Again I must ask: What the hell is the point of reviewing MCU movies? You already know whether or not you’re going to see it. Be it because you love the movies or because you’re simply on the hook at this point due to the sunken cost fallacy, it’s very likely that you either already have a ticket, or you don’t and never will. No amount of words that I can supply will sway you one way or the other. In addition to that, there’s so much spoiler-phobia out there that it limits what I can say anyway. Although, to give Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness credit where it is due: there’s actually not a lot here by way of advertisements for future stories, which is an increasingly rare pleasure this side of Infinity War. For being the first real cinematic dive into the multiverse, where it is assumed the architects of the MCU will house an increasingly convoluted web of stories in order to milk the annals of comic book history for all it is worth, DSITMOM is quite nicely contained.
Yes, in order to keep us all from going crazy, the nomenclature DSITMOM will be employed henceforth.
The last we left Doctor Stephen Strange is… I don’t remember. But as it stands, Wong is now Sorcerer Supreme, Strange is still mourning his romantic loss, and Wanda Maximoff is out tending to a farm all by herself after the disastrous events of WandaVision (Note: the name of my website is based loosely upon MonsterVision, not WandaVision, so please nobody ask again). Strange’s lost love Christine is getting married to a much more stable man than he could ever hope to be, but in pure MCU fashion, their wedding is interrupted by a alien cyclops octopus. Luckily for the wedding guests, a superhero is in attendance, and after an awkward display of unrequited emotion, Strange uses his powers to defeat the beastie. But this is only the beginning. As it turns out, the creature was sent to capture a young woman with the power to jump between universes. Hers is a dangerous ability – one she cannot control – and it is coveted by a person who is powerful, greedy, and willing to do anything to get it. In order to stop this mysterious villain, Strange enlists the help of Wanda Maximoff, and then a movie happens.
THIS IS ALL I WILL SAY! NO SPOILERS!
The exciting thing about DSITMOM (outside of the fact that it stars two men named Benedict) is the return of Sam Raimi to the world of superheroes. The last time he sat in the director’s chair for Marvel was in the original Spider-Man trilogy, all three of which were notable for showcasing the near endless ways that the auteur could inject his unique style into a gigantic studio product. Now, at a time when more and more of these things are falling under the sway of an oppressive, bland house style, Raimi’s return is an exciting thing indeed. For the most part, those looking for something slightly outside the visual sandbox of the world’s mightiest super studio will be pleased at how much of Raimi’s voice comes through. It’s not a pure Raimi product, however, but where Raimi’s energetic brilliance lies is in his ability to imbue even the tiniest moment with unmistakeable style. Even within the confines of an empty green box in Georgia, the guy just knows how to bring life to a scene. The way a certain character emerges from a mirror, or the way another character’s literal third eye emerges are ripped straight out of the Evil Dead playbook, no matter how digital they may be (Reminder: Oz the Great and Powerful, another a Raimi flick, is better than you’d expect, and is also a soft remake of Army of Darkness — seek it out).
By the third act, when all bets are off and every design choice has come out to play, the film becomes vintage Raimi. Skeletal ghosts, undead magical maestros, and a crew of gigantic beasts that look as if the golem from The Keep got real into HGH. It’s absolutely nuts, and a reminder of how a strong directorial voice can rise above studio demands. But rise as it might, it doesn’t ever clear the hurdle to become a full-on Raimi movie, which, although disappointing, is to be expected. That said, the scene or two which seem the most studio mandated in terms of introducing new IP are also areas where Raimi manages to deliver some really subversive stuff. I shan’t spoil, but there’s a touch of gleeful cruelty that delighted to no end. Your mileage may vary.
DSITMOM also reunites Raimi with Danny Elfman as composer. No hooks or earworms have announced themselves after just one viewing, but there is a sequence worth noting in which Elfman engages in a sort of Battle of the Bands against himself. The music is diegetic to the scene in a way that is hard to describe and is probably a spoiler anyway. It’s an impressive, albeit silly bit of fun that charmed my pants off. It will likely make you roll your eyes, which is also understandable. You’ll know it when you see it.
Performances are all serviceable to good, with Elizabeth Olsen stealing the show across many iterations of Scarlet Witch. She is a character who the MCU has struggled with up until WandaVision. She’s a protagonist who is, as far as the source materials go, classically depicted as a villain. Here, she is motivated in such a way that speaks to the complicated relationship that powerful beings have with their own desires. It’s heavier than expected, and very effective. The title declares Strange as our star, but the lead performance is hers.
Benedict Cumberbatch continues to win me over after I initially rejected his character as a bland Tony Stark knock off. Through the Infinity Saga my distaste has faded, and now, in his second “solo” outing, he’s become a sturdy anchor who the MCU can cling to as it expands into the multiverse. Our other Benedict, Benedict Wong (playing Wong), is such an earnest scene stealer that if any character should be given a solo series, it should be his. The charm on that man is matched only by how badass he is. America Chavez, our multiverse-hopping, sentient MacGuffin, is underserved by the script. A shame too, since Xochitl Gomez does great work bringing her to life. I would have liked to learn more about the character than we get here, and hope to see more of her in the future. It should also be noted that since the portal she opens is shaped like a star, her superhero name should totally be “Star Wipe.” You can pay me later.
All in all, DSITMOM is 65% more of the same, and 35% evidence that the MCU masterminds really need to sit back and let the directors do their thing. As the multiversal house of cards grows and audience loyalties unavoidably wane, a great way to keep the exhausted moviegoers amongst us along for the ride is to be much less stingy about creative freedom. A weird, unfettered failure will always be more interesting than a safe failure (which the MCU has not managed to avoid, even when playing safe), so I say just go for it. DSITMOM is proof that it’s an instinct worth catering to if it hasn’t already been beaten into submission by the ever-present bottom line.
Directed by Sam Raimi
Written by Michael Waldron
Starring Benedicts Cumberbatch and Wong, Elizabeth Olsen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Xochitl Gomez.
Rated PG-13, 126 minutes.