Marvel's "Doctor Strange" sequel sucked into a multiverse mess
Benedict Cumberbatch really goes to pieces as dyspeptic mystic Doctor Strange in his latest Marvel movie.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen, Xochiti Gomez, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Stuhlbarg. Written by Michael Waldron. Directed by Sam Raimi. Opens Friday at theatres everywhere (with Thursday previews). 126 minutes. PG
Marvel’s wearisome current storytelling logic decrees that since anything can happen in a multiverse movie, everything must happen.
Nowhere is this more in evidence than in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” a.k.a. “Doctor Strange 2,” the unofficial first blockbuster of the 2022 summer season. It’s a film so stuffed with characters, incidents and arcane plot details that watching it is like writing an exam at Geek University.
Viewers not fully invested in Marvel Cinematic Universe minutiae become like the truant Ferris Bueller, wondering what classes they skipped or days they took off when the Book of the Vishanti was read, the “WandaVision” spinoff TV series was binged and the third eyeball of “Sinister Strange” was poked.
“Nobody told me ‘WandaVision’ was in the finals!” we Buellers may pathetically bleat, but “Doctor Strange 2” extends no mercy to those who merely seek escapist superhero entertainment. Study up or risk suffering complete disorientation.
The stakes are plain right from the get-go when director Sam Raimi plunges us into a purple haze of multiverse mayhem, with dyspeptic mystic Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and a character we haven’t yet met, teen multiverse traveller America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), fleeing from a marauding demon.
They’re trying to reach the aforementioned Book of the Vishanti for instructions on demon removal.
Stuff happens and suddenly Doc Strange is in a suit in New York City attending a ceremony involving Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), the ex-girlfriend he dumped in the first “Doctor Strange” movie, six long years ago.
This event is interrupted when a giant one-eyed octopus from outer space causes a commotion on the streets outside. It bears an adorable resemblance to the giant one-eyed starfish from last year’s “The Suicide Squad.” Doc Strange is obliged to join the fray, assisted by young America and by Strange’s ally Wong (Benedict Wong), a.k.a. the Supreme Sorcerer.
While everybody tries to figure out what’s going on, especially we Buellers watching the screen, another character strides onto the stage: Elizabeth Olsen’s sitcom mom Wanda Maximoff, a.k.a. the villainous Scarlet Witch, who wants to find her two missing children (who may not even exist) or to steal America’s multiverse travelling powers, or merely to “enslave the multiverse,” depending on to whom you listen. She’s picking up from where “WandaVision” left off a few months back.
Are you delirious yet? All this happens in roughly the first 20 minutes of the movie. Much more is to come, including multiple variants of Doc Strange and of Wanda/Scarlet Witch, plus numerous cameos of MCU characters whose identities cannot be revealed, for fear of your agent being consigned to the Multiverse of Critical Hell.
It’s a mess of multiverses, imparting the feeling that nothing is worth caring about and nobody is worth rooting for, since no place seems real and not even death can stop a determined Marvel creation: brace yourself for “Zombie Strange.”
Raimi and screenwriter Michael Waldron (TV’s “Loki”) fully exploit the narrative liberties afforded by the multiverse playbook, which in less lofty terms could be seen as lazy devices to advance a creaky plot.
“Doctor Strange 2” is not entirely without joy, however. Raimi is definitely the guy you want behind the camera when random supernatural insanity is flying about, as he demonstrated rather brilliantly in his “Evil Dead” and “Drag Me to Hell” horror movies.
Raimi previously helmed three well-regarded “Spider-Man” movies, which remained largely true to standard Marvel superhero formula. He seems to relish being able to break out of that and impart more horror elements into “Doctor Strange 2,” which makes the movie more of an entertainment for adults than children.
Raimi also knows how to have mad fun and get it onto the screen. My favourite scene involves two versions of Doctor Strange hurling flaming musical notes at each other, with composer Danny Elfman adding appropriate orchestral flourishes as flats and sharps become real to engage in pitched battle.
It must be said, too, that the main casting exceeds the multiverse mundanity. Cumberbatch’s Stephen Strange, a surgeon turned sorcerer, finally gets to reveal he has more than just a stuffed shirt under his royal blue robe and red cape, as he ponders a question about his state of mind: “Are you happy, Stephen?”
Olsen captivates as both motherly Wanda and menacing Scarlet Witch, switching between the two with dizzying speed. McAdams turns her spurned Christine into an empowered woman. And Gomez makes her America a lively character worth anticipating in future Marvel movies.
Let’s hope it’s not many more where she has to create a star-shaped portal into yet another alternate universe. The multiverse conceit that seemed so fresh mere months ago with “Spider-Man: No Way Home” is already showing signs of battle fatigue.
My Bueller brain is tired after watching “Doctor Strange 2.” I’m still trying to figure out why it’s uncool for Doc Strange to “dream walk” through people’s heads. Yeah, I know I could Google it, dude, but I’d rather just watch a good movie.
(This review originally ran in the Toronto Star.)