Movie ReviewsJosh Reviews Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

Josh Reviews Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

When Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness opens, we meet a Stephen Strange who is somewhat unmoored.  He was dusted by Thanos for five years, and in that time, the world has moved on.  Wong is now the Sorcerer Supreme, and Christine Palmer is getting married.  But Strange finds himself at the center of a new crisis when he meets America Chavez, a girl with the ability to travel through the multiverse, though she cannot control her powers.  She’s on the run from demons that have been chasing her from universe to universe.

I loved this film!  It doesn’t pack the emotional wallop that the extraordinary Spider-Man: No Way Home did, but that’s a film that is going to be hard to top!  I found this to be a delightful new Marvel adventure.  It’s darker and weirder than the average Marvel movie, which is a credit to director Sam Raimi (returning to super-hero films after a long break since directing the original three Tobey Maguire Spider-Man films in the aughts).  I love seeing the way some of Mr. Raimi’s love of horror movies have been woven into this still-pretty-mainstream MCU adventure.  (People online have been complaining that the film is too dark and violent to be rated PG-13, which seems to me a misunderstanding of what the PG-13 rating should actually mean.  Also, it’s funny to hear the same online voices that complain that all Marvel movies are the same to now be complaining that this one is too different.)

It’s funny to think that the first Doctor Strange movie was back in 2016!  It’s been a long wait for a sequel, though it hasn’t felt like it, because Doctor Strange had a lot to do in Avengers: Infinity War and Spider-Man: No Way Home.  But it’s nice to see Strange moved back into the focus of a film.  I was pleased that the film brought back characters and storylines from Strange’s 2016 movie, while also feeling very much like the next step in Marvel’s new multiverse saga (which began in Loki and What If…? and continued in Spider-Man: No Way Home, and looks to continue beyond this in Ant Man and the Wasp: Quantumania). 

I’m going to dive into the film now, so beware SPOILERS from here on out.  Go see the movie and then c’mon back, OK?

I continue to love Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Stephen Strange.  He’s perfectly cast.  He captures Strange’s arrogance and extreme self-confidence, and also the way he strives for goodness and to do the right thing.  I liked the way the film’s multiverse story, in which Strange winds up encountering several twisted versions of himself, forces Strange to wrestle with his arrogance.  There’s a critical scene early on in which Strange’s former surgical college, Nicodemus West, challenges Strange’s assertion that giving the time stone to Thanos — which is what led to the snap and the five-years of people being dust — was “the only way” to defeat Thanos.  I loved seeing Michael Stuhlbarg back for this scene, and it’s great to see someone call Strange on his unilateral decision from back in Avengers: Infinity War.  This of course plays into Strange’s central arc in the film — in the opening scene, we see that the pony-tailed Strange decides he has no other choice but to kill America Chavez in order to prevent the villains from getting her powers… and then, our Strange is faced with the same choice at the end of the film.  (Weirdly, though, I thought there was a little connective tissue missing in the middle.  When Strange arrives on Earth-838, he sees a statue of his doppelgänger who defeated Thanos.  I’d have expected Strange to be more shocked to learn that, in fact, there might have actually been other ways to defeat him.  That winds up being subtext in the film, but I’d have loved to have seen a scene addressing it head-on.)

I was delighted that the film brought back Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff, though I was somewhat surprised that the film chose to play her as a straight villain.  I thought that we’d see her as a somewhat disturbed anti-hero; going into the film, I’d suspected that she’d be tempted to evil but would help Strange in the end.  I was wrong!  On the one hand, I really love that the filmmakers decided not to play things half-way with Wanda — they really went there and made Wanda a super-villain!  I love that!  I didn’t think Marvel would have the guts to do that!  They’d hedged their bets at the end of WandaVision.  I wrote in my review that I loved that show, but I was surprised they seemed to let Wanda off the hook in the finale.  I guessed that Disney felt they had to keep Wanda somewhat as a hero, even though she’d done some awful stuff, robbing everyone in Westview of their free will.  That taking-it-back-a-bit ending to WandaVision feels even more out of place now that this film presented Wanda as a crazed super-villain.  There was a bit of a disconnect there for me.  It was awesome to see Marvel embrace the idea of turning this super-hero character into a super-villain… though I do wish we’d been able to see a little more nuance to Wanda’s portrayal.  She murders a LOT of people in the film, without a second thought.  (What is next for this character?  She’s clearly not dead at the end.  Can they redeem her after all of the murdering she does in this movie…??)  Elizabeth Olsen is GREAT in the film; she seemed to be having a lot of fun playing a maniacal super-villain.  I like that they take the time to give Wanda some good points.  She’s correct that male heroes like Dr. Strange get to break the rules and still be considered heroic; while she broke the rules and became the villain.  (This reminds me of Harvey Dent’s declaration in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight that one’s choices are to die a hero or live long enough to become the villain.)  I loved Wanda’s ultimate emotional break-through with her alternate-universe counterpart.

