Last year’s monster Spider-Man: No Coming Home unleashed the limitless — or terrifying, depending on your perspective — possibilities of the MCU’s multiverse, a world in which every character you’ve ever known, loved or rolled your eyes at could be employed in the franchise in perpetuity; where old villains and heroes could be resurrected, and the only real mortality was due to an actor’s expired contract.
Marvel’s latest, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, is here to double down on that sense of fun or dread, offering another journey into the infinitely expanding, albeit oddly unimaginative, realm of multiple realities and favorites. of the franchise dusted off for a renewed screen service (at least until their double deepfakes can be perfected).
It’s been six years since the first Doctor Strange, although we’ve seen plenty of characters since: in Thor: RagnarokAvengers: Infinity War and End of Gameand in No Way Home, where Benedict Cumberbatch’s sorcerer goat – who throws magical hand shapes like a rejection of a ballroom voguing contest – played a central, if accidental, role in opening the portal. to the multiple realities of the MCU.
In Multiverse of Madness, Strange ruminates on the marriage of his ex, Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), when a gigantic one-eyed octopus – much like the clumsy starfish that animated last year suicide squad – crash-lands in Midtown Manhattan, determined to capture a teenage girl, America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez).
Decked out in a faded denim jacket adorned with stars, stripes and a rainbow flag lapel pin – Chavez is canonically queer, much to the chagrin of the grief of Disney’s international accountants – it is an all-powerful entity in the form of a girl, gifted with the ability to move through the multiverse.
Naturally, the infamous parties want a piece of American talent, especially Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), the villainous alter ego of ex-Avenger Wanda Maximoff, whose peaceful suburban life is about to be disrupted by her evil old self.
In pursuit of her prize, Scarlet Witch manages to kidnap Strange’s mentor, Wong (Benedict Wong), but the Doctor and America escape her clutches, tumbling through a kaleidoscopic montage and into another New York. universe – an eerily utopian city that resembles the future imagined by an 80s movie.
Unlike the CGI-soaked boredom and misshapen authorism of much of the recent MCU, Multiverse of Madness is elevated – if barely – by the singular mind of director Sam Raimi, the kinetic filmmaker behind the Evil Dead series, drag me to hell and, of course, the 2002-2007 trilogy of Spider-Man films that helped kick-start this century’s cycle of superhero cinema.
Raimi’s Spider-Man movies were playful pop confections mostly unburdened of the weight of endless sequel phases and IP world-building, shot through with a genuine sense of comic book fun – and above all, compelling characterization. – which has become increasingly difficult to find in Marvel. charmless content factory.
The Multiverse of Madness is at its best – unsurprisingly – when it indulges in Raimi’s flourishes: angled angles, creepy eyeballs, a cameo from Bruce Campbell (not a spoiler – he’s not a character MCU, at least not yet).
The darker the movie gets, the more Raimi he is: a sequence involving possession of zombies and a wizard’s lair being stalked by demons and dark souls is as close to Evil Dead as we’re likely to get into a movie of this budget, while Raimi Spider-Man composer Danny Elfman returns with a hard-hitting score that, on occasion, manages to give the visuals a bit of operatic ballast.
“I’m going to show these kids how to take a superhero picture,” Raimi joked with Rolling Stone of his return to the Marvel fold, and in those moments, well, you really want to believe him.
But Raimi has become a stranger in a not so strange country.
The filmmaker, who with Darkman (1990) demonstrated a sense of the tragedy inherent in the genre, cannot compete with the rote procession of one-liners and franchise callbacks in Loki writer Michael Waldron’s screenplay, or a plot convoluted that fails to raise compelling stakes, in a world where everything seems to exist for Pavlovian fan response.
Granted, it’s a fan movie, but crowd-pleasers come at the expense of its character development and the ability for its actors to explore. to find interesting dimensions and conflicts in the story.
The film’s dive into the multiverse should upend all of our expectations and challenge audiences’ familiarity with this franchise, but it mostly functions as another check-in quest, a safe moral battleground between good and evil in which the heroes and the wicked are never in doubt.
There’s not even an alternate universe cameo from Bronco Henry.
Compared to that other recent trip to the multiverse, Daniels’ scatological but heartfelt Everything everywhere all at once, Multiverse of Madness seems pedestrian in its conceit; narratively and visually, it fails to imagine a world that seems surreal or dangerous, turning the dizzying possibilities of infinity into a sketchy action chant where the characters bark jalopies like “Get out of my universe!”
As America, trapped in a cell in an alternate world, at one point snaps, “This universe sucks!”
Cumberbatch, Wong, and Chiwetel Ejiofor, back as Strange’s mystical rival Mordo, are all charismatic performers who bring moments of wit and levity, but they don’t play characters as much as they run expositions, action figures, cynical portraits of soda cups. (Attempting to enlist Wanda on her mission, Strange even promises her, “We’ll bring you back a box lunch.”)
Gomez is a fiery addition to the movie, though America Chavez looks more like a setup for future installments; at the same time, his character’s name provides some of the best involuntary laughs in the film (“America, I came here to tell you to trust yourself,” Strange says at one point, with a bravely straight face).
The only vaguely interesting performance comes from Olsen, who gave some chewing material as the part’s split-personality villain. Yet there’s something deeply disconcerting, almost misogynistic, about the way his character is written — a boring spin on wholesome maternal purity versus the pagan “other” — that undermines the actor’s best attempts. to generate empathy. Moments where various men doubt the authenticity of the character’s claims to mother earth with an unpleasant odor – not the kind of reaction the film hopes to elicit in the current charged climate.
It’s enough to make you want Scarlet Witch to run away with the movie and weed out some of those virtuous and wise annoying ones in the process.
But Multiverse of Madness isn’t that movie, and try as Raimi might, there’s only so much directorial verve he can bring to a project designed to put another stone in the wall for Phase 4. from Marvel, to blur a story that is both convoluted and incredibly dull.
Is it a success in itself, as a film for fans? Sure. Most likely. Who’s to say? Multiverse of Madness needn’t appeal to the uninitiated since most audiences are already in the bag for its schtick.
If you’ve ever felt yourself sinking slowly into your multiplex seat as the assembled crowd screamed and hollered at the mere appearance of a character you barely recognized – let alone care about – then this film, like so many others from the recent Marvel Cinematic Universe, was expressly not for you.
But the bubble has to burst at some point. As Raimi’s film piles on cameos from Marvel properties past and present, there’s a sense that this universe – reduced to a park of rotating business interests – might finally be on the verge of collapsing on himself.
When that happens, it might be time for a new generation to embrace new heroes – or, better yet, not at all.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is in theaters now.
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