Doctor Strange has been making a hell of a lot of appearances in the MCU of late, and now he finally gets a full-blown sequel. The differences between the original Doctor Strange film and its long-awaited sequel are significant, making for a stronger film than its seminal original.
At the same time, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is something of a mixed bag, doing a lot of things correctly, while sidestepping previously established canon, and bumping into a few walls along the way.
The film begins with an alternate universe version of Doctor Strange attempting to dodge a deadly monster from another dimension, with a young girl in tow. The Sorcerer is sliced to ribbons by the creature, but he manages to aid the young girl’s escape when she creates a portal that throws her into the main MCU universe.
That universe’s Doctor Strange is busy attending the wedding of his lost love Christine Palmer, following their unfortunate split. Strange barely has time to mourn the event before a monster resembling Shuma-Gorath starts rampaging through the city. Wong arrives to help Strange slay the creature, and save the day.
The young girl in question is America Chavez, based on the Young Avengers comic book character introduced in 2011. Chavez possesses the powerful ability to move seamlessly throughout the multiverse, and a nefarious villain wants that power for their own ends.
Strange decides to seek out Wanda Maximoff, now living in isolation following the events of the WandaVision TV show, for information regarding the multiverse. However, Strange soon realizes that Wanda has been corrupted by the powers of the Darkhold, an ancient book of black magic containing a special chapter outlining the Scarlet Witch (in a nod to the comics).
Wanda’s loneliness and yearning for love and purpose has been exacerbated by a recurring dream featuring Billy and Tommy, two sons she crafted during the Westview incident, who are based on real boys living in an alternate universe. Coveting that life for herself, she seeks America’s powers so she can reunite with the boys, and achieve peace.
Strange reinforces Kamar-Taj in preparation for her arrival, and she decimates their numbers with ease, scaring America so badly that she inadvertently opens up a portal which sucks both herself and Strange through multiple dimensions. They eventually land on Earth-838, with Wanda using the powers of the Darkhold to control her alternate universe doppelganger, and find America.
For all its grandiosity and symphonic visuals, Doctor Strange is a very human tale that touches on the desire to belong, and have that picture-perfect life. Strange pines for the love of Christine, even though he knows he can no longer have her. At the same time, Wanda desperately wants to be with her alternate self’s twin sons, whom she loves dearly.
The question is, how far will both go to get what they want? This question is answered throughout the film, with the Darkhold serving as the object of temptation. It turns out that the Doctor Strange of Earth-838 nearly triggered a cataclysmic dimensional incursion, and had to be executed before he could do more damage.
Strange later acquires the Darkhold in one of the film’s most pivotal moments, and he’s faced with the same scenario. For Wanda, the Darkhold represents a means to an end – a way to find peace, happiness and love, while putting all her trials, traumas and tribulations behind her for good… but at what price?
Another subtle theme running through the film’s narrative is the idea of second chances. Earth-838 Strange died a deeply controversial character, and as such, the inhabitants of that universe are not so keen to trust our version. It’s a clever way of asking a very serious question – if a multiverse does exist, do our individual selves all suffer from the same weaknesses and character flaws?
Benedict Cumberbatch continues to steal the show as Doctor Strange, utilizing his built-in charisma, presence and charm to sell the role of the famous Sorcerer. His screen time is front and center from the immediate start of the film, and that helps establish a strong narrative moving forward.
Similarly, Elizabeth Olsen manages to deliver a knockout performance as a very different Wanda Maximoff; one corrupted by the powers of the Scarlet Witch. WandaVision touched on just how far she could fall, but this particular film makes her a truly frightening antagonist, especially with the horror elements thrown into the mix.
Benedict Wong is just as fun as ever to see on screen, and his performance as Wong seems to have matured and evolved a bit more since his last few appearances. As the new Sorcerer Supreme, Wong acts as a solid side character to help push the story forward, without overshadowing the titular hero.
