Saturday, May 7, 2022


The thing about telling a story in a multiverse is, if you’re not careful, one can start to feel that if anything is possible nothing matters. That’s a dangerous feeling to let loose in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is already starting to feel like so many cliffhangers and time travels and parallel universes leading nowhere. And so it is with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, the latest MCU chapter that’s rolled off the factory line with all the usual interlocking elements and pre-fab parts. It’s a sequel to the first Strange, which introduced us to the Benedict Cumberbatch wizard superhero in charge of calediscospic reality-bending spells. (That one had some novelty to its light show spectacle, but stuck pretty safely to a basic origin story form.) The new movie has to also follow up on Avengers: Endgame’s series’ breaking Thanos snap, Spider-Man: No Way Home’s cheap cavalcade of cameos, and WandaVision’s largely successful sitcom pastiche that exploded out into the same old same old. It has elaborate CG action and smirking quips and endless self-referentiality as it ties up loose ends from other projects while teasing new ones for future projects. It’s another corporate comic book widget in the cross-promotional machine. It continues its newly adapted innovation in colliding action figures together with the ability to hop around through possible worlds to do whatever. When we see infinite possibilities across infinite worlds, guided there by super-powered magic that can do whatever the plot decides, it can start to feel limiting. Why care about the fate of the world when it’s all so up for grabs?

The knock on these pictures is that they’ve gotten so samey in look and tone, guided by bland aesthetics and timid stylists. The few slightly more distinctive works still get sanded down around the margins to fit into the whole project’s approach. Even blurring between cinematic universes with the last Spider-Man just felt like more of the same. To judge them on a critical level starts to seem like a useless task of making small comparisons and slight contrasts. I kinda like some; I really don’t others. Some have better action; others have funnier supporting parts. Whatever. Maybe the reason the trailers and end credit teaser scenes get the bulk of the press is that even the good ones are constantly promising the really good stuff is coming up next. That is not not the case with our journey into the multiverse of madness, but at least it actually uses its conceit to justify getting an actual director with a style and vision and tone all his own to control the chaos. And they actually let him do it some of the time! It makes for a sprightlier, wigglier, more distinctive puzzle piece in the larger overall picture, even if in the end I was still asking, “Is that all there is?”

It has Sam Raimi in the director’s chair, the beloved cult filmmaker behind the Evil Dead horror pictures—gonzo gore goofs, later echoed in his masterpiece, Drag Me to Hell. He became the creative force behind the first Spider-Man movies in the early aughts. Those are largely great because he knows how to give weight to effects and stage images iconographically with memorable staging. That also gives emotional heft to genre characterizations. Peter Parker’s plight is never more moving than when Raimi stages his connection and separation from those in his life and those he’s trying to save. Think of some of those images: the upside-down kiss in the rain; the lonely walk away in the graveyard; the crowd catching the wounded hero on the train. Raimi knows how to do this sort of thing well, and right away Doctor Strange 2 feels like the work of someone who’s in that sort of control. The camera moves decisively; the characters stand in the frame with dimension; the fluid expression of action makes each gesture pop. It’s actually appealing to the eye. As the movie goes on, Strange enters the Multiverse where there are multiple versions of several characters, some weird filigrees of comic book nonsense, and cockeyed jolts of absurdity and violence. Sure, when anything can happen, nothing much matters—but Raimi’s allowed to slip loose from canon and just mess around. It’s still a big empty bauble of nothing, but at least it’s more engaging in the moment from sheer do-it-cause-we-can nothing.

Screenwriter Michael Waldron (whose Loki is one of the high points in recent MCU projects) lays just enough track for Raimi’s inventiveness. It starts with a nightmarish introduction, then proceeds to a bittersweet wedding from which Strange must leave to fight a giant tentacled eyeball and save a multiverse-hopping teenager. At this point I was feeling pretty good; Strange’s melancholy is poignant, and then he swoops down the concrete canyons in shots that carry the same velocity as Maguire’s Spidey. The action makes some clever use of powers—portals and conjurings and the like—before kickstarting its plot by settling into a groove that makes light use of turgid dialogue sequences as mere pretense to hop around. Turns out the teenager is a new character imported from the comics, America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), with an uncontrollable universe-puncturing punch. She’s instantly lovable—both underdog, lost and without an understanding of her powers, and overdog, knowing more about universe-traveling than Strange. That gives them a fun dynamic, and it holds the anything-goes plotting together.

The whole thing is a scotch-taped jumble of spectacles and sequences with these characters bopped around. But Raimi shapes their plights with unusual angles, jack-in-the-box surprises, and rug-pulling under cameos. It invites a multiverse of possibilities and then just messes around, with consequences loose. There are unbelievable moments of fantasy violence—people, including some Big Names, skewered or shredded or halved or exploded—and squiggly cartoonish nastiness—gibbering undead, plucked retinas, snapped necks, and extra eyeballs. That’s fun as far as that goes. But, really, what we’re looking at is a fun Raimi movie constantly swallowed up or upstaged by the generic Marvelisms around it. I’m so exhausted with movies whose motivations come floating in from other movies, and are not resolved by the end but paused instead. And the ways in which fan-favorite characters like Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and the Sorcerer Supreme (Benedict Wong) are used to close off and/or tie in to other entries are transparently cramping their fullest utility here. The strong current of personality running through the filmmaking is almost enough to divert attention from these typical grating elements in the moment. It’s only when the end credits start, and you can sit there thinking back over the events of the movie, that dissatisfaction fully settles in. Was that really all there was? Fittingly, the last line: “It’s over!”

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