I still remember the elation, the buzz I felt after I left the theatre having watched Avengers: Endgame. It wasn’t just the conclusion. Nor the cheers from the crowd at moments that became memes on TikTok. But also marvelling (sorry) at how the film referenced the decade of movies that preceded it, managing to weave all those tangents into a satisfying whole.
I’ve been chasing that high ever since.
And so, it would seem, are the wizards of content creation at Marvel Studios.
While Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is packed with moments of cosmic calamity, what’s most apparent is the effort to pull all the threads together and set in motion events that could define the next decade in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
So while I will endeavour to avoid spoilers, let me say this: This is not a film for neophytes. It references the events of Infinity War, WandaVison and some lesser-known Marvel shows. So if you haven’t done your homework, see the movie with someone who has.
We begin briskly in the midst of a battle, Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange — with his Grandpa Munster hairstyle — fighting some nameless beast. As Strange cast spells of protection and defence, the mystical combat just didn’t seem that spectacular. I wondered, is it me? Has the pandemic robbed me of my ability to enjoy some otherworldly action?
But I didn’t have any of these qualms a few months ago when I thrilled to the charms of Spider-Man: No Way Home, another adventure filled with alternate universes and surprising characters.
While it’s clear director Jon Watts had a plan for Peter Parker all along, the problem here is Doctor Strange himself — a powerful character inhabited by a wonderful actor trying mightily to make a meal out of an underdeveloped arc.
While the first Doctor Strange film wasn’t perfect, the bones were there. Stephen Strange was an egotistical ass of a surgeon who needed to learn some humility before he could become the Master of the Mystic Arts. Cumberbatch and his clam chowder accent were amusing, as was the mentor/student relationship between him and Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One.
But now that Thanos is ashes, the good Doctor is fighting a case of the blues. It’s not the state of the multiverse that has him glum, but rather the wedding of his former love, Christine (played by returning Canadian Rachel McAdams).
But before Strange can fall too far into dejection, a young woman named America Chavez arrives — with her power to open star-shaped portals to parallel worlds. Soon Strange is hopscotching across realms to stop a malevolent presence from stealing Chavez’s power and scrambling the universe.
While the spectre of the very fabric of reality cracking wide open has become commonplace to Marvel fans, the addition of director Sam Raimi adds a fresh flavour to the concept. Known for his string of Spider-Man films in the mid-2000s, Raimi firmly established himself as a director with a signature style in titles like Evil Dead and Army of Darkness. Packed with viscera, violence and visual gags, a Raimi movie meant a gory good time
Much has been made of the Doctor Strange sequel as the first horror film of the MCU, but it’s merely the veneer of horror. Filled with dark shadows, splatters of blood and the undead, this is Disney’s Haunted Mansion of horror — a fun ride without any real moments of terror.
While a few of the kills might shock a 10-year-old, the gleeful excesses that mark many of Raimi’s movies is handcuffed by the family-friendly PG rating. Still, there are some fun moments, such as the obligatory Bruce Campbell cameo and a bizarre but amusing battle of music notes that seems like something lifted from Disney’s Fantasia.
The actor who makes the most of the horror-lite approach isn’t Cumberbatch but Elizabeth Olsen. Whether dripping with blood or simmering with rage, Olsen grounds her performance as the Scarlet Witch with a mother’s anguish. Her eyes glow red, but they radiate the trauma of what she’s lost. The challenge with a film filled with these mind-bending concepts is that the character’s story needs to be anchored in something that’s real. For the Scarlet Witch, it’s what she’s lost — the life she feels she was robbed of.
All Strange has is an old flame that got away.
And the rest of the cast has even less to work with. Wong, now the actual Sorcerer Supreme, still plays second fiddle to Strange and exists mainly as an exposition-delivery device. Then there’s the widely anticipated arrival of America Chavez, the teen in a jean jacket who becomes the literal MacGuffin much of the story revolves around. In the comics, America is a kick-ass lesbian superhero with attitude; here she’s reduced to a damsel in distress being shuffled from location to location. While queer fans cheered at the inclusion of the LGBTQ character, again Marvel does the bare minimum, retconning Chavez as a young teenager with two moms but still in the process of finding herself.
Fortunately for us, by about the midpoint Strange shakes off his magical ennui and finds his mojo. Spells are cast, foes are battled and, yes, some new additions hinted at in the trailers will lead to cheers of recognition. By the end, there are pieces in place that could spell radical new directions for the MCU.
As for Strange himself? He remains a tertiary character, great for adding mystical oomph but still a side player in his own story.