Doctor Strange In The Multiverse of Madness  Review: One Of The Most Stylistically Distinct MCU Outings In A While
The superhero genre is at a fascinating stage of evolution, but how many unconventional, genre-bending projects would the studios and audience need to witness before they finally reach the new stage? What would the new stage look like? Recent releases like “The Suicide Squad,” “Eternals,” and just recently- “The Batman” seemed to beg this question. Once upon a time, the western genre ruled. Soon, studios took notice of the growing fatigue that had set in. Is the superhero genre now in this same stage, where it’s constantly recalibrating and refiguring itself?
Chloé Zhao, fresh from her Academy Award win for Best Picture and Director for the intimate road drama “Nomadland,” directed the 26th MCU film, “Eternals.” Known for portraying expansive, beautiful landscapes with a sense of melancholy looming in the air, she had always been known for making personal dramas. The 28th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe- “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” arrives six years after the first film and mere months after the cloaked wizard’s time-bending intervention in “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” Along with him, the grumpy sorcerer Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Stephen Strange’s former lover Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) also return.
The multiverse is a fascinating idea to daydream about and has ample room to allow Marvel screenwriters to embrace the rich avenue of possibilities the dimensions provided. Directed by Sam Raimi, the filmmaker behind the original three Tobey Maguire Spider-Man films and the gory horror classics such as “Army of Darkness” and “The Evil Dead,” “In The Multiverse of Madness” indeed is reminiscent of the director’s earlier works. The movie opens with a giant octopus with red-eye that lays waste in a big city. You keep expecting it to play out like a typical MCU flick, yet it goes too far in all the good, surprising ways. A true fan cannot watch the scene unfold without thinking of Spider-Man 2’s stunning post-bank robbery sequence.
Introduced in Marvel’s printed comics in the year 2011 and given her series in 2017, America Chavez (played here by Xochitl Gomez) was born in an Edenic universe and seemed to have cast herself out of it after springing through multiple universes. In this sequel, the screenplay is written by Michael Waldron, fresh from the Disney Plus series “Loki” (2021-); his script seems to compound the character trait of Doctor Strange that so many often associated with that of Tony Stark (minus the misogyny). This time around, his chemistry with the people around him isn’t as persuasive. Having said that, Benedict Cumberbatch effortlessly makes us root for him through his brilliant charisma. From the start, Strange has been an arrogant savior of inferiors of sorts; here, he’s thrown into the constant threat of the opening of the multiverse, with personal stakes on hold.
In commanding form, as always, Elizabeth Olsen is the star of the film. After 28 movies into the MCU, one could reasonably say that she’s been the one who’s constantly been giving a top-notch performance in each film, bringing the deepest of human emotions in front of a green screen. There’s a scene towards the end of the second act in the movie where she makes a spine-chilling entry, as Raimi intensifies the suspense by emphasizing the close-up of her walking on the glass deliberately; we get the classic camera tilts and reflections that go onto evoke scary sentiments that last long enough to make you feel unsettled. In a multi-billion dollar multiverse that continues to spawn films and spin-off shows.
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The 2 hours and 6-minute film certainly feel supremely packed for everything it has going, yet it feels immensely unevenly paced; the movie elucidates in the form of visual innuendo until it finally runs out of breath beneath its world-building. The fan-servicing moments in the film work very well, yet one couldn’t help but notice how blatantly the screenplay seems to be filled with moments that feel like plot devices that don’t organically carry the story forward. Once the darkness under the carpet is finally dragged into the light, it’s already too late for the film to make its human dynamics feel worthy enough, except for the one shared between Wanda and her sons. Technically, this is one of the better MCU outings in a long, long time; the ebbs and flows that Raimi and Danny Elfman (the music composer) create together seem to work like magic.
There are certainly plenty of moments hardcore Raimi fans would pick up on in “Doctor Strange In The Multiverse of Madness” as being apparent nods to the established filmmaker’s oeuvre- the circling whips, the classic first-person PoV shots like the one in the operation theater scene from “Spider-Man 2” and many more. Even though the film doesn’t coherently work as a solid entry into the new phase of the MCU, it makes for an exciting exercise in yet another case study of what happens when a giant studio hires ‘auteur’ filmmakers so that they can bring their cinematic qualities to a larger than life interconnected universe.
So far, it seems like they’re having difficulty getting through the Marvel template that’s become so loved and financially supported by the fans over the decades. However, this particular film looks and feels very different from other recent MCU outings, though I’m not sure how much of that sprouts out of the trouble the production of the film had to go through due to the pandemic multiple rewrites. The result is a stunningly shot film consisting of jaw-dropping stop-motion scary imagery and a welcome amount of gothic horror elements. But there’s also the part that doesn’t seem to come out of the constant overheated exposition, which tries too hard at serving the fans what they want in a somewhat incoherent manner.