In my review for Spider-Man: No Way Home, I didn’t call it superhero fatigue that fueled my lack of enthusiasm for Marvel. It was ambivalence. No greater evidence do I need for this ambivalence than meeting the trailer for a movie directed by Sam Raimi, one of my favorite directors, called Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness with a resolute shrug of the shoulders.
The very premise of this movie should boggle the mind. A superhero sorcerer from Marvel comics with a sentient cape and a young woman trying to control her power to jump between universes are tasked with stopping a powerful witch from absolutely demolishing two universes in order to live with her children (who don’t exist, because she created their matter from nothing). And it is a huge blockbuster that fills most theater screens across the country, because no other studio wants to directly compete with it.
To not even try and avoid the lazy pun, it’s all pretty strange. Frankly, that such an absurd movie would be projected to make an opening weekend gross well over $100 million (and it’s directed by Sam Raimi!) should excite me. But it simply doesn’t. Any thrill this franchise once gave me — which is actually very little, considering I was a late-comer to the post-Iron Man phase one films — is entirely absent. I had no expectations for Madness. Watching the film, I can’t say I was particularly thrilled, either.
This has less to do with the film’s visual design than with its plotting and structure. Even at 2 hours and 6 minutes (on the shorter side for an MCU film), Doctor Strange 2 is tiring. Pacing is not its strong suit, even as most of its story finds Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez, the standout member of the cast) breathlessly traversing a handful of different universes, alternately running toward and away from the bereaved and emotionally unstable Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen).
Raimi tosses in his sense of visual flare from time to time. His patented zoom appears early and crops up again on occasion, as do shots which pull out as they rotate. The disorientation caused by Raimi’s highly mobile style suits the themes of the film. Pairing that with Danny Elfman’s score, a wild stew of sonic influences which is delightfully jarring at times, and one could begin to convince themselves that Madness is straying from the bland Marvel aesthetic.
The set pieces, too, take the first step towards doing something unique for this formulaic franchise. The camera may shy away from the violence in most cases, shielding our eyes from the horrors, but the implication is always there. One sequence, which also cleverly subverts the practice of pandering fan service, sees a character make merciless waste of an elite group of supers. And its antics are more Deadpool than Captain America. If Disney allowed itself to actually push their boundaries, then this could easily have been a wild, R-rated romp. Instead, a team of editors likely spent hours poring over how to cut the scene so that one death could be shown on camera.
This toothless action is to be expected, though. As is the laborious plotting and the uninspired character development. It is to be expected, because anything “new” brought to a Marvel movie must be mitigated by the sameness that populates the rest of the film. Even as a shot, or a turn in the soundtrack, or an isolated set piece, or one central performance stands out among the pall of uniformity, the film as a whole cannot hope to pull itself out of the mire that is the interminable MCU.
Marvel has sunk itself into a hole whereby experimentation must be contained like a biohazard, threatening to spread and disturb the core fanbase. The most ambitious the studio has been recently has been with its streaming content (parts from which Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness liberally recreates). The movies, meanwhile, must keep in lock step with the successes of the past, as the specter of a box office bomb looms large. Spider-Man: No Way Home undercut its ambitious premise with hyper-calculated plotting meant to maximize fan appreciation.
Doctor Strange 2 may not calculate as thoroughly in this department, but it undercuts its ambition by not letting the biohazard of creative risk spread. When this feels like a Sam Raimi movie, it excels. If we continue the metaphor, his best movies do feel like a barrel of chemical waste toppling over and wreaking unspeakable havoc. This movie could never hope to have this anarchic burst of creativity.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness: C+
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