Xochitl Gomez makes for a likeable America Chavez. She’s got just the right disposition, attitude, and sense of vulnerability to make her a sympathetic character. As a sidekick to Strange, she’s neither fantastic, nor terrible. She’s merely there to act as a plot device to motivate the hero and villain, but she handles that job very well, without being annoying.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is one of the freshest MCU films to come out in recent memory, which may not be saying much given the lackluster content of late. It may not have the sense of urgency of a film like Avengers: Infinity War, but it manages to take a relatively straightforward premise and make it seem epic in scale.
With Sam Raimi in the director’s chair, the film is bursting with the same kinetic energy he brought to the original Spider-Man trilogy so many years ago. However, he also leverages his expertise with creepy horror, injecting a healthy dose of it into the film’s second half, and it pays off in a big way.
Raimi was built for a film of this magnitude, and every scene explodes with originality and flair. The sheer level of conceptual creativity is absolutely amazing, and it’s a massive improvement on the original Doctor Strange’s visuals, which seemed to copycat Inception a little too much for comfort.
This is easily one of the most creative, energetic, and fun MCU entries yet, but it’s also the craziest of the bunch. Even far-out MCU films like Thor: Ragnarok and Guardians of the Galaxy cannot match the imaginative, artistic splendor of this film. It’s easily worth watching a few times, just to see what you missed.
Kudos should also be given to Raimi for upping the violence content in this film. MCU movies tend to shy away from bloodletting, but this movie truly pushes the boundaries of a PG-13 rating in a big way. Eyeballs are stabbed and yanked out, necks are snapped, characters are impaled in brutal fashion, and that’s just for starters.
There’s also a lot of flirting with actual black magic, as opposed to Doctor Strange’s “source code of the universe” approach to sorcery. The result is a more macabre and occult film, complete with denizens of Hell making an appearance, in typical Raimi fashion.
The film manages to moonwalk its way through the critical gauntlet and emerge on the other side in relatively good shape. The pacing is excellent, it keeps the viewer engaged throughout its healthy 2 hour and 6 minute running time, and it correctly balances the typical brand of MCU action and comedy with horror, and artistry.
As such, it’s hard to wag a finger at Doctor Strange for stepping out of line. One noteworthy fumble occurs when America Chavez revisits an old memory showing the infamous “two mothers” scene, which will induce eyerolls in most viewers. It’s certainly not enough to derail the film, but it’s Disney once again virtue-signaling for an audience that doesn’t care about its political messaging.
Another unfortunate caveat to Doctor Strange is the need to suffer through the plodding and disappointing WandaVision TV show in order to understand the whole breadth of the story. That’s a sadistic weight to place on anyone, but those intent on seeing the film can always skim through WandaVision’s Wikipedia synopsis and catch up.
And finally, viewers will be forgiven for thinking that the overall narrative of the film doesn’t match their initial interpretations, based on the trailer. The film’s title suggests a descent into unmatched craziness, horror and paranoia, but the reality is much more grounded.
There’s no hopping through insane alternate universes like an out of control roller coaster. Rather, Doctor Strange only hints at these various universes, before depositing its key characters on a single Earth, where much of the action takes place.
As such, the long-surmised darker, bloodier horror tale never really materializes, though Raimi does manage to amp up the scares with his signature expertise. As such, it’s 1/4 what fans were expecting, married to the MCU formula, and polished up by Raimi’s style. That will irritate and disappoint some, while others won’t give a hoot.
THE RAIMI TOUCH
The reason Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness works well is undoubtedly due to the magical touch of Sam Raimi. For a guy who cut his teeth on modestly budgeted cult hits like The Evil Dead, Darkman and Drag Me To Hell, Raimi and superhero tentpole films seem to go together like peanut butter and jelly.
Raimi’s in top form here, using familiar tools from his bag of directorial tricks to compliment the astonishing creative team that helped bring his vision to life. He manages to take the zany and outrageous subject manner, harness it in his hands, and mold it into an enjoyable MCU romp that feels straight out of the franchise’s glory days.
