The success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe must surprise even Marvel. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is the 28th film in the series, the fifth of Phase Four, and with talk of folding both Deadpool and Blade into the franchise, the MCU isn’t going anywhere just yet. Have a squint at the Trivia section for this film’s entry on the IMDb – it expands to fill several multiverses. Fanboy fervour unbound.
Sam Raimi is part of that success. Though his Spider-Man trilogy of 20 years ago isn’t part of the official MCU – and Blade had to an extent already shown the way – the success of three films in five years showed there was a thirst for Marvel movies. The MCU officially got underway in 2008 with Iron Man, the year after Raimi’s last go round with the webslinger in Spider-Man 3. So in a way bringing him in to director this Doctor Strange sequel can be seen as a reward. He’s a good choice either way.
All MCU films are big, of course, but this is massive at every level, from the bombastic Danny Elfman score, to the massive SFX budget, the globehopping locations, the grand conceptual throughline, the enormous attention to even small details, the endless cast list… and the huge plot redundancy. You can nip out to the toilet while this movie is on and not be too worried about missing much.
The plot can be summarised as follows – Strange, Marvel’s quippy, trippy, cosmically out-there sorcerer/superhero, is in a big, multiverse-straddling fight with Wanda Maximoff aka The Scarlet Witch, whose beef seems to be that she doesn’t have children in this particular universe and so is prepared to wreak untold havoc in others to set things right. That’s right, no children. Feminists assemble!
Along for the ride, and demonstrating Phase Four’s more ethnically diverse approach to the whole concept of superherodom, is America Chavez (Xochitli Gomez), a multiverse-riding teenager unaware of the full extent of her powers, in a subplot that’s as half-hearted as the film’s use of Benedict Wong as Wong, Strange’s old mentor and friend.
Another box ticked is Chavez’s parents happening to be two women, a scene seemingly designed to irritate people of a certain political persuasion (it got cut in some territories).
But never mind blur-on lesbians or half-hearted use of people of other ethnicities (see the Fast & Furious franchise for a better idea of how to do this sort of thing), there is a Book of Vishanti to be found, a Darkhold to be conquered, the Illuminati to be dealt with, a Dark Dimension to be traversed and many, many alternate universes to be encountered. In the film’s best sequence, Strange and Chavez fall sideways through a multitude of multiverses, all visually different, a moment that recalled Everything Everywhere All at Once, a multiverse movie capably straddling many realities on a squillionth of the budget.
Along the way Strange will meet various other representatives of the MCU – Captain Carter (Hayley Atwell), Black Bolt (Anson Mount), Captain Marvel (Lashana Lynch), Reed Richards (John Krasinski) and even Patrick Stewart as Professor Charles Xavier. Thowaway appearances, for the most part. Apparently Charlize Theron is in there, as Clea, as well, but I didn’t see her. Must have been when I went to the toilet.
There are also various versions of Strange himself, Benedict Cumberbatch shifting out of his amused deadpan at one point to give us his Jack Nicholson – the bared teeth, the indrawn breath. Funny.
It’s not so much a story as a string of events, and yet it holds together well. That’s partly because there are strands which Raimi and writer Michael Waldron can divert onto, to give us all a breather – Wong, America, Christine (Rachel McAdams back as the love of Strange’s life) – and partly because its flights into other realms are imaginative and Raimi is a director who understands how to choreograph action thrillingly. Most of all, though, there is emotional resonance, with Elizabeth Olsen putting on a good show as the conflicted Wanda/Scarlet Witch.
Much has been made of Raimi’s past as the director of horror films such as The Evil Dead and Drag Me to Hell, with some people describing this as a horror superhero movie. That is a stretch. Raimi throws in the odd touch, though, from the dark looks to a Carrie-like finale setting us up nicely for the next Strange. And there’s a cameo by Bruce Campbell, Raimi’s Evil Dead star, as a pizza seller. Another factoid for the Trivia section.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2022