Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness
"To consider it alone is to find oneself with antagonists whose motivation(s) seem lacking, protagonists whose character arcs may seem shallow, and to wonder what might have been." | Photo: Marvel Studios 2022. All rights reserved

Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness is the 27th feature outing for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. At this stage it's almost impossible to consider it outwith that context, but how much homework one has to do before going to see it is where things get complicated. It does, just about, stand as a film alone, difficult enough for a sequel within a branching franchise. To consider it alone though is to find oneself with antagonists whose motivation(s) seem lacking, protagonists whose character arcs may seem shallow, and to wonder what might have been.

Benedict Cumberbatch returns as the eponymous, but not pseudonymous, Doctor Strange. He's not alone in reprising a role, there are loads from Benedict Wong as Sorcerer Supreme, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Baron Mordo, Rachel McAdams and Michael Stuhlbarg return as doctors mundane, albeit connected to Strange's personal life. Relative newcomer but TV veteran Xochitl Gomez plays America Chavez, a young woman who can travel between universes. In what might be considered a leap forward in LGBTQIA+ representation she's not only got a pin badge on her denim jacket embroidered with 'love is love', she's dealing with a tragic backstory that includes not one, but two dead mothers.

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That seems more cynical than I mean it to be. Miss America (II) in the comics, unrelated to Miss America (DC), or Miss America (Madeline Joyce) the third heroine to get her own comic book (Sheena, Queen of the Jungle and Wonder Woman get in there first). In some of the comics continuities she's got a variety of superpowers including reality-traversal, but in some of those she's also fought with Loki and due to film scheduling she wasn't in Spider-Man: No Way Home so it had to find another way to get its multiverses mingled.

Sam Raimi, of course, directed Spider-Man three times. Bruce Campbell returns as part of that package deal. His very last scene after all the credits is more comic relief than continuity brief, but it does amuse. There's no other Spider-Man though; if there was a reference I missed it. This is cosmic stuff, so no room for any friendly neighbourhood shenanigans other than at the level of a hot dog cart. Sorry, pizza balls. I still don't know how they're meant to be cooked.

Stories have been emerging for some time about how the sausage of cinema we have here is made. Michael Waldron who penned the Loki TV show is the sole scriptwriting credit, but that in this context means next to nothing. So laden is this with references that would have taken some form of approval that when we literally have a committee on screen there's sure to have been a committee off it.

To make sense of this, and you may want to, it's likely that you'll want to have seen Wandavision. That's no great hardship, even if it's astonishing high concept isn't sustained across all of its episodes. It is a definite highlight of the streaming serial MCU. For the rest, I'd love there to be a rule of thumb like 'everything that's got an A and either a V or a W', not least because that includes Spider-Man: No Way Home and doesn't include Doctor Strange. Captain America: The First Avenger is redundant too, and the less said about Thor: The Dark World the better. Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 does help, but not as much as Thor: Ragnarok might and Ant-Man And The Wasp becomes part of the reading for the Infinity War arc rather than anything Avengers associated. You also don't need to see Black Widow, but you didn't anyway. That rule does catch 'What If...?' though, and that might help, if only because in its smaller context we've got more multiversal mayhem, some of which ties directly into the references on screen.

When my colleague, in her review, described the Maximoff children as straight from central casting, she wasn't wrong. They, and Elizabeth Olsen, return from Wandavision, itself a meditation on attempts to create and preserve alternate realities. Here the question is less 'what might be?' than 'what is this a reference to?'.

In the background, the smallest of details are grounds for speculation. A box of apples marked Volkers is likely a reference to a comics crossover between Baron Zemo, played by Daniel Bruhl in the MCU most recently in The Falcon And The Winter Soldier and the Grandmaster from Thor: Ragnarok. A shop called McLeod's Books might be for New Mutants co-creator Bob McLeod, who also inked the Thunderbolts, a team of reformed supervillains (shades of Suicide Squad(s)) where that Zemo tangle occurred, but it might also be a nod to the Highlander film, if only for its troubled relationship with sequels.