Rachel McAdams was good in the first Doctor Strange film as Dr. Christine Palmer, though that film didn’t allow her too much to do.  I was happy to see her return here (after not being seen in any of the MCU films made in the last six years).  The film makes a very interesting choice to basically abandon the main universe (616) version of Dr. Palmer and instead give her alternate universe (838) counterpart the bulk of involvement in the story.  I loved 838 Dr. Palmer!  She was smart and clever and seemed every bit Strange’s equal.  I really liked the arc of their bittersweet relationship, each seeing in the other shades of their universe’s former romantic partner, who they’d lost.

I was also surprised by the choice to ignore the main universe Baron Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to focus only on the 838 version.  I loved Mr. Ejiofor’s work in the first Doctor Strange film.  That film’s post-credit scene showed his turn towards villainy.  I’ve been waiting years for the MCU to get back to that story.  I’m a bit bummed it was mostly ignored in this movie.  But it’s hard to complain too much because the 838 Mordo was a lot of fun.  He’s not the film’s main villain, but he’s an entertaining pain-in-the-ass obstacle for our Strange to overcome.  (I did note that, when Strange meets 838 Mordo, he reacts to him with concern, as he would a villain — and later he says that he knows his universe’s Mordo was always jealous of him.  Interestingly, we never actually saw our Dr. Strange learn that.  It was only we, the audience, who saw Mordo’s turn to evil, not Strange himself.  So I guess this movie implies that they’ve had dealings in the intervening years, it’s just we didn’t get to see that.  I’m a little bummed that all happened off-screen, and I’d love for a third Doctor Strange film to allow us to see the conclusion of the main universe Strange-vs-Mordo story.)

I was thrilled that Benedict Wong’s Wong had a lot to do in this film.  He was terrific in the first Doctor Strange film, and Wong has just gotten more awesome in each of his subsequent (small) appearances across the MCU.  I love that he’s the Sorcerer Supreme here.  In a dumber film he’d have lost that by the end and Strange would have reclaimed the title.  I love that this film takes the opposite approach, and instead we see Strange actually bowing to Wong in the end.  I want more Wong!  Bring on his solo film or his Disney+ show!!  It’s fun seeing Wong get to kick ass (and be hilariously deadpan while doing so).  He did fold a little too quickly for my tastes when he gives up the location of Mount Wundagore, though on the other hand, every other movie hero would have done the same to prevent the villain from murdering innocents.

Aside: I friggin’ love that Mount Wundagore appeared in this movie!!!  That mystical mountain was directly tied into the weirder aspects of Wanda’s origins in the comics.  (She was raised there as a child by a cow-woman.  Better not to pull on that thread.)  The Wundagore seen here isn’t really anything like the Wundagore from the comics; still, I’m delighted they managed to connect MCU Wanda to Wundagore.  That was cool.

I was happy to see this film introduce America Chavez into the MCU.  Created by Joe Casey and Nick Dragotta, America is a popular young character in the comics; it’s a pleasure to see her brought into the MCU.  Xochitl Gomez does a great job playing her.  She’s physically very different-looking from America in the comics (who has a much larger, broad frame), but Ms. Gomez brings a fun energy to the film.  I like her dynamic with Mr. Cumberbatch’s Strange.  I loved seeing her iconic jean-jacket with a star on-screen, as well as her endearingly goofy star-shaped super-powers.  I wish she’d had a little more to do in the film’s second half other then basically be an object to be captured and used by Wanda.

A highlight of the film was, of course, seeing the Illuminati of Earth-838.  The Illuminati was a concept created by Brian Michael Bendis — it was a secret gathering of the Marvel Universe’s greatest minds.  I like seeing the idea brought into the MCU multiverse concept.  From the trailers, I’d thought that the Illuminati seen here would be a gathering of heroes from across the multiverse.  I was a little bummed to discover I was wrong and all the Illuminati were from the same alternate Earth, Earth-838.  That makes sense with the film’s structure (in which only America Chavez can freely move between alternate worlds), but still, I’d have liked to have been able to believe that, for example. Patrick Stewart was playing the actual Professor X from the Fox X-Men films, as opposed to another version of Professor X.

