DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS ½
PG-13, 126 mins.
2022, PG-13, 126 mins.
Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Stephen Strange / Sinister Strange / Defender Strange / Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff / The Scarlet Witch / Chiwetel Ejiofor as Karl Mordo / Master Mordo / Benedict Wong as Wong / Defender Wong / Xochitl Gomez as America Chavez / Rachel McAdams as Dr. Christine Palmer / Michael Stuhlbarg as Dr. Nicodemus West / Julian Hilliard as Billy Maximoff / Jett Klyne as Tommy MaximoffDirected by Sam Raimi / Written by Michael Waldron
The wonderfully titled DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS is the 28th entry in the longstanding Marvel Cinematic Universe and, yes, a direct sequel to 2016's DOCTOR STRANGE (which was, astoundingly enough, 14 MCU entries ago). That character introduction endeavor did a solid job of establishing the mystical and ancient magic unleashing hero that Stan Lee and Steve Ditko gave birth to in the 1960s, and - unlike so many other MCU solo features - it felt rewardingly self-contained as a origin film while having its feet firmly entrenched in the larger franchise around it.
Its long awaited
sequel is arguably one of the most refreshingly weird MCU installments and
takes many calculated chances with the underlining material, which is
largely thanks to an injection of director Sam Raimi's quirky energy.
However, one thing that definitely holds this sequel back is that
it's so awash with CG sound and fury that it all but drowns out the
intriguing characters and the human (and not so human) element. It's a shame, because Benedict Cumberbatch's titular surgeon
turned super hero is easily the most compelling MCU character this side of
Tony Stark, but here he seems sidelined by all of the ostentatious
spectacle happening around him.
It should be
noted too that DOCTOR STRANGE 1's director in the highly capable Scott
Derrickson stepped down from his position behind the camera for this
second outing (citing creative differences with Disney) and in his place
is Raimi, who's obviously no stranger whatsoever to both the super hero
genre and Disney pictures (he made the original Sony-verse SPIDER-MAN
trilogy of the 2000s as well as helming more family fare for the House of
Mouse like OZ THE GREAT AND
STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS is Raimi's first film in nearly a
decade, and it's pretty clear early on that his penchant and love for both
comic books and horror (remember, this is the same man that quarterbacked
the immortal EVIL DEAD films) has been injected into this follow-up's DNA.
Raimi is opting to make this DOCTOR STRANGE a far kookier and more
macabre affair, which hones in on his core strengths as a darkly eccentric
director (this might be as close as the MCU has come to an outright horror
film). I admired the frequent
and rampant depravity of some of the choices here, and it's a welcome
thing to see Raimi not simply mining from the increasingly stale book of
MCU contrivances and formulas. DOCTOR
STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS is a Sam Raimi film in look and mood
throughout, but even his infectious stylistic trappings can only go so far
to save a film that's a victim of trying to do too many things at once,
and often to distracting effect.
When we last met
Strange he was guilty of some would say a criminal lack of proper
leadership and judgment in SPIDER-MAN:
NO WAY HOME, during which time he granted a fairly selfish minded
Peter Parker's wish to cast a spell that would make the world forget he
was Spider-Man (yup, it didn't go at all as planned).
It appears that this ordeal - on top of the galaxy spanning
implications of helping the Avengers thwart Thanos beforehand - has left
their mark on Strange; he's definitely in need of some downtime.
Of course, no super hero's life can ever go to a place of normalcy,
and Strange's momentary attempts at R & R are turned upside down with
the appearance of America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a young woman with
abilities well beyond any other Marvel hero.
She has the capabilities to zap herself from one universe to
another, but she can only do so when scared or emotionally prompted to
(sort of like the Hulk, I guess). In
the opening sections of the film she is pursued into Strange's universe by
a gigantic one-eyed monster, which the former has to take down before it
ravages the city. Two things
popped up in my mind during this sequence: (a) The VFX are as top notch
here as they are in any MCU entry and (b) in terms of one-eyed monsters
wreaking havoc in a crowded metropolis, DC's THE
SUICIDE SQUAD did this already and much better.
Aided by the
newly anointed Sorcerer Supreme in Wong (the film's other Benedict, Wong),
Strange attempts to help the very frazzled America while trying to come to
grips with the uneasy realization that this woman is unbelievably powerful
and could be exploited by evil forces for the wrong reasons.
Strange feels that he needs some help in sorting this all out, so
he seeks out Wanda "Scarlet Witch" Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen),
but he learns to his horror that she wants to kidnap the poor multiverse
hopping girl and steal her powers so she can travel to another universe
and be with her doppelganger's children (this would also involve the
murder of not only America, but this other universe's Wanda).
Fully comprehending the limitless danger that he's now in with a
being as powerful as Wanda going full-on bad, Strange decides to leave his
universe with America by his side and sneaks into multiple other universes
to stave off Wanda's obsessive stalking.
Predictably enough, this leads to the Master of the Mystic Arts
coming in contact with...well...other iterations of himself on top of
other iconic MCU heroes.
Raimi seems like
the pitch perfect candidate to helm the unrelenting weirdness of DOCTOR
STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS, and I think that it's impossible for
him at this stage in his illustrious career to make a bad looking film.
This sequel is ripe with astounding visual flourishes, which gives
Raimi the highly unique opportunity to not only put his distinctive stamp
on Strange's world, but also allows for him to imagine all of the various
other realties that Strange and America zip in and out of through their
adventure. In one of the film's most technically bravura moments, we see
the pair career from one universe to the next: In one reality, their forms
look like jigsaw puzzle-like bricks, whereas in another they take the
shape of sinewy globes of expressionistic paint.