If Doctor Strange is indeed to return, Marvel and Disney would be wise to call Raimi back to the director’s chair so he can make it his own. Original Strange director Scott Derrickson did a decent job lining the character up in the first film, but Raimi has rejigged him into perfect form for future appearances.
That is, of course, if they will allow Raimi to make his film in the way he intended, instead of applying his magic to a formula overseen by too many talking heads.
SURPRISES GALORE (Spoilers Ahead!)
Strange’s visit to Earth-838 is loaded with a few surprises, capitalizing on the shocking reveals seen in the much-beloved Spider-Man: No Way Home. Here, Strange encounters not only a benevolent (we think) version of Baron Mordo, but his fellow members of the Illuminati, who seem to be running the show.
These include John Krasinski as Reed Richards/Mr. Fantastic, in full costume, Patrick Stewart as Charles Xavier, Anson Mount reprising his role as Black Bolt, and Hayley Atwell as Captain Carter, complete with vibranium shield in hand. Lashana Lynch plays an Earth-838 version of Maria Rambeau, now Captain Marvel.
The implications here are interesting, especially Krasinski as Mister Fantastic. With a new Fantastic Four film in development, it’s almost a guarantee that Krasinski would fill that role, and judging by his first appearance in this film, he’s a totally perfect fit.
Less certain is the thought of Patrick Stewart reprising his role as Charles Xavier in a future MCU X-Men film. At 81 years of age, Stewart appears easily winded in recent roles of late, notably his appearance on Star Trek: Picard. However, he does play Xavier with the same conviction and strength of early appearances, and he deserves a lot of credit for that.
Hayley Atwell’s Captain Carter cameo is, unfortunately, quite painful, and the way she’s presented makes it obvious that Disney has plans for her in future projects. Sorry Disney, but Peggy Carter was best as Peggy Carter, not a second-rate Captain America with a jetpack.
Aside from this, it was a nice nod to longtime Marvel comic book fans to see Doctor Strange verbally establish the MCU universe as Earth-616, even if the characters and events don’t quite line up with the comic book continuity. It’s the small details that really make the biggest impact.
It could be argued that Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is playing it safe by capitalizing on the concept of travel between dimensions. This idea has been done to death in recent years, from the CW’s Arrowverse, to the upcoming Flash film, and of course, the MCU. Doctor Strange handles it well by reshaping the gimmick to fit its own narrative, which was a smart play.
As such, the film never feels overly predictable or formulaic. That’s actually a very commendable accomplishment, especially given how rudimentary Disney has been with the MCU of late. It captures the same vibrant storytelling energy as Spider-Man: No Way Home, but manages to elevate its own tale with dynamite pacing, and something new to see beyond every transition.
That being said, the initial expectation was that the film would further investigate the damage done by Strange in No Way Home, but that never occurs. That film is only mentioned in one early scene, before the story moves right along without a care. However, it is a funny scene.
To truly enjoy Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, one needs to set this realization aside, and simply enjoy the film as a standalone story. If the lack of any bridge to Spider-Man: No Way Home represents a problem, it could derail the experience. Viewed as a solo effort, however, it’s a fun 2+ hour ride.
In retrospect, this reviewer thinks the film would have suffered greatly, were it not for the inclusion of the Earth-838 plot arc. Adding it into the mix allows Doctor Strange to dodge the deadly bullet of complacency, and break out of its own shell. You’ll either love it, loathe it, or feel indifferent towards it, depending on how you approach the story.
If the ashen aftertaste of MCU duds like The Eternals, Black Widow and Shang-Chi are still lingering on your tongue, I highly suggest Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness as cheap, yet effective cinematic mouthwash. It’ll do the trick, though it may not kill 100% of the bacteria.
Sam Raimi’s masterful, kinetic directorial style.Brilliant, imaginative and artistic visuals.A few surprising character cameos to set up future projects.
Viewers who skipped WandaVision might not understand Wanda’s motivations.Disney and Marvel virtue-signal during one silly, unnecessary scene.Not quite the film fans were expecting.
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