“He makes zombie movies, and he makes superhero movies. And sometimes he makes both in the same movie!”
So says the 12-year-old Marvel Cinematic Universe fan who lives in our house, describing director Sam Raimi’s “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” after a recent preview screening. Reader, he is on the nose with that assessment. The film is equal parts “Doctor Strange” sequel; harsh “WandaVision” do-over; and, for a climax, a festival of undead digital demons who wouldn’t be out of place in Raimi’s “Evil Dead” pictures or his delightfully zingy “Drag Me to Hell.”
This latest MCU bid to keep the MCU going until we’re all moldering underground is not business as usual. It is a paradox: a glumly playful experiment in testing the story limits of multiverse travel, while dramatizing all the wrong ways of dealing with grief, guilt and a broken heart (Strange’s and the Scarlet Witch’s). The script’s a messy sort of mess. There are also clear signs of a nervy director at work.
We begin with a bittersweet wedding. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), who nearly destroyed our world in order to save it from Thanos, attends the nuptials of his one true love (Rachel McAdams), who is marrying another. All of a CGI sudden, a one-eyed giant octopus from another dimension appears on the Manhattan streets below, in violent pursuit of a new character, young America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez).
This teenager is blessed/cursed with the ability to “dreamwalk” in and out of other universes. And this makes her valuable to Wanda Maximoff, aka the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen, whose grief has turned to monomaniacal rage). In “Doc Strange 2″ Wanda has lost touch with her better instincts, having availed herself of the “Dark Hold,” which sounds like something Baron von Raschke used to try in the wrestling ring. The antidote to the Dark Hold is the hallowed Book of the Vishanti, which is the very thing Strange and America are after in the nightmare vision of the prologue. All this determines the fate of the multiverse, while factoring into an audience’s enjoyment of the movie not much at all.
Strange runs into other Stranges in other universes. A zombie Strange returns to life at one point. And at that same point, director Raimi, working from a script by “Loki” screenwriter Michael Waldron, lets loose with the unruly horror/fantasy mashup he’s been dying to make all along. Some younger viewers may not like this part, just as some older ones may not, either. I went for it, because it kept the explanatory blah-blah quiet for a bit.
Along the way, Strange and company encounter Baron Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and his motley Illuminati crew, which pulls a bizarre range of characters from various Marvel franchises for a fast, corpse-strewn detour. The movie’s all detours, really. America Chavez is a major player, but we hardly know her any better by the end. The memory flashback of America’s two mothers implies a same-sex relationship that already has caused some censorship issues for the film’s international rollout. I wish it came to more. Wanda’s torturous efforts to become a legitimate loving mother in a more accommodating universe takes up a substantial amount of the narrative. It has the effect of sitting on the movie at the expense of working out Dr. Strange’s own storylines, and it seems odd that with so many alternate realities afoot, the movie avoids a happy ending for the Cumberbatch and McAdams characters in one of those realities.
What do I know? I’m just a mono-universe critic. In flashes, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” reveals Raimi at his imaginative best. Some of the visual transitions are striking; the eyeblink edits, for example — Bob Murawski and Tia Nolan coedited the picture — sending Wanda’s warring selves flying from one universe to another, nearly subliminally, leads to some genuinely impressive disorientation.
Elsewhere, sadly, the exposition dumps are dumpier than usual. Raimi’s heavier, twisted sense of humor, which worked just right in the first two Tobey Maguire “Spider-Man” pictures, feels at odds here with the general tone, and the numbing percentage of effects-driven work guiding this project. The throwaway gags feel a little off, as when Strange’s trademark cloak attempts to slap its unconscious owner awake.
Is the movie better at its actual messiest, in its passages of pure abstraction? In fact, yes: When the audience goes dreamwalking with the characters, at one point we’re confronted, briefly, with a universe where people turn into primary-colored splashes of paint. At another juncture two characters engage in a battle of literal musical notes, used as a conjurer’s weapons, floating in the air. That’s something new, certainly, requiring composer Danny Elfman, otherwise unengaged, a chance to score something that doesn’t sound like everything else.
From “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” (2018) to “Spider-Man: No Way Home” (2021) to the spider-free “Everything Everywhere All at Once” (2022), the notion of nearly unlimited life choices, at a cost, has caught the wonderment of a populace not so enthralled with the real world at present. The stranger half of “Doc Strange 2″ periodically slaps the other half awake. Or maybe the best and strangest version of this movie is opening this week in a pandemic-free theater, somewhere over in Multiverse Heights.
“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness”
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action, frightening images and some language)
Running time: 2:06
How to watch: Premieres in theaters May 5.
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