There's also one indescribably nifty fight sequence pitting Strange
against another opponent (whom I shall not spoil); let's just say that in
the latter's reality they're able to use musical notes as projectile
weapons. Hell, at one point
we even get a ghastly undead and multiple-armed version of Strange
dominating the story (yeah, too complicated to explain here) that many die
hard fans of Raimi's early horror films will drink in with nostalgic
reverence (there's even a disturbing looking spell book - the MacGuffun of
the film - that looks an awful lot like the Necronomicon from EVIL DEAD).
The chaotic imagery on display in DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE
OF MADNESS is, to be fair, deliriously glorious to behold at times; you
can really sense Raimi's enthusiasm in leaping into this film's bizarre
Here's the thing,
though: The first DOCTOR STRANGE entry did a superb job of chronicling the
fall and rise of Stephen Strange, who went from a narcisstic a-hole
surgeon extraordinaire to a critically injured victim (that shattered his
ego forever) and he eventually redeemed himself into a healed and
empowered hero that found novel ways to practice the Hippocratic Oath
through his new magic abilities. The
major dilemma of DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS is that all
of the performance and presence good will of Cumberbatch in this
fascinating role are sort of betrayed by the sheer bigness of this sequel.
There's simply too much movie in this movie, and more often
than I felt like I was watching a series of remarkably and outlandishly
cool vignettes of pure visual pathos (that, again, Raimi can conjure in
his sleep) in search of a coherent and engaging story...not to mention a
sense of purpose. Much of
DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS is battling multiple divergent
tones all at once: Sometimes it's a horror film, other times it's campy,
whereas other times it's solemn and grave.
Cumberbatch is indeed as refined as ever in what's becoming a
career defining character for him, but Strange and the film he occupies
never generates a firm identity of its own or much depth beyond what was
established in his last origin entry.
For every small scale and intimately rendered scene with
Cumberbatch there are substantially many others with him being green-screened
into one LSD tripping environment after another, and the rinse and repeat
nature of this gets staler as the film progresses.
And much like so
many of the other recent solo MCU films, this DOCTOR STRANGE sequel feels
slavish in its desire to continue on progressively more convoluted MCU
story arcs established beforehand, so much so that you're left wondering
whether or not you're watching a DOCTOR STRANGE film or another lower
scaled AVENGERS entry.
Probably more so than ever now (and perhaps annoyingly to some),
watching a big screen MCU adventure requires intimate knowledge of the
studio's small screen ancillary properties, more specifically WANDAVISION.
I can categorically state that if you've never seen Scarlet Witch's
Disney+ streaming series (and I have not) then you'll probably be
hopelessly lost with what's happening in terms of subplots and character
motivations in DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS.
To the uninitiated, Wanda's transformation from Avengers do-gooder
to a venomously self-interested and mass murdering villain here won't make
all that much sense beyond the Cliff Notes-esque referencing to what
happened to her in WANDAVISION. I
think that evolving Olson's character in such a way is endlessly
enthralling on a conceptual level, but it seems awkwardly shoehorned in
here. That, and viewers will
require an intimate knowledge of the past comings and goings of this
character in other media to make any sense of what's transpiring in DOCTOR
STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS.
This might be the first solo MCU event film that almost requires a
dense mythology road map being given out to audiences beforehand.
forgetting the main star attraction of DOCTOR STRANGE (namely, Strange
himself and his world) and its incessant need to prop up the weight of MCU
bloat, the whole concept of a Marvel multiverse (that's being used as
interconnective tissue in films as far ranging as SPIDER-MAN to now this)
is a highly problematic one. It
gives writers/directors an opportunity to introduce key Marvel characters
that have yet to appear in the MCU (granted, in fleeting and obnoxiously
fan service-y ways), but it all but reduces the dramatic stakes in these
films. Characters die?
No problem. Poof!
They can come back (in different forms).
Not happy with the actions of another character and the aftermath? Bam! Problem
easily solved with multiverse tinkering.
This also has the calamitous effect of jettisoning the established
mythology logic of the MCU as a whole and forces fans to ask more
questions than they probably should, like, for instance, why didn't Thanos
use some multiverse trekking to achieve his end game and secure total
victory...and multiple times over? Why
not warn other Thanoses (not sure of the plural on that) of the Avenger's
plot to stop him? You can
grow cross eyed at the thorny multiverse arcs to these films unavoidably
can alter previous and future story trajectories and render moments of
finality null and void. It's
almost like using time travel to easily solve rather complicated plot
problems (oh wait, AVENGERS: ENDGAME
already did that).
Maybe I'm getting a tad ahead of myself here in my review of DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS. I liked the concept here of magic users battling other more powerful magic users (especially ones that were once former allies now turned enemies) and Raimi's untapped imagination often does this sequel great service and makes it so memorably bonkers. I'm also glad that attempts were made to give female characters something more to do here, albeit in - as mentioned - a misguided and hastily quick character transformation for Wanda (at least Olson gives it her performance all) and (not mentioned) a return for Rachel McAdams in a far meatier role and capacity. There's also the appealing presence of Gomez as her very special reality segueing hero, but America is more of a plot device here than a fully realized character. And unlike some of the assembly line aesthetic sameness of far too many MCU projects (which render many solid directors as workers for hire), in DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS you can really feel the filmmaker's sensibilities in the film (much like, say, what James Gunn brought to GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY). But this DOCTOR STRANGE makes the cardinal mistake of so many tentpole blockbuster sequels in confusing more with better. Instead of expanding upon the established lore and character trajectory of Strange himself, this sequel seems more obligated to be a MCU content generating machine to continue a mass marketed brand. Rather mournfully, DOCTOR STRANGE has too many parties casting too many spells for its own good.