Friday July 29, 2022
Movie Review: Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)
For the longest time superhero creators have insisted, “We’re not schlock, our stuff should be taken seriously,” and the movement has been in this direction—away from its cheesey, strongman-underwear origins and toward darkness and seriousness. It’s worked so well that Marvel is now confident enough to trot out something called “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” which, if it had been made in the 1950s, would’ve starred Vincent Price and been presented in Emergo-Vision. It would’ve been schlock.
This isn’t schlock. But is it any good?
Maybe within the multiverse there’s a critic named Erik Lundegaard who likes movies set in the multiverse. I just think Marvel is overdoing it. The bad guy used to be somebody robbing a bank. Now it’s someone shattering the fabric of reality. Again.
Déjà vu all over again
The beginning of the movie, I assumed, was a recap of the multiverse craziness in “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” Then I realized, “No, it’s a different adventure. In media res. Cool.” Except my secondary assumption was that this was some other Doctor Strange adventure, set in that weird Neutral Zone-y realm, and it would soon end and the proper story would begin. But this was the proper story.
Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and a Latina teenager, America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), are being pursued by a demon-monster who wants the girl’s power, and they need to reach the Book of Vishanti, which is glowing on a rock in the Neutral Zone-y place, but the demon is too powerful. So Doctor Strange, our hero, says he needs to take the girl’s power himself. And he tries to do this against her wishes. So obviously something is up. Then the demon spears him, the girl is almost torn apart, and he wakes up. Ah, it was just a dream.
Or was it?
That day, after attending the wedding of Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), the woman he loves, Strange sees an octopus monster tearing up Midtown and springs into action. And that’s where he meets the Latina girl he dreamed about.
You see, according to the film, our dreams are often (or always?) visions of other versions of the multiverse. I kind of liked that idea. It reminded me of when I lived in Taiwan, hearing a theory that in our dreams we can travel through time, and that déjà vu is simply arriving at a moment in time you’ve already visited in a dream.
Anyway, because he sees some witchcraft markings, Strange goes to see his Avengers pal, Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), to see if she can't interpret. Turns out, whoops, she’s the one making all this happen. The reveal is lame (she says America’s name even though he hasn’t), but isn’t a hero in one movie becoming the villain in the next kind of unprecedented? Can’t remember that ever happening with such a prominent recurring character before.
She’s the villain in this one because she’s nuts. Her brother Pietro was killed in, I guess, “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” and I think she had to kill the Vision, her love, during the battle with Thanos in “Avengers: Infinity War,” and all of this took a toll and now she has PTSD. On the “WandaVision” TV series this meant she used her powers—apologies, I’m sorting this out as much for me as you—to create various sitcom-like worlds where she and Vision were happy and domestic and raised a family, including two boys, Tommy and Billy (Jetty Klyne and Julian Hilliard). And apparently that fictional life actually exists in one of the universes of the multiverse. And that’s why she wants the Latina girl. America’s power is the ability to traverse the multiverse—though she hasn’t figured out how to control it yet—and Wanda wants the power for herself. So she can go to that universe, kill her other self, and raise a family. Like heroes do.
Oh right, I guess she’s also been corrupted by the “Darkhold,” a book of sorcery, which has turned her into the all-powerful Scarlet Witch.
How all-powerful? Super all-powerful. Doctor Strange teams up with the Sorceror Supreme (Benedict Wong), and all his disciples at a monastery in Nepal, dozens of them, and she blasts through them like they’re Swiss cheese. Strange and America escape into another universe, where that Doctor Strange is dead and a hero—honored in statue form. Except, whoops, we learn, by and by, from a group called the Illumanati (Mordo, Captain America, Captain Marvel, Black Bolt, Mister Fantastic and Prof. X), that that universe’s Doctor Strange used the Darkhold to beat back Thanos but created an “incursion” into another universe, which destroyed it. So he’s actually a destroyer of universes. That’s why he himself was destroyed and the Illuminati created. This Illuminati distrust all Doctor Stranges. They think they’re all bad. Which is an interesting form of prejudice the movie doesn’t delve into. I mean, couldn’t Strange say, “In my universe, Captain America is male, Captain Marvel is white, and Mister Fantastic works at a paper-supply company in a small town in Pennsylvania. Maybe I’m different. Maybe give me a chance.”
Alright, let me delve for a second. Marvel’s multiverse started out as a way to bring together different characters (“Into the Spiderverse”), or different actors who’ve played the same character (“Spider-Man: No Way Home”), and sure, in this one, we finally get Patrick Stewart’s Prof. X in the MCU; but otherwise all the Doctor Stranges look like Bendedict Cumberbatch and all the Wandas like Elizabeth Olsen. Because? Because the Tobey-Garfield-Holland triumverate is unnecessary. Because most Marvel characters don’t have the cinematic legacy of a Spider-Man.
But Marvel also uses the multiverse concept to make itself more multicultural and inclusive without any real heavy lifting: the Captain Marvel we see here is Black (played by Lashana Lynch, or Maria Rambeau), and the Captain America we see here is female (played by Hayley Atwell, or Peggy Carter). But even trying to be inclusive and politically correct, they still fuck it up. When the Illumanati face off against Wanda, landing in a kind of V formation, guess who’s at the front? I mean, if you’re them, wouldn’t you lead with Captain Marvel—one of the most powerful characters in any universe? Nope. They put Silly Putty Man in front. In what universe does that make sense? No universe.
And it goes as poorly as you’d think. He brags on Black Bolt but Wanda removes BB’s mouth and he blows up his own brain. Then she fillets Mr. Fantastic and—pop—there he goes, too. Only then do the women think to spring into action. A bit late, girls.
“Sure, the Black chick is one of the most powerful figures in the universe, but let's lead with Silly-Putty Man.”
If Mr. Fantastic being filleted and Black Bolt losing his mouth sound horrific, well, yes. The horror elements in the movie keep getting stronger until Doctor Strange, in that other universe, “dreamwalks” as the Frankensteinian corpse of another universe’s Doctor Strange in our own. (Don’t try to unpack that.) It’s a nice homage to Cumberbatch’s stage work as The Monster in “Frankenstein,” but a bit unnecessary. Once I realized Sam Raimi directed this, though, it all made sense. That's his bag. Horror homages + a Bruce Campbell comedic cameo: I should’ve realized Raimi was involved sooner.
I do like how they finally defeat Wanda. Not by battling her but by giving her what she wants. In control of her power now, America transports her to that other sacharine universe, where the kids she covets see her as a monster. Which is when she realizes what she’s become. And how she has to close the Darkhold so no one can ever blah blah blah. I think she sacrifices herself, too. At least she’s buried in the rubble she creates. Hey, maybe we should erect a statue to her.
You’d think Marvel would at least give Doctor Strange a shawarma moment at the end but no. We see him fix his broken wristwatch—a metaphor, I believe, for moving past his lost love—then he walks along the street, practically whistling a tune, when he’s struck down in pain … and develops a third eye! Which means … somethingorother. And in the mid-credits sequence, Charlize Theron shows up to take him … somewhere or other.
Give him a rest, Marvel. Give us a rest. In the multiverse, I’m sure there’s an Erik Lundegaard who gives a shit. Just not this one.