Doctor Strange: Maddening script comes up short
Doctor Strange is enjoyable, but could have been more
Is there a point at which the Marvel Cinematic Universe becomes too massive and unwieldy that it collapses in on itself?
This is a question I asked myself repeatedly while watching Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, a film centered around the concept of breaking this shared universe and rearranging the shards like a broken mirror. With scores of movies and TV series now included in the unprecedented franchise, producer Kevin Feige and his team keep pushing for ways to tell new stories as more characters and circumstances are introduced into this world. Each entry has pushed the scope of the storytelling to such a degree that Phase One films like Iron Man 2 and Captain America: The First Avenger feel positively quaint by comparison. We’re certainly not in Kansas anymore, and I have a feeling we’ll never get back to it.
After the events of Spider-Man: No Way Home, Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) attempts to retreat into normalcy as he attends the wedding of his former flame Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). Naturally, the reception is interrupted by the ruckus created by an octopus demon that pops up from somewhere in the multiverse. After subduing the creature with mystic arts colleague Wong (Benedict Wong), Strange meets America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a teenager who has been hunted by monsters ever since it’s been discovered she can travel between dimensions. To save Chavez from constant threat, and to learn more about her powers, Strange consults fellow Avenger Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) as an even more powerful threat emerges across these alternate realities.
A common charge against the MCU is that Marvel Studios will hire up-and-coming directors for their projects, then sideline their artistic contributions to instead present a pre-packaged product. This criticism doesn’t apply to Multiverse of Madness. Veteran director Sam Raimi not only has experience with the superhero genre, having helmed each entry in the original Spider-Man trilogy, but signature touches of his, like comically macabre imagery and schlocky close-ups, are felt throughout this movie. Harkening back to his Evil Dead days, eyeballs pop up (and out, on at least two occasions) more often than Infinity Stones do in Avengers: Endgame. When Strange sees the Sorcerer Supreme from another universe, the camera locks in on their locked eyes and, for a brief moment, the film turns into a Spaghetti Western.
The disappointment here isn’t from the direction of the film, but from the writing, as Michael Waldron’s screenplay is heavy on heady exposition about universe-hopping but light on character and believable motivations.
The villain of this piece is both overly powerful and underdeveloped, even if you go into this film having seen the Marvel Studios TV series that are now apparently prerequisites for their cinematic output. This certainly isn’t the first time I’ve gone into one of these movies not understanding which character has powers that are more powerful than other characters’ powers, but as I see it, this antagonist should be able to wipe out the protagonists in no time. Not only that, but the reasoning behind their actions is frustratingly one-dimensional and makes them a less interesting foe for our heroes to defeat.
Another refrain about MCU films is their tendency to start strong but peter out with final acts that indulge in explosive extravaganza. While Multiverse of Madness has a finale that is far from staid, this movie breaks from the mold by opening with a first act that is quite dull from a story perspective but picks up momentum and delivers one of the most enjoyable third acts that I can recall from this franchise.
At some point, character motives and stakes go out the window entirely, but when the film fully commits to Raimi’s stylistic lunacy in the back half, it finds its voice in an immensely entertaining way.
With a few more passes at the script, Multiverse of Madness could have been an exceedingly well-balanced superhero tale, but, as is, it’s fleetingly fun and an improvement on the first Doctor Strange chapter.
New movies coming to theaters this weekend
Opening in theaters and streaming on Peacock is Firestarter, a remake of the 1984 Stephen King adaptation starring Zac Efron and Ryan Kiera Armstrong about a father who must protect his daughter after she develops pyrokinesis and is hunted by a secret government agency.
Streaming on Netflix is Our Father, a documentary about a fertility fraud investigation tied to an Indianapolis-based doctor after a woman’s at-home DNA test reveals multiple half-siblings of which she was previously unaware.
Available to rent on-demand is On the Count of Three, a dark comedy starring Jerrod Carmichael and Christopher Abbott about two friends whose pact to end each others’ lives takes a number of unexpected turns.