchise in the history of cinema was given carte blanche to do (and undo) whatever they wanted in the name of storytelling?

That’s essentially what happened with the Marvel Cinematic Universe once the concept of the multiverse was introduced. Basically, the MCU can now do anything and everything it chooses to any character, all with the knowledge that, should they so choose, they can simply handwave it away with one sentence about another universe.

The latest entry in the series (number 28, but who’s counting?) is “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” directed by the legendary Sam Raimi from a script by Michael Waldron. It’s an effort to go deeper into the implications of the aforementioned multiverse and the impact that can be had on it by those who possess both the willingness and the capability to cross from universe to universe.

It’s a sequel to 2016’s “Doctor Strange,” of course, but it also connects directly with an assortment of other MCU properties from both the film and television realms. The film features more horror and horror-adjacent action than other MCU films while also embracing moments of genuine slapstick, both of which are Raimi hallmarks.

However, this is a movie that lost its original writer/director Scott Derrickson midstream … and there are spots where you can definitely see the seams, particularly in the film’s front half. It is busy and a bit confusing at times. And while it’s always advisable to be caught up with previous offerings when you go in, you almost have to have seen a couple of things – “Wandavision” most prominently – to fully understand what’s going on.

Still, the pros outweigh the cons. Benedict Cumberbatch has the snarky charm cranked up, there are a ton of cameos and Easter eggs and Sam Raimi gets to show off the uniquely skewed style and aesthetic that made him famous. It’s a Marvel movie infused with cosmic (and comic) horrors, a combination that results in an engaging, albeit uneven superhero adventure.

We start in media res, with Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and a young woman named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) speeding through some sort of physics-defying realm with a fiery flying demon in hot pursuit. Apparently, the monster wants to steal America’s powers and Doctor Strange wants to use a magical book to defeat it. Alas, he is too late – the monster catches them and kills Strange as he tries to hold it off. America, meanwhile, panics and a star-shaped hole in space opens up; she and the dead Strange go through it.

This is when we learn that America is a traveler through the multiverse, landing this time in the universe we know. Doctor Strange is alive and well here. OK, well-ish – he’s on his way to attend the wedding of the love of his life Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) to another man.

But when America shows up, pursued by yet another monster, this one a giant octopus-type thing with a single enormous eye, Doctor Strange leaps into action alongside his old friend Wong (Benedict Wong) – Earth’s current Sorcerer Supreme following Strange’s five-year disappearance due to the Blip – saving the girl even as he’s unsure of exactly what is happening.

When Strange recognizes the runes on the monster as being connected to the evil mystical tome known as the Darkhold, he approaches the one person he knows who has dealt directly with that dark magic – Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), now in isolation after the tragic events that took place in Westview (again – you REALLY need to have seen “Wandavision” for this one).

Turns out that all of this is springing from Wanda’s desire to be reunited with the children she magically created back in Westview. She believes that by accessing the multiverse, she can find a universe where her children are real and she can take over the life of that world’s Wanda and recreate her family.

It gets pretty chaotic after that, with Wanda attacking and wreaking havoc on Kamar-Taj, the headquarters of this universe’s Masters of the Mystic Arts. America inadvertently transports herself and Doctor Strange to another universe – one similar to but not quite the same as our own – where they both learn just how wide-ranging the dangers that they face might be … and not all of them will come at the hands of the Scarlet Witch.

Look, there’s a ton more plot here, but my antipathy toward spoilers precludes me from revealing any more specifics. Suffice it to say, there’s a bunch of stuff that happens, with all kinds of superhero action and crazy mystical artistry and a few fantastic set pieces. Of course, all of that is also mixed in with some difficult to parse plot machinations and some effects work that comes off rough enough to feel unfinished.

As I said – this is an uneven movie, to be sure. But the highest highs of “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” far outstrip the lowest lows; you’ll probably have some issues, but again – the pros outweigh the cons.

Let’s talk about those pros. First, I’m going to go in on Sam Raimi. This marks Raimi’s first movie in almost a decade; he hasn’t directed a feature since 2013’s “Oz the Great and Powerful,” about which the less said, the better. However, he is also the guy who gave us two of the most influential cinematic trilogies in the last half-century of cinema – the “Evil Dead” movies and the first “Spider-Man” movies. He basically redefined the horror genre AND opened the door for the massive monolith that superhero movies would become; as to whether the latter is actually a good thing, well … your mileage may vary).

Raimi’s fingerprints are all over the back half of this movie, once we move past the plot machinations and start getting weird. We see a number of Raimi’s stylistic hallmarks, born of the DIY spirit of the “Evil Dead” films. Few directors can marry the extremity of horror with the absurdity of slapstick like Raimi does, and those moments abound; said extremity is at work throughout the film’s final hour, used for both dramatic and comedic effect. We also get the quippy flawed hero vibe – Doctor Strange isn’t the reluctant savior that Ash is, but it’s close enough.

As a visual experience, we get some moments that are absolutely killer (there’s a multiverse traversal sequence at one point that is an aesthetic delight) and some that feel rushed and/or unfinished. There are more of the former, but when the latter ones pop up, it may well pull you out of the film.

Cumberbatch remains an excellent fit for Doctor Strange. Sure, the powers that be could not be more obvious about the desire to elevate him to fill the Robert Downey Jr./Tony Stark space in the MCU, but there’s little question that Cumberbatch’s dry wit and general archness translates very well to the character. He seems comfortable with the fact that he and Stephen Strange are going to be together for a while, and he performs accordingly, even when the narrative action doesn’t give him much of a logical leg to stand upon.

The Wanda Maximoff heel turn has been one of the most inspired moves we’ve seen from the latter stages of the MCU – one that pays off strongly here thanks to the continued strong work of Elizabeth Olsen. Her dive into the shadows has made for a great arc; Olsen balances the character’s fearsomeness and vulnerability with a deftness one wouldn’t have anticipated when she turned up in the MCU a decade ago. Gomez holds her own on the screen as she goes, though the truth is that the underdevelopment of America Chavez is one of the bigger issues with the film. Still, when she’s given a moment, she embraces it. The guess is that someone wanted the Strange/America dynamic to match that of Tony Stark and Peter Parker; it never gets there, but that’s the fault of the script, not the performer.

As for the rest? Benedict Wong remains an unsung hero in the MCU – I love Wong unabashedly, both with Strange and on his own. McAdams is woefully underutilized here (just as she was in the first film, alas) and seems to be here solely because someone decided Strange needed a love interest. And there are a TON of cameos that I won’t discuss here because of spoilers; just know that there will be some familiar faces and/or characters due to assorted multiverse shenanigans.

In some ways, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” feels like two movies – the straightforward MCU offering of the first half and the Raimi-inspired weirdness of the second. It’s enough to make one wonder how different this film might have been had it not been upended by the double whammy of switching directors AND the myriad pandemic delays. Hell, this movie was initially supposed to precede “Wandavision” – that alone would have made an incredible difference.

Still, this film’s flaws aren’t so egregious as to undermine the general enjoyment of the movie – at least not for me. There are issues, sure, but there are also a lot of really intense and interesting moments unlike anything we’ve really seen in the MCU thus far. Cumberbatch and Olsen are great as they lead the way, with Raimi putting his idiosyncratic stamp on as much as he can.

“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” might not be what we expected, but there’s a lot to like. It isn’t perfect, but it’s an awfully good time at the movies (and it’s even better if you’ve done the reading … er, watching). So sit back and let the good doctor cast his spell.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 09 May 2022 09:14

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