Still: Patrick Stewart from the Fox X-Men films is now in the MCU!!  Amazing!!!  What a wonderful bit of fan-pleasing crossover fun.  And putting him in his yellow hover chair (first drawn, I believe, by Jim Lee in the X-Men comics in the nineties, but popularized in X-Men: The Animated Series) was a deliriously wonderful comic-booky touch.  I loved seeing Professor X in this movie.  And we even got a classic X-Men “astral plane” scene with Professor X walking!!  So fun.  (I can’t wait for a full-on MCU X-Men film…)

Probably the next most notable member of the illuminati was John Krasinski as Reed Richards.  This is also the character about whom I have the most mixed feelings.  I feel unchecked joy that, finally, Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four has appeared in an MCU film.  I was so happy several years ago when Marvel reclaimed the rights to the FF from Fox.  The FF were the first Marvel superhero comic I followed monthly, and they’re still among my very favorite super-hero characters.  I am beyond excited to see an MCU Fantastic Four movie.  Fans have for years been suggesting casting Mr. Krasinski as Reed, so it was fun to see that actually happen here.  And yet… Mr. Krasinski didn’t really feel like Reed to me.  Something felt off; he didn’t quite capture the brilliant Reed for me.  It doesn’t help that Reed is a total moron here, who allows himself to be easily killed by Wanda.  Come on, the super-genius Reed should have a million plans!!  He should be one of the hardest characters to kill, not the first one to go.  I did quite like the look of Reed’s FF costume.  It wasn’t the classic look — it most reminded me of Bryan Hitch’s depiction of Reed from his run with Mark Millar from back around 2008 — but it worked well on screen.  Does Mr. Krasinski’s appearance here mean that he will be playing Reed in the main MCU moving forward?  After seeing this Reed here, I hope this was just a one-off fan-pleasing cameo, and that they will cast someone else as Reed in the upcoming MCU FF movie…

We got to see Captain Carter in What If…?, which was a pleasure; it’s even more fun seeing Hayley Atwell get to play the character now in live-action!  She was awesome, and I loved her jetpack!  (Only complaint: like Reed, she got killed too easily.)

I was really delighted to see Anson Mount — who played Black Bolt on the short-lived (and apparently terrible, but I never watched it) Inhumans ABC TV show — reprise the role here.  What a fun choice.  I loved seeing Black Bolt in what was pretty much his classic comic book outfit (complete with the classic tuning fork on his forehead), and I was even happier to get him see his powers!  (That was an awesomely brutal sequence, in which he whispers and executes their universe’s Dr. Strange.)

Last but my no means least was the fun of getting to see Lashana Lynch reprise her role from Captain Marvel as Maria Rambeau, only here, it’s Monica (not Carol Danvers) who is Captain Marvel.

I’ve read online that some people were upset at how the Illuminati got massacred, but isn’t that the fun of this type of alternate universe stories?  (Would Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “Yesterday’s Enterprise”, one of the early TV or film depiction of an alternate universe, have been as great if the TNG crew hadn’t all been killed in the climax?)  I loved how Sam Raimi and his team seemed to relish getting to show this team of alternate-universe heroes getting killed off in gloriously brutal fashion.  Watching Black Bolt’s head explode from the inside wasn’t something I ever expected to see in a movie theater!  I loved it.  Frankly, my only complaint is that I’d have liked to have seen these heroes put up more of a fight; it undermined the concept that this group was powerful enough to defeat Thanos and take control of their world to have Wanda be able to dispatch them so easily.

I loved the montage of universes when Strange and America cross the multiverse.  That’s a scene I can’t wait to rewatch and pause at home!  I loved seeing the animated universe and also the brief glimpse of what looked like the Living Tribunal.  That was fun!

That being said, though, my main complaint about this film is that, in a movie called Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, I didn’t feel we got quite enough multiverse craziness.  We basically were just in two alternate universes: Earth-838 which was controlled by the Illuminati, and the destroyed-by-an-incursion Earth where the evil Strange lived.  I wish the third act had gone a little crazier and maybe featured a few more wild cameos.

But what I love about this film is how many fun sequences are packed into it’s lean run-time.  (This is one of the shorter Marvel movies in a while!)

There’s that great opening fight with the huge-eyeball creature.  That’s a classic weird monster from the comics, and it was pure joy to see it on screen.  It was just the right balance of silly and yet still dangerous.  (I loved the surprisingly gory/silly moment at the end in which we see the eyeball pulled out of the creature’s socket.  That was wild!)

There’s Wanda’s assault on Kamar-Taj.  I love seeing the different groups/tribes of wizards.  I loved the way the look of the magical shield.  I loved the minotaur.  I loved getting to see the Mirror Dimension again, as well as the super-creepy way in which Wanda escaped.

There’s also the musical fight between Strange and his doppelgänger.  How fun was that?  That was so creative and unexpected.  I loved it.

