Wednesday, June 8, 2022

REVIEW: Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness


Marvel has a real problem here; they are a ship sailing in the night with not destination or port. Prior to the last two Avengers films (Infinity Way and Endgame) there was a build up and a reason to stay up to date with each of the twenty odd films they released. Now there is no such guidepost for audiences, nothing to keep them hooked other than a mixture of true fandom and a confused instinct to consume everything Marvel that was built up over the past decade. Now they must rely on each film standing on its own, ensuring that audiences don’t need to be up to date and instead focus on the individual merits of it which can be a mixed bag.

Enter the most recent entry into the MCU and the second Doctor Strange film, the Multiverse of Madness. Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a character who seems to thrive as part of an ensemble cast and tends to be his least interesting when he is the central focus, which is likely why they infused his latest adventure with a myriad of other arguably more complex individuals. Sadly, that remains the case here despite everyone’s best efforts to give the master of the mystic arts something more to do other than wave his hands around, cast spells with a range of colors, and float around with a cape that has ten times the personality he does as his only defining attributes.

Doctor Strange is faced with his own madness.

The film opens with your atypical MCU special effects extravaganza with characters leaping around a greenscreen fighting off a CGI monstrosity all the while trying to reach some sort of holy artifact that will save the day. Alas it is all a dream, or was it? Quickly we are introduced to a post-Spider-man: No Way Out Doctor Strange who is no longer the Sorcerer Supreme and is busy attending the wedding of his former assistant Nurse and still clearly obsessed over friend Christine (Rachel McAdams). This mundane affair is quickly interrupted by a nearby attack by yet another CGI creature who has its own obsession, a young woman named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) with a wardrobe straight out of the 80’s.

Doctor Strange, along with his longtime pal and current Sorcerer Supreme Wong (Benedict Wong), make quick work of creature and save the girl who wastes no time in delivering a large bit of exposition where she explains that she has the power to hop between different multiverses and there is a force of some sort chasing her in an attempt to kill her and steal this massive power. Low and behold though she cannot control when her power manifests itself causing just the right ingredients for chaos to ensue at all the wrong times. Strange and Wong take it upon themselves to try and help her, a feat that has apparently resulted in failure across all the other multiverses America has visited leading up to this point.

Magic takes a dark turn this time around.

To its credit, there is quite a bit going on here despite the rather shallow and rudimentary plot device framing all the action. If you dig a bit deeper there is some decent character work on display amidst all the fanciful what-if scenarios afforded by the whole multiverse conceit. Strange learning to come to terms with his relationships and his tendency to write others off comprise some of the most complexity we have seen for him yet. Cumberbatch does his best with the material, however along with some interesting turns with his other multiverse selves that he encounters, the character is still portrayed as fairly one note which undermines many of the positive steps forward being attempted. As a human being charged with protecting other human beings, he generally doesn’t care too much about them making him one of the least empathetic characters in the MCU.

This is only exacerbated by the presence of Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) who is fresh off her bizarre journey in the Disney+ series WandaVision (not necessary viewing). Olsen is a formidable actress and unlike Cumberbatch is given a rather juicy role to sink her teeth into here. While I can’t divulge too much of the part she plays without giving away many of the film’s more complex surprises, I can say that she plays a significant role in adding real human emotion into the proceedings along with a number of eyebrow raising turns that fans of hers aren’t likely expecting, for better or worse. It isn’t much of a stretch to say that most actors in the MCU are never given this much range to work with and it is obvious that Olsen isn’t taking it for granted as she provides one of the most nuanced performances to come out of an MCU production since Robert Downey Jr. first put on his suit of iron.

Most fans are likely not prepared for this new Wanda.

Everyone else is fine in their extended supporting roles, the most notable being Rachel McAdams who was finally given something more to do than simply being the woman for the superhero to swoon over. Arguably the most important character to the overall plot is newcomer America, who is at the center of everything that happens saddling Gomez with the monumental task of making sure we the audience cares about her otherwise the entire enterprise falls apart. Thankfully she does come through as likeable and rarely approaching any annoying thresholds, but I would be surprised if anyone comes away from the film hotly anticipating her next appearance.

As for the framework surrounding all these characters, I am happy to report it is mostly a rousing success, which is highly subjective in this case as Marvel decided to paint outside the normal MCU lines and employed the unique talents of director Sam Raimi to oversee this journey into madness. Why is it important to know this you ask? It’s simple really, Raimi is one of the most influential creative forces in the horror genre of all time with his Evil Dead films easily some of the most iconic and influential work in the genre. Raimi, also a veteran of the superhero film industry with his own Spider-man trilogy starring Tobey Maguire, has certainly been around the block and his expertise with special effects are on full display.

Some of the different universes seem impossible to live in.

When I first learned that he would be directing MoM I was perplexed, mostly because the filmmaker left the superhero genre behind after having some serious creative differences on his last Spider-man film. Disney and Marvel must have baked into his contract a clause that gave him the majority creative control over the film (not entirely though) otherwise he would have never signed on, and the proof of that is in the pudding as they say because this is without a doubt one of the least MCU-like films to come out of the MCU; that is likely a mixed blessing depending on your expectations for these types of movies.

Raimi’s horror influences are abound all over the place with plenty of references to his previous works (the undead is a particular fondness for him), camera angles, sound effects, and even help from the normal assortment of Raimi faithful; from a special type of car to Danny Elfman providing the familiar yet excellent soundtrack. Most of all though is how this all effects the atmosphere of the proceedings which depending on the multiverse visited can range from scenic wonderlands to nightmarish landscapes. Simple scenes where a character is chasing another down a hall is suddenly turned into a horror thriller thanks to some simple camera and lighting tricks while the tried-and-true magic battles are given a new “tune” so-to-speak.

All of this helps define the film as something different, which is good but once again only if you like the alternate flavor being provided. Horror isn’t something that most associate with the MCU and will likely alienate some of the Marvel faithful who have come to expect the well-trodden blueprint they are structured with and while it is mostly mild horror (young children might have some nightmares from the visuals) it is enough of a departure that it still risks becoming one of the least liked of all the MCU films simply due to it being different. It was also somewhat inspired to used the multiverse as the backdrop here since it encourages and in many ways highlights those differences without making any permanent changes to the established MCU, this is very evident in the carnival of characters that pop up which are sure to give the Marvel fans plenty to get excited over, even if their screen time is fleeting.

Leave it to Sam Raimi to give us our first taste of the undead in the MCU.

Raimi has expertly mixed many of his own inspirations and techniques with the usual Marvel formula constructing a film experience that is both familiar and unique, but how much you like it will really depend on whether that mixture works for you. Like any creation made up of different elements that don’t normally go together it will come down to if it had just enough of each or whether there was too much of one and not enough of another. For me, I appreciated all the parts of the film where it felt different and embraced the more bizarre moments. Those are going to be the parts that I remember far longer than the any scene filled with CGI creatures fighting CGI characters on a CGI backdrop since those are interchangeable with every other Marvel film ever made.

In the end, the real hurdle Marvel has ahead of it is how do they get audiences hooked again, because despite the many successes of MoM it doesn’t inspire me to care one way or another when or if I see another Marvel film (or TV show for that matter). That isn't a problem most will be concerned with, as I suspect in this post-Endgame MCU most are perfectly happy just cherry-picking future MCU releases based on whether they look interesting or not. Being driven by a binge-like craving to consume everything as soon as it is released is like any drug, once you are off it for a while you begin to wonder why it ever mattered in the first place. There is currently no overarching plot linking any of this new batch of Marvel films and I don’t really have a problem with that even if the financial department at Marvel does.


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