"...generally operates more on the level of self-pastiche than any real inspiration"

Marvel's Muddled Multi-verse Misses The Mark

(052622) Nine years and two months separated the releases 2013's Oz the Great and Powerful and 2022's Doctor Strange in the Multi-verse of Madness, both directed by Sam Raimi. He made no other features between them (though he did some television work, and produced quite a bit), making this by far the longest break between projects in his whole career; there's no evidence of the time off having rejuvenated him. Oz and Multi-verse of Madness are tantalizingly similar projects: both were financed by the Walt Disney Company, both are huge CGI-dominated fantasy tent poles; both find the director getting to do a few CGI riffs on bits and pieces from his 1987 Evil Dead II and 1992 Army of Darkness, but mostly playing the good company man, ably bringing a great big beast of an effects movie in for a landing without slowing it down too much to stop and put a personalizing stamp on it. Perhaps directly related, both are at the very near the bottom of the pile of Raimi films. If forced to choose, I'd put Multi-verse of Madness a bit above Oz, since it manages to sneak in more idiosyncratic moments, and with higher corporate stakes at that (it is the latest entry in the too-big-too-fail Marvel Cinematic Universe. Still, the big takeaway in either case is that just because the 2004 Spider-Man 2 was an exceptionally great superhero movie, that doesn't automatically mean that Raimi can be counted on to do great things with a big studio budget. Nor even that he's automatically good at Marvel superheroes.

A bit different, of course, is that Raimi cared a lot about Spider-Man, and he has no particular stakes in Dr. Stephen Strange (played here by Benedict Cumberbatch, appearing in his sixth film as the character, but only the second as the primary star). You can tell; there are a lot of little bumps and scuffs and ways that Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness refuses to cohere at all as a narrative feature film, but one of the biggest is that Strange himself feels like a prop in his own narrative. Michael Waldron's screenplay puts in an effort to make the claim that the titular superhero sorcerer is suffering greatly from the way that this life choices have irrevocably broken his relationship with ex-girlfriend Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), and you can certainly see how at one stage in the film's development, the idea was that Strange's adventures in the multi-verse (which is not so mad as all that) was meant show him different possibilities for life based on the paths he has or hasn't taken, and in so doing give him a new appreciation for the specific life he is himself living.

In practice, all of the above is mostly just there to add a bit of seasoning, and the degree to which Strange is or is not hurting - the degree to which he does or does not have any discernible inner life at all, for that matter - is largely contingent on whatever will fuel the forward moment of the script best. Cumberbatch has been steadily improving with virtually every appearance as Strange. He has, for example, almost completely nailed an American accent that sounds like one you might actually hear while wandering around America. Here he's latching onto whatever the film gives him, but it's such a scattershot approach to writing that the performance can only really gesture to a more complete version of the character, and it seems to be actively exhausting to Cumberbatch to carry it off. There's something tired in his voice and eyes, and while it fits the "one damn thing after another" cadence of the script here, it also doesn't entirely feel like a choice.

At any rate, at least Strange's rickety character building is, in theory if not in practice, contained to this one film. The other attempt at a character arc belongs to Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), the ultra-power telekinetic character last seen in theaters in Avengers: Endgame in 2019. But more recently in her own streaming series Wandavision. Since then, she has turned hard towards evil, becoming a mythic figure known as the Scarlet Witch, and attempting to find a parallel universe where her children aren't dead, so she can steal them - this horrible disruption to the fabric of all realities is what gets Strange involved, pitting his magic against Wanda's to see who will end up with America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a teenager who can cross between universes. And boy, talk about characters with no arcs, America gets exactly one (1) scene of personality-building before she's turned into a humanoid football for the two leads to tussle over. For her part, Olsen is trying out an imperious, arch way of playing her character as a villain that feels like it could have turned into something if she and Raimi were more willing to go into camp, but they don't so it ends up feeling a bit stilted.

But anyway, Wanda's entire character arc, and by extension the conflict of Doctor Strange in the Multi-verse of Madness, and by extension the film's entire capacity to generate any emotional connection whatsoever, is largely absent from this film. Instead, it draws heavily on WandaVision (a terrible pastiche of sitcom aesthetics that somehow got widespread critical praise) to a degree where if you are to make any sense of the new movie at all, either you have seen that show, or you know it exists and can take it as a matter of faith that there must be an explanation for what the hell is going on somewhere in its nine episodes. In fact, that might even be the best way to approach Multi-verse of Madness, since the events of this movie don't really square up with WandaVision, in which Wanda's dead children lived about three days and were fictions created from her super-powerful witch mind. I'm sure I'm missing the point entirely if I just wonder if she might be able to forestall this entire film's worth of plot if she just made two new ones. Ideally ones played by better child actors than the ones we get here.

It's all a bit distressing and ominous: up till now, these culture-dominating Marvel movies were at least theoretically viewable in isolation, even if certain resonances and details would be lost. Doctor Strange in the Multi-verse of Madness sets a gloomy new record: it is, by far, the least-standalone MCU feature to date. Speaking as someone for whom Disney's stranglehold on pop cinema is depressing, the bleed-over from the streaming service into the theatrical features does begin to feel like the death of movies. But anyways.

So the story is a scattered bit of chaos, built upon no cohesive emotional spine. What it does offer, though not nearly enough, is a chance for Raimi to occasionally burst out with some of his Raimi magic. It generally operates more on the level of self-pastiche than any real inspiration: there's a moment that feels very Army of Darkness-esque, and a scene where the camera rushes in towards the characters from every direction at shin-height, a mainstay of Raimi's aesthetic that feels, in this case, specifically borrowed from one of the first two Evil Dead pictures. One of the alternate universe Doctors Strange is a kind of pseudo-zombie who feels like one of that series' Deadites tamed down for a PG-13; the film's second post-credits scene, a direct reference to Evil Dead II, and while it is blunt and fan-pandering in the worst way, it feels like the film's one unapologetic gift-wrapped present to Raimi lovers, and I am not made of stone.

To be fair, even as watered-down and self-plagiarizing as as horror-adjacent touches that we get here are, they're a pretty large generic swerve for the Marvel films to make. And it's surely not an accident that all of the film's very best ideas are the ones where it goes hardest into horror: a shot of a character crawling out of a mirrored surface, limbs all bent and inhumanly angular is actively unnerving, even. And there are other good bits, such as Wanda's effortless slasher-style trip through a bunch of special guest stars, or an opening fight with a delightfully expressive CGI tentacle monster with one eye, and more personality than other character in the film.

The good moments don't really add up, though; they're lonely islands in a foggy sea. The film is at least somewhat more stylish than the average Marvel film, mostly because the filmmakers have decided to use bright red as an ongoing visual motif in among the dingy grays that otherwise dominate the images. Early on, during a trip across several parallel universes, we see a few that look way cooler than any of the three where the story actually takes place, and for those few seconds, there's a real feeling of visual play and creativity. But these moments are almost defined by being isolated. And what surrounds those moments is slack and sloppy, a film that feels made out of note cards for scenes and connections to be put in later. It's not by any means the worst MCU film to date, but take out its dollops of horror-lite imagery, and I do think you could make the argument that it's one of the emptiest.

Directed by:     Sam Rami
Written by:     Screenplay by Michael Waldron. Based on the
 Marvel Comics characters
Starring:     Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen, Chiwetel
Released:     050622 (US-theatrical)
Length:     126 minutes
Rating:     Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and
 action, frightening images and some language

Review 2022 Alternate Reality, Inc.

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