Strange Tales (Movie Review: Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness)
Within stories, the idea of continuity is powerful. It’s like the lure of history, the pull to understand events or character through the study of a chain of events. That’s why we dive into literary series, why we’ll binge-watch a show on Netflix, and why we’ll carry around decades of plot points regarding comic books.
Author Douglas Wolk recently released his book All of the Marvels. He wrote about his experience reading every comic book published by Marvel Comics.* When I say “every comic book,” I mean that Wolk read over twenty-seven thousand published works, attempted to make sense of it all as a connected narrative, and considered what it all meant in terms of American society. You have to be of a certain mindset to appreciate why that matters, and if you don’t have that mindset, it can be nearly impossible to understand.
Every time there’s a new entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, critics come out of the woodwork to piss and moan. They complain that the MCU is the dominant force in popular cinema. They bellyache about the concept of superheroes in general. Most of all, they bitch incessantly about the interconnected nature of the MCU, the idea that Marvel Studios no longer seems to tell contained stories.**
For example, to understand Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness in full context, you need to have seen the following:
- 2016’s Doctor Strange
- 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War
- 2019’s Avengers: Endgame
- 2021’s WandaVision
- 2021’s What If?
- 2021’s Spider-Man: No Way Home
I like to say that two things can be true at the same time. It’s true that Doctor Strange Part Deux is fully an interconnected creature of the MCU. It’s also true that it can be enjoyed without hours of cinematic homework. Most importantly, is it a good movie? Well, let’s talk about that.
Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) has had a busy couple of years. Consider that he (deep breath) lost the ability to practice medicine after a car wreck, became a mystical superhero, was blipped out of existence for five years,*** fought a purple alien with delusions of godhood, mentored a wall-crawling hero, and cast a spell to erase the secret identity of said wall-crawling hero. When his old flame Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) asks, on her wedding day, if Stephen is happy, he can’t answer the question.
Stephen won’t have time to ponder his mental health due to the appearance of a tentacled horror wrecking the bejeezus out of midtown Manhattan. The fiendish thingie seems intent on crushing America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a young woman dealing with a good news/bad news situation. The good news is that she has the ability to travel between dimensions. The bad news is that she can’t control her abilities and the Lovecraftian nightmare has been pursuing her all the while. So that’s a big bummer.
The good doctor might not be happy, but he’s a stand-up guy. Along with Sorcerer Supreme Wong (Benedict Wong), Strange leaps into action to defend America (the person, not the country). A post-skirmish investigation reveals that witchcraft is involved. Strange decides that the logical thing to do is call in a specialist.
Maybe not a great move, Doc! You see, the specialist Strange has in mind is Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), a former Avenger and current practitioner of magick. She’s not in the state of mind to help an interdimensional refugee. Instead, she’s searching for her children, who may or may not be real, and she’s prepared to tear America Chavez and all of reality apart to find them.
For a while there, one of the chief complaints of the MCU was that too many of the movies looked and felt the same. With Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Director Sam Raimi killed that criticism stone dead. He’s made a film with breakneck pacing, goopy effects, and some impressive visuals. If you imagine what an MCU movie would look like made by the director of Evil Dead 2 and Drag Me to Hell, this movie is essentially that. However, Raimi is not let off the chain to run butt wild. He’s still working under the supervision of uber producer Kevin Feige, who’s invested in the long-term health of the MCU. As a result, Raimi’s sensibilities are a bit tempered. This isn’t quite a horror movie, but it’s horror adjacent, and it’s really no bloodier than Gremlins or Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
I’m fine with this being less a film and more a $200 million episode of MCU: The Series. It’s completely dependent upon previous works, it sets up future stories that may or may not pay off, and it makes almost zero effort to get the audience caught up. You know what? I’m totally fine with that for two reasons. First, that continuity dependency is not a bug, it’s a feature, perhaps even the feature that’s made this possibly the most successful franchise in film history. Second, in the unlikely event that a sweet summer child who’s blissfully unaware of the MCU happened to catch this film, they wouldn’t be utterly flummoxed. It’s not like they’re watching a Yorgos Lanthimos movie — they can figure things out through context.****
I think that’s why we need to give screenwriter Michael Waldron a hearty pat on the back. He weaves in plot threads from a number of other movies and TV shows, has characters bounding through multiple multiverses,***** and still manages to craft a narrative that mostly makes sense. We always know where our characters are, what they want, and what will be lost if they fail. From a plot perspective, that’s great. The plot takes up so much real estate that characterization suffers a little. Before you start guffawing at the idea of character arcs in superhero movies, I’ll politely direct you toward both Iron Man and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Both films showed heroes that grew, changed, and drove the narrative by making active choices. Here, things just as often happen to Strange, and while he has a kind of character arc, it feels like a retread of the previous film’s themes.
How’s the cast? Have you seen a Marvel Studios film? For the most part, the performances are fairly light, fairly quippy, and fairly dramatic when necessary. For me, Benedict Cumberbatch has become a mark of quality. When he appears in a film, he’ll make it better simply by being in it. He’s not slumming as Strange, and while he’s likely the most confident hero in the MCU, Cumberbatch allows us to see glimpses of Strange’s uncertainty and vulnerability. As Wanda, Elizabeth Olsen plays a woman shattered by trauma who has the raw power to gain her heart’s desire, and who’s almost totally unconcerned by collateral damage. She’s not evil as such, simply singleminded. Dangerously so, and she would fit right in at a Florida school board meeting. Unfortunately, there’s another acting powerhouse here who again isn’t given her due. Rachel McAdams is a highly talented comedic and dramatic actor. As Christine Palmer, McAdams has more screen time than in the previous Doctor Strange film, yet too often she’s just an exposition machine.
From all the wailing and gnashing of teeth I’ve seen recently, you’d think that Disney paid goons to abduct innocent film critics and force them to see Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness at gunpoint. Perhaps the larger tragedy is that legions of pretentious killjoys can’t recognize this film for what it is — a well-crafted film that’s a fun time at the movies. Much like the doomed Wanda, their trauma is real and the weight of Marvel-related continuity weighs them down like a millstone.
* I’m a sucker for books where someone attempts a foolhardy undertaking and tries to explain what it really means. Do I want to read Wolk’s book? Absolutely. Would I want to do what he did? Well…there but for the grace of Galactus go I.
** Moon Knight, which just concluded its six-episode run on Disney+, only has a small handful of references to other events in the MCU. If you’re not actively looking for them, they’ll likely pass you by.
*** Since Strange, along with half the population, ceased to exist for five years, can we assume that he can no longer practice medicine as he never completed his CMEs (continuing medical education)?
**** As usual, my wife makes an excellent point mentioning The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King as being a film entirely dependent upon continuity. And it won an Academy Award for Best Picture!
***** It doesn’t deal with the concepts of multiverses as elegantly as Everything Everywhere All at Once, but it’s not that kind of film.