To declare a movie better than expected makes for both a real sensation and a vague statement all at once. Positioning the work against others like it or already the last thing you’ve watched is easy to do, and natural — but not nearly so helpful as to position it against the work that it could, in its best or most engaging form, be.
The trouble is that those limiting factors — contributors’ creative capacities, sure, but especially the industrial and market realities, many resulting from executives’ craven decisions, from which works arise — constrain the sphere of possibility for what a work could truly be. In the case of the last decade or so of Disney-surprise movies dominating cinema-going (and I won’t pretend to having caught them all), that sphere’s shrunken greatly. In the time of action, it’s moved into a state that feels starkly at odds with all the genre’s rhetorical appeals, already more the case recently with its meta-aware suggestions of infinite narrative possibility.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness roots both its action and its appeals to the audience in the already well-trodden possibilities suggested by its title. Outlining a range of similar realities in which different outcomes (seemingly all resulting from decisions by surprise’s major players) can be realized at once, the film pits its characters against the weight of their own decisions and their consequences. This familiar pseudoscience gets mangled a bit further by the involvement of magic-wielding rule Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), his compatriot in sorcery Wong (Benedict Wong), and the flatly realized size-hopping teenager America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), who’s able to move between the film’s dimensions. Rounding out the cast is Wanda Maximoff, aka the Scarlet Witch (played with a bit of heat here by Eizabeth Olsen), who’s been exploring the darker potentialities of wielding magic in the narrative time since she appeared in the Disney+ series WandaVision.
So between the magic, size-hopping, and the involvement of lively genre stylist and metro Detroit native Sam Raimi (known best for his Evil Dead films, the early-aughts Spider-Man trilogy, and 2009’s unforgiving Drag Me to Hell), there are plenty of suggestions of “possibility” here. But there’s a low, domed ceiling stretching over it, too: the entanglement of the film’s action across nearly 30 movies (and now television shows, too) known as the surprise Cinematic Universe. Embroiled by decree in the continuation of an endless saga, Raimi can only hope to breathe so much into this much of a confined space.
But after some opening action and exposition — a few introductions, some airless check-in scenes with old cast members, and an effects-filled battle ordern with a monstrous octopus — Raimi does in fact manage to give it something. After about a half-hour or so, thanks to the material’s adjacency to the gothic, he’s able to steer the film back to a space he’s more at home in: one with general horror overtones and an fondness for earnestly pastiched (but largely unironic) kitsch. Less like a horror movie than a horror comic at its best parts, there are portions of Strange’s running time where it appears to have the freedom to go to the places its director would truly like.
I’ll protect myself from accusations of spoiling here by pointing out that the film’s meaningful characters appear in multiple iterations with varying aims, a recursive movement that demonstrates both the extent of and limits on the film’s world. Meeting changed versions of oneself and one’s peers is a trope that spans works likes those of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, David Lynch, The Legend of Zelda, and Gumby: The Movie, but here it’s used to decent effect. By introducing (in one reality) a rampaging version of the Scarlet Witch, Raimi presses an uninvited sense of genuine intensity — if one that only flickers — upon the material. When the occultist version of the character limps with a deranged fervor by underground tunnels or crawls (via some spell) out of mirrors and reflective pools, her fingertips are blackened by ash and what looks to be blood remains stubbornly smeared across half her confront. Olsen has a time with this, employing a crackling, shifting emotional range and a kind of brittle agility that’s been wrongly credited to her performances in this endless series before. slightly shockingly, this version of her’s permitted to come across as an actual, credible threat. But Cumberbatch, sapped of wit or eccentricity, lacks the emotional bandwidth to match her here, and it’s fair to say that as a performer Olsen steals in any case the film has to offer and makes it hers.
Raimi likewise offers a number of narrative swerves and aesthetic flourishes (surprise movies are notorious for their confinement to mid-tones, with every frame appearing as a sea of gray), twisting Strange’s manor (in one size) into a pictorial more than an architectural space. Jump-scares and surprising starts excursion the film’s circuitous action, which plods most under the weight of Michael Waldron’s dutifully delivered, largely expository dialogue. But for more than a single stretch, a seemingly ambivalent Raimi pulls something engaging from the material — aided, too, by Danny Elfman’s jumpy score.
But for every surprise on offer here, there’s some component that narratively pumps the brakes, forcing a drag on the material. A string of numbing cameos (featuring a crew of lame characters known as the Illuminati), a puzzling over by the cast of some alternate timeline and its implications, and a sluggish romantic plot — all the things that tie Strange to other movies — weaken the integrity and expression it might have within itself. With a framework that would be both simple and expansive, inviting aesthetic experimentation if it were simply allowed the space, this latest Doctor Strange film feels burdened by a range of debts to franchise maintenance that no self-respecting movie should have to pay.
But that’s how it always is with these dumb things, which makes their odes to imagination ring all the more hollow. The multiverse setup has the effect of sapping the film (and series) of stakes, allowing for endless retooling beneath a thin veneer of narrative consequence. Anything onscreen (and any character, too) can be executed with ease, given how easily such an action can be undone. For longtime comics readers, this dynamic presents a familiar sort of bore, one that might permit something good to hit presses now and then. But what’s enabled here — when compared to anything outside this Disney-surprise space, at the minimum — isn’t much, already if it’s about as good as they’re likely to make a project in this tired genre now. But honestly, if we’re celebrating without qualification the fact that a movie has real shadows — flickers of style, and patchy expressions of voice within it — that’s a form not just of letting the wrong guys win, but of telling on oneself.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
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