‘Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’ Review – MarkMeets Reporter

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness review

Benedict Cumberbatch Returns for a Head-Trip Sequel That’s Both Entertaining and Exhausting. It’s an unhinged ride, a CGI horror jam, a Marvel brainteaser and, at moments, a bit of an ordeal.

Longtime Sam Raimi fans may be deflated by an early scene in his return to superhero films, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. When every sorcerer in the Himalayan hideout of Kamar-Taj takes up arms against the planet’s most powerful threat, a vast, billowing stormcloud would seem to herald a battle with plenty of room for Army of Darkness­-style mayhem. But instead of Harryhausen skeletons and whiplash camera moves, we get the usual “my magic CGI rays are stronger than your magic CGI rays” business, albeit with a bit of mind-control thrown in.

Don’t despair yet: The director will show flashes of his distinctive style in the very next sequence, and by the end, Madness will become the first Marvel adventure in which a rotting corpse rises to fight alongside the good guys and a swarm of inky demons assembles like a hellish Voltron. Cameras tilt and reflections do scary things. (Yeah, the littlest True Believers should sit this one out.)

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness – “A little more ordinary than its director/material match promises”.

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Though unsatisfying in some respects, the film is enough fun to make one wish for a portal to a variant universe in which Marvel movies spent more time exploiting their own strengths and less time trying to make you want more Marvel movies. (Ideally, it would be a world in which this multiverse-centric yarn wasn’t released just weeks after the wilder and more entertaining Everything Everywhere All at Once.)

And maybe, in that universe, this film would be the last superhero flick to employ the rapidly aging plot device in which infinite parallel dimensions contain every version of reality you can imagine, and many you can’t. The multiverse is a fascinating idea to daydream about — and, along with simulation theory, may be on track to become something like an agnostic, nihilism-friendly new religion. But while it’s great fodder for one-off films like Everything, page-turning genre novels like Max Barry’s The 22 Murders of Madison May, or the anarchic Rick and Morty, it’s gilding the lily for something like Marvel’s universe, which already contains a practically infinite number of weird characters and unlikely events. Three of Marvel’s biggest recent features (including one of its best, Into the Spider-Verse) are built entirely upon hopping between parallel universes; throw in similar ideas like time machines that cause splintering timelines, and the conceit starts to look like a franchise-sustaining crutch.

(The multiverse is also great for pandering: Here, an extended trip to one dimension provides for fan-service cameos that tease possible new Marvel productions and briefly bring some What If…? animated characters to life.)

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Given all this, it’s surprising the MCU has taken so long to present a character whose most distinctive power lets her open portals between universes. Introduced in Marvel’s printed comics in 2011 and given her own series in 2017, America Chavez (played here by Xochitl Gomez) was born in an Edenic universe and seems to have cast herself out of it: When we see her origin story in flashback, the poor child accidentally shoots her parents into another dimension when she’s frightened. (Those parents are both women; America is what our universe would identify as Latina; and in the comics she’s a lesbian. If right-wing blowhards aren’t already soiling themselves about a woke takeover of comics — “they’re coming for Peter Parker’s job!” — some will be soon.)

Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) meets America when a giant, many-tentacled cyclops monster starts chasing her through lower Manhattan. But America has met Stephen Strange already: While trying to stay alive in other universes, she has gone to other incarnations of Doctor Strange, each of whom failed to stop her pursuers. Don’t judge them too harshly — it turns out these beasties are controlled by Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), whose powers (and grief-fueled madness) have grown immensely since the events of WandaVision.

Wanda (aka The Scarlet Witch) wants to steal America’s portal-making power so she can travel to a dimension in which she really does have the two perfect sons she dreamed up for herself in WandaVision, and she doesn’t care how many people die in the process. (Why not look for a dimension in which her beloved husband Vision is still alive? Nobody asks. But even in her current state, she probably realizes Vision would not approve.)

With the help of his former sidekick Wong (Benedict Wong), who is now the Sorcerer Supreme, our Doctor Strange does manage to keep Wanda at bay temporarily, jumping with America into who-knows-where. The movie has a bit of fun blipping through strange new worlds before landing in a utopian (or merely climate-change-acknowledging) one where skyscrapers are covered with hanging gardens and wind turbines. Here, Stephen Strange is a martyr who gave his life saving the world, and his old comrade-turned-enemy Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) reveres the fallen hero.

But all is not as it seems. Cue the aforementioned cameos, which won’t be spoiled here. Suffice to say that this Earth’s surviving heroes see any version of Strange as a threat, thanks to his penchant for believing only he can save the day.

They’re not entirely wrong. As his old flame Christine (Rachel McAdams) points out, this Doctor is only comfortable when he’s the guy holding the scalpel. Of the several ideas that recur in Michael Waldron’s script often enough they beg to be identified as Themes, this one’s the most persuasive: From the start, Strange has been an arrogant savior-of-inferiors, a Tony Stark without the misogyny and douchey wardrobe. (Another late-emerging theme in the script, in which people have to urge Strange to face his fears, is much harder to reconcile with what we’ve seen of him to date. Waldron, a multiverse veteran who’s worked on Rick and Morty, melded timeline-hopping and character development much more successfully in the Loki miniseries.)

The action on this Earth — let’s call it the Illuminati Universe — ends with a lot of big-deal deaths, which is no guarantee these same actors won’t play these characters in another version of things down the line. The movie hasn’t done much to give us a feel for who America is — unlike Spider-Man, she’s not so well known you can just drop her into somebody else’s movie and know we’ll fall in love with her — and the character is further diminished when, as they’re moving to the next act, she briefly seems to be here mainly to validate our hero. America has seen dozens of universes and a few Stephen Stranges, but this one, she says, is different. He’s better.

Fortunately, the movie’s last act is its best. Though never as darkly weird as its Lovecrafty title promised, Madness starts to play more to Raimi’s strengths — it’s looser, more kinetic and occasionally goofy despite the big stakes — and to offer some visions that may stick in viewers’ heads even after they’ve started devouring trailers for stories set in Wakanda, Asgard and the Quantum Realm.

There’s been lots of talk recently about Raimi returning to Spider-Man, which might be fun. But the mysteries of Stephen Strange’s arcane world have barely been tapped, and the character seems ready for the kind of left turn Thor took when Taika Waititi got the reins. The inertia of Marvel always points toward galactic-grade threats and pile-ons of superpowered heroes. But it’s fun to imagine them giving Raimi a small fraction of the usual budget, authorizing an R rating for the third Doctor Strange and saying “go make a Sam Raimi horror film.”

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