Sunday, May 8, 2022

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a lot, for good and for ill


Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness begins in media res with America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) running across a purple cosmic landscape from a roaring monster covered in runes. As she and her mentor converse while fighting off this bellowing beast, the audience is given no narration, no on-screen text to provide context for what's happening. We're thrust right into the, well, madness of the multiverse. I had to chuckle at this, remembering a time not so long ago when comic book movies were so nervous maintaining the strangeness of their source material that Galactus had to be reconstituted into a cloud. Now look at how far they've come. Truly a deep character arc.

That level of ambition can't mitigate the fact that Multiverse of Madness has one of the weaker screenplays for a Marvel Cinematic Universe title. Much like Avengers: Infinity War, Multiverse of Madness is a barrage of events and mayhem that needed more moments to breathe and poignancy to ground the nuttiness. However, it's also a haunted hayride of a movie that really commits to being a horror film, and one heavily utilizing director Sam Raimi's visual motifs to boot. It's messy, yes, but also regularly entertaining, which counts for quite a bit in my book.

Taking place after the events of Avengers: Endgame, WandaVision, Spider-Man: No Way Home, Multiverse of Madness begins with Doctor Strange contemplating just how happy he is being a superhero. Did he give up too much, like a chance at happiness with Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), in his magical pursuits? This sorcerer's already bizarre existence gets thrown another curveball when Chavez enters the picture, with this teenager carrying the ability to open up portals to other dimensions. However, she's being pursued by adversaries across the multiverse who're so powerful that Strange will need to call on the aid of fellow Avenger Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) to ensure Chavez's safety. 

What follows is a descent into various realities where nobody can be trusted, Strange will be constantly tested, and saying any more will have people complaining that this review gives away too much.

The weakest parts of Multiverse of Madness are the instances where the plot practically bends over backward to get the viewer to certain character beats or action set-pieces. Screenwriter Michael Waldron, previously responsible for being the head writer on Loki, has a bad habit of just lurching these characters around, with the abruptness undercutting our investment in what's happening. Granted, this becomes less of a problem once the horror elements come to the forefront, and Multiverse of Madness can justify some of this storytelling in the name of generating scares. However, it's still a strange issue with the screenplay and one that especially undercuts attempts at wringing pathos out of Strange's storyline.

Many of the instances where the audience is supposed to tear up over Strange's internal plight just don't work well despite a committed performance from Benedict Cumberbatch. This is partially because they're built on the character's relationship with Palmer. That dynamic was awkwardly-defined in the first Doctor Strange, a flaw that comes back to haunt Multiverse of Madness now that it wants to really lean on their past for maximum poignancy. The jam-packed nature of the story means there isn't much time to flesh out their past so that we can be as moved as Multiverse of Madness wants us to be. More laidback hangout scenes like the ones that were so fun and even touching in Avengers: Endgame and Spider-Man: No Way Home would've worked wonders here.

But even if it can't work super successfully as either a character or dramatic exercise, Multiverse of Madness does have an ace up its sleeve: director Sam Raimi. Returning to the world of superhero movies that he upended with his Spider-Man trilogy, Raimi is in rare form here as he gets to bring out all his visual motifs and his extensive experience with horror cinema. Both of those qualities make the various scary scenes of Multiverse of Madness a pleasure to watch, especially since Raimi's old-school approach to genre cinema means he isn't afraid to do ridiculous things just for the sake of doing them. One character randomly starts contorting their body like Gabriel from Malignant and never does it again, while another figure in the story gravely intones about "the souls of the damned" without a trace of postmodern irony. 

Similarly, it's fun how Raimi's visual interpretation of Strange's powers is more cartoony than prior depictions of the character. This wizard does more than fire off blasts of energy, he now makes big purple hands or immense chainsaws to help him fight off enemies. It's such a fun way to realize those abilities and reflects the uninhibited nature of the filmmaker's creativity. It's such a delight to watch Raimi play around with such an expansive toolbox and mold the toys inside closer to his own sensibilities. There are even some surprisingly gruesome deaths, always a welcome presence in any PG-13 movie. Under Raimi's watch, the assembled cast does solid work, with Benedict Cumberbatch proving especially compelling in this iteration of Doctor Strange. It's been fun to see Cumberbatch ebb and flow across his various Marvel Cinematic Universe appearances, with the various directors he's worked under and the assorted superheroes his characters interacted with inspiring such fun slight variations in his performance. Multiverse of Madness is no different, with the actor getting to shine playing Strange as a powerful individual whose still often overwhelmed by what the multiverse can offer.

The rare Marvel Cinematic Universe movie more compelling visually than it is narratively (those scene transitions!), Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is best crystallized by the score provided by Danny Elfman. It doesn't always work and sometimes just becomes a blur of noise that gets lost beneath all the action. But it's also often swinging for the fences, with Elman's ambition coming from how often he adheres to different musical influences. A skirmish between Strange and Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) inexplicably carries some 1990s rock vibes, other parts of the score evoke mid-20th century whimsy, while a standout sequence of the entire movie sees Elfman reconstituting classic pieces of orchestral music. It sometimes doesn't fit together, but so much of it proves fun and entertaining that you can't help but admire the ambition. Similarly, Multiverse of Madness as a film is a messy but energized and creative creation, and, best of all, one that's decidedly the brainchild of Sam Raimi.

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