Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness is the 27th feature film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. At this point, it’s almost impossible to consider him out of that context, but it’s how hard you have to do your homework before going to see him that things get tricky. This is pretty much a movie on its own, challenging enough for a sequel within a branching franchise. To consider it alone, however, is to find yourself with antagonists whose motivation(s) seem to be lacking, protagonists whose character arcs may seem superficial, and wondering what could have been.
Benedict Cumberbatch returns as the eponymous, but not pseudonymous, Doctor Strange. He’s not the only one reprising a role, there’s tons of Benedict Wong as Sorcerer Supreme, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Baron Mordo, Rachel McAdams and Michael Stuhlbarg returning as mundane doctors, albeit related to Strange’s personal life. A newcomer but TV veteran, Xochitl Gomez plays America Chavez, a young woman who can travel between universes. In what could be seen as a leap forward in LGBTQIA+ representation, she doesn’t just have a badge on her denim jacket embroidered with ‘love is love’, she’s dealing with a weft. tragic background that includes not one, but two deceased mothers.
It sounds more cynical than I think. Miss America (II) in the comics, unrelated to Miss America (DC), or Miss America (Madeline Joyce) the third heroine to have her own comic (Sheena, Queen of the Jungle and Wonder Woman come first). In some of the comic book continuities she has a variety of superpowers including reality traversal, but in some of them she also battled with Loki and due to the movie’s programming she wasn’t in Spider-Man: No Way Home, so he had to find another one. means of shuffling its multiverses.
Sam Raimi, of course, has directed Spider-Man three times. Bruce Campbell returns as part of this package. His very last scene after all the credits is more comedic than brief, but entertaining. There is no other Spider-Man though; if there was a reference, I missed it. It’s cosmic stuff, so no room for friendly neighborhood shenanigans other than at a hot dog cart. Sorry, pizza balls. I still don’t know how they are supposed to be cooked.
Stories have been emerging for some time about the making of the movie sausage we have here. Michael Waldron who wrote the TV show Loki is the sole screenwriting credit, but that in this context means next to nothing. It’s so laden with references that would have required some form of approval that when we literally have a committee on screen, there certainly has been a committee off it.
To make sense of this, and you might want to, chances are you wish you had seen Wandavision. It is not a great difficulty, even if its amazing concept is not maintained in all its episodes. It is a highlight of the MCU streaming series. For the rest, I wish there was a rule of thumb like “everything has an A and 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 also redundant, and the less said about Thor: The Dark World, the better. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 helps, but not as much as Thor: Ragnarok could and Ant-Man And The Wasp is part of reading the Infinity War arc rather than anything associated with the Avengers. You also don’t need to see Black Widow, but you haven’t anyway. This rule catches ‘What if…?’ however, and it might help, if only because in its smaller context we have more multiversal mayhem, some of which ties directly to on-screen references.
When my colleague, in her review, described the Maximoff children as straight out of cast central, she was not mistaken. They and Elizabeth Olsen return from Wandavision, itself a meditation on attempts to create and preserve alternate realities. Here the question is less ‘what could be?’ that ‘what is this a reference to?’.
In the background, the smallest details are subject to speculation. A box of apples marked Volkers is likely a reference to a comic book 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 this Zemo entanglement happened , but it could also be a nod to the Highlander movie, if only for its troubled relationship with the sequels.
In conversation with another aficionado, I described Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness as feeling like a must. It still feels more like an exercise in recognition than a Sam Raimi film, despite its obvious influences. I will credit his wisdom with a decision in portraying one of the Illuminati not to show the powers in action, if only because other directors (especially Josh Trank and Tim Story) have had such problems with them. There’s a story here about the gap between pragmatism and optimism, and while I would have liked a homage to Planet Hulk history when visiting an Illuminati, that would have been another form of fandom service as the sting of the 1997 X-Male theme, the one from the anime series’ closing season.
It’s not the longest of them. That honor will stay with Endgame until someone can justify 182 minutes that aren’t split across Disney+ episodes. It’s not the shortest, it remains the main saving graces of The Incredible Hulk and Thor: The Dark World. It’s as long as the first Iron Man, although it has someone else’s origin story, if not more than one, and it’s currently the end point of a process or a different start after the Infinity Saga.
There are references to other parts of MCU TV, including The Inhumans and possibly Agents Of Shield. There are references to other parts of Marvel. The X-Men are going to be even harder to fit in, despite Vulture shoehorning into Morbius in order to hijack (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 to 007, but ties in (twice) to Wandavision. It’s not for newcomers though, being a referral node.
That’s the problem though, is that I’m not a newcomer, and I don’t know who will approach it as such. There are plenty of MCU features here, including Bad Habits. I had to search for a climatic line because I couldn’t hear it properly. Some of the effects seemed to outweigh the effectiveness. One of the “well, it just happened” reaction shots happened in an alternate universe, but that didn’t make it any less awkward. There are so many entities present that I thought of a Council approved road sign near Weymouth. It says “Chinese take-out bypassed” and points the A353 towards the golden flame. It’s not the kind of thing that happens unilaterally or as a result of artistic coercion on the authors’ sensibilities. These are meetings, committees and supplies. It’s useful, even entertaining, but the story behind it seems more interesting than the thing itself.
One line of dialogue made me mistakenly think of a moment from Watchmen. The film struggles with the meaning of tough decisions requiring tough men, but it’s at the expense of an antagonist whose motivation is best explained for £7.99 a month. There are a few Sam Raimi moments here, but nothing that rivals Doc Ock’s tentacle awakening. A moment of escaping a ditch has edges of both Peter Parker and parkour, but in a film where computer graphics give us a storm in a teacup, it struggles to fill a larger canvas. . With great power comes great responsibility, and it seems that with great precedent comes narrow expectations.
Even with the freedom afforded by its setup and making bits of Alan Moore’s MCU canon nonsense like Universe-616, it’s beholden to what’s come before. This is perhaps what makes Doctor Strange In The Multi-Verse Of Madness the most conservative continuity, despite its freedom to move between them. It cannot, unlike Strange’s cloak, function independently, despite or perhaps because of being patched from other sources, other places. At this late stage, I don’t know how much it took me to see that it was a sunk cost error. I’ve fallen in and out of comics a number of times, I have a knack for picking up abandoned titles from publishers, a fondness for creative teams that manage to fail on one or both of those two elements. However, I can’t stand the mainstream of comics, in part because of the behaviors that Doctor Strange demonstrates. We never read the thing in front, but an outpost in a story that not only continues but is part of a continuity. One that should always seem fresh but unchanging, new but familiar, and the demands of that stability mean, like other preservative-laden products, that it lacks flavor. I’d have enough of an appetite for that, but the next one might just end up on the shelf.
Reviewed on: May 28, 2022