Speaking of that Strange-vs-Strange battle, let’s talk about the idea of “incursions” that was introduced in this film.  This comes from Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers storyline that led into the 2015 Secret Wars series.  (Is that where the MCU is heading, to a Secret Wars crossover film, in which we’ll see alternate universes battling one another?  That’d be fun!)  (Though actually what I REALLY want to see is a crossover film based on the ORIGINAL Secret Wars mini-series from the eighties, with the Beyonder!!  Reading that series was a defining moment for me as a comic-book fan.)  I loved hearing the word “incursion” spoken in a MCU film.  I was surprised, though, that this film suggested that the mere act of crossing universes could lead to an incursion that could destroy a universe completely.  That seems to contradict what we saw in What If…? and Spider-Man: No Way Home (as well as Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which isn’t officially an MCU film but which I like to think is, just because it’s so awesome).  I’m curious to see how future films play with this.

Other thoughts:

  • I liked seeing the Book of the Vishanti, something that’s frequently mentioned in Dr. Srange comics.  Same goes for the Darkhold.
  • I was intrigued to see them bring in the idea that Stephen’s sister was killed.  That story is from the comics, though it came off as a little superficial, a little cliche here.  But Mr. Cumberbatch played it well.  (It did show a limited understanding of the multiverse, though, to use that story as a way for Strange to prove to the other Strange that they were alternate versions of one another.  For what reason would that exact event have had to have happened to this alternate-universe Strange?)
  • I enjoyed seeing the Ultron drones.
  • I loved the idea that Strange had to animate his own alternate-universe corpse!  What a wild and gross notion.  (Though, wow, that corpse decomposed FAST!!  How long was it buried on that rooftop?  It felt like basically just one day…)
  • I loved seeing Bruce Campbell make his traditional cameo in a Sam Raimi film.  His appearance as the Pizza Poppa was excellent.  (“The Pizza Poppa always gets paid!”)  I thought Dr. Strange was surprisingly mean to him!!  The dude just wanted to be paid for the Pizza Poppa that America stole!  (Was his post-credit scene meant to take place three weeks later?  Or just a little while later, to show that Strange was just kidding about the whole “three weeks” thing?)
  • I’m not sure what to make of Strange’s third eye that appeared in the film’s closing scene — and then again in the mid-credits scene.
  • It was curious to me that this film utilized two concepts from What If…? — Captain Carter and the evil, dimension-destroying Dr. Strange — and yet neither of these characters were actually the same characters we’d met in What If…?  That seemed like a missed opportunity to me.  I’d have liked to have felt that the events in What If…? had an actual connection to the MCU movies.
  • I am excited that Charlize Theron has entered the MCU, but I wasn’t bowled over by her brief mid-credits introduction as Clea.  I thought she looked silly; that garish eye-makeup and brightly-colored costume didn’t look very convincing to me.  I hope they tweak her look whenever we see her again.  Still, I’m excited to see Clea enter the MCU.  I’m assuming her appearance here means they’re going to let the main-universe (616) Dr. Palmer stay married, freeing up Dr. Strange to be in a romantic relationship with someone else.
  • As a huge comic book nerd, I’m delighted to hear the main MCU universe identified as the 616.  This concept originates in the Captain Britain comics from the eighties, written by David Thorpe.  It was utilized by Alan Moore and then Chris Claremont when they each wrote Captain Britain, and then Mr. Claremont brought the 616 idea into his X-Men comics.  (That’s where I discovered it: in Excalibur, written by Chris Claremont and illustrated by Alan Davis — after which I went back and read the Moore and Claremont Captain Britain issues.)  It’s been used on and off in the years since.  I’m thrilled to hear the main MCU universe identified as the 616!  (However, ahem, there are two nerdy problems I have to bring up.  The first is that the 616 designation was already mentioned in the MCU — by Mysterio in Spider-Man: Far From Home.  However, Mysterio is revealed not to actually be a traveler from across the multiverse, but a con-man villain from our universe… which means he made up the 616 designation… which means it’s a hell of a coincidence that Dr. Palmer from Earth-838 picked the exact same number.  Problem number two is the suggestion here that Dr. Palmer came up with this universal numbering scheme as she was charting the multiverse.  If that’s the case, it’s pretty weird to me that she numbered her own universe 838.  Wouldn’t she have called it #1?)  (To be clear: My joy at hearing the MCU called 616 outweighs these nerdy quibbles…)  You can read a great summary of the history of the 616 designation here.
  • It’s always fun to hear a new superhero score by Danny Elfman.  But I need to watch the film again to pay more attention to the music.

Wow, I had a lot to say about this film!  Most of it was very positive.  I really dug it.  Bravo to Sam Raimi, writer Michael Waldron (who was the head writer on Loki), and the rest of the team.  This was another great piece of the ever-expanding MCU puzzle.  I can’t wait to see it again.

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