In conversation with another aficionado, I described Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness as feeling like homework. It still feels more like an exercise in recognition than a Sam Raimi film, and that's despite his obvious influences. I'll credit his wisdom for a decision in the depiction of one of the Illuminati not to show powers in action, if only because other directors (specifically Josh Trank and Tim Story) had such trouble with them. There's a tale here about the gap between pragmatism and optimism, and while I'd have liked an homage to the Planet Hulk storyline in the visit to an Illuminati that would have been a different form of fan service than the sting of the 1997 X-Men theme, the one from the closing season of the animated show.

It's not the longest of them. That honour will remain with Endgame until someone can justify 182 minutes that aren't split across episodes on Disney+. It's not the shortest, that remains the main saving graces of The Incredible Hulk and Thor: The Dark World. It is as long as the first Iron Man, though it's got someone else's origin story, if not more than one, and it's currently the end point of a process or a different beginning after the Infinity Saga.

There's references to other parts of MCU TV including The Inhumans, and possibly Agents Of Shield. There's references to other parts of Marvel. The X-Men are going to be even harder to integrate and that's despite the shoe-horning of Vulture into Morbius in order to backdoor (or dimension-jump) the Sony Spider-Man-Villain-Verse into continuity. A jump-pack looks a lot like the Rocketeer's, which is a nice nod, and a Captain Marvel not only links the British Museum through 007 but ties back (at two removes) to Wandavision. This is not for newcomers though, being a knot of references.

That is the problem though, which is that I am not a newcomer, and I don't know who'll be approaching it as one. There are plenty of MCU features here, including the bad habits. I had to look up a climactic line because I couldn't hear it properly. Some of the effects looked like they'd been stretched past efficacy. One of the "well, that just happened" reaction shots occurred in an alternate universe but that didn't make it any less clumsy. There are so many outright entities present that I was minded of a Council-approved road sign near Weymouth. It says 'Bypassed Chinese take-away' and points off the A353 to the Golden Flame. It's not the kind of thing that happens unilaterally or as a result of artistic constraint on auteur sensibilities. It's about meetings, and committees, and procurements. It's useful, even entertaining, but the story behind it seems more interesting than the thing itself.

One line of dialogue made me think, inaccurately, of a moment in Watchmen. The sense of hard decisions requiring hard men is something the film is fighting against it, but it's at the expense of an antagonist whose motivation is best explained for £7.99 a month. There are some moments of Sam Raimi here, but nothing that rivals the awakening of Doc Ock's tentacles. A moment of escape from a moat has edges of both Peter Parker and parkour but in a film where computer graphics give us a storm in a teacup this struggles to fill a larger canvas. With great power comes great responsibility, and it seems with large precedent comes narrow expectations.

Even with the freedom afforded by its setup, and making MCU canon bits of Alan Moore nonsense like Universe-616, this is beholden to what has gone before. It's this perhaps that makes Doctor Strange In The Multi-Verse Of Madness the most conservative of continuity, despite its freedom to move between them. It can't, unlike Strange's cloak, operate independently, despite or perhaps because of being patched together from other sources, other places. At this late stage I don't know how much of what took me to see it was sunk cost fallacy. I've fallen in and out of comic books on several occasions, I've got a knack for picking up titles that publishers drop, a fondness for creative teams that manage to fail on one or both of those two elements. The mainstream of comics though, I cannot abide, in part because of the behaviours that Doctor Strange demonstrates. One is never reading the thing in front, but an outpost in a story that not only continues but is part of a continuity. One that must always seem fresh, but unchanging, new, but familiar, and the demands of that stability means like other preservative-laden products that it lacks flavour. I'd appetite enough for this, but the next one may well end up on the shelf.

Reviewed on: 28 May 2022
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Dr Strange tries to protect a girl who can jump between points in the multiverse.
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Read more Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness reviews:

Amber Wilkinson ***1/2

Director: Sam Raimi

Writer: Michael Waldron, Stan Lee, Steve Ditko

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, Xochitl Gomez, Michael Stuhlbarg, Rachel McAdams, Bruce Campbell, Julian Hilliard, Jett Klyne, Keenan Moore, Patrick Stewart, Soo Cole

Year: 2022

Runtime: 126 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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