Friday, 27 May 2022

Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness (2022) - Movie Review

Bryan Singer’s X-Men changed superhero cinema in a big way. It proved that not only could comic book characters survive and thrive on the big screen in the new millennium, but what makes them worth reading about can effectively be translated into something watchable; this is something that superhero flicks struggled with for years prior. But I’d argue that Sam Raimi did just as much, if not more, for the sub-genre than Singer did.

Where Singer bent the edges of those characters to make them fit, Raimi instead made the cinematic artform bend to the dynamic visuals of the printed page. His Spider-Man trilogy remains a touchstone for the sub-genre to this day, and in a lot of ways, it reached heights that most of the MCU hasn’t been able to yet. So… yeah, hearing that he’d be helming a new capeshit feature had me wanting to see him come back on top, after spending the last several years either directing forgettable fluff or producing some particularly egregious horror movies.

And thankfully, Raimi’s sense of visual style comes back with a vengeance here. He and DOP John Mathieson (who also worked on Logan) build on the idea of the infinite Multiverse as the bedrock of existential horror and run with it, bringing out some particularly gruesome and occasionally metal-as-fuck spectacles to the screen. From a Lovecraftian one-eyed octopus, to Doctor Strange falling through the walls that separate realities, right down to a walking corpse wreathed in the spirits of the damned, this has got some quite memorable moments. He even gets to have some fun reuniting with Danny Elfman on the soundtrack, with a scene that’s about as close as Disney has gotten in several decades to recreating Fantasia.

There’s a lot of smaller moments here that are work really well also, not strictly tied to the visuals. One of the reasons why the Spider-Man trilogy, and even Darkman, work as well as they did textually is that Raimi’s idea of what a hero is is considerably less black-and-white than his contemporaries. Whether they’re ostensibly the heroes or the villains, he always found a way to give them authentic three-dimensional characterisation, overriding the want to see evil punished and replacing it with a want to see evil absolved and forgiven. With that in mind, Raimi helming this story makes perfect sense, as the character arcs that Strange and Wanda Maximoff (now fully realised as the Scarlet Witch) involve them both wrestling with the notion of ultimate power and just how far they’re willing to go with it. Even the new supporting characters, like America Chavez (who, admittedly, isn’t given as much development as I would’ve liked) who gets an all-time tragic backstory here, leave a hefty impression by film’s end. No spoilers, but this has got some legendary introductions into the MCU.

However, while the work put in by Raimi and just about every actor here checks out, I have quite a few issues with the script on this one. Writer Michael Waldron, whose work on the Loki series is what officially introduced the Multiverse into the MCU canon, is on his first feature film credit here… and I’m getting a little tired of saying this, but it shows. The story itself isn’t all that bad, especially when it focuses on specific characters and their Variants, but it ultimately feels like pretence solely for the benefit of the reality-bending shit.

In the case of Doctor Strange, for as confronted as he gets with how badly his other selves had turned out, his story is more interested in his could’ve-been relationship with a returning Rachel McAdams as Christine. For those who remember my write-up for the first Doctor Strange film, you might recall that these two not being in a relationship was something I actually liked about that feature. The idea of a man and a woman sharing screen-time together, and not being relegated to obvious romantic interests like just about every other movie does, is more interesting to me than seeing these two go back and forth about what might’ve been. I feel like Rick Sanchez, thinking these people backed the wrong conceptual horse, which is quite ironic, considering Waldron worked on that show also.

As for the Scarlet Witch, this continues on from her character arc in WandaVision, where she’s trying to reunite with her children through the use of dark magicks. While it furthers the showing of chaos magic that I’m growing to quite like within the MCU (and this being a refined version of a plotline from Avengers: Disassembled doesn’t hurt either), a lot of it feels like it’s retreading moments and emotional revelations she had already gone through in WandaVision.

Don’t get me wrong, WandaVision isn’t perfect or anything, and it’s one of the worser examples of how mercenary the MCU can be when it brings in filmmakers with more of a unique creative vision, but the actual admission of the horrifying shit Wanda was doing was weirdly refreshing. It was basically the ‘are you really the good guy?’ moral dilemma of Black Widow, but done properly. Here, though, it just feels like a retread, and try as Raimi and Elizabeth Olsen might to make it work (fucking hell, she has really come into her own with this character over the years), I just couldn’t shake the feeling that I’ve already experienced the better version of this very idea, and within the MCU at that.

That’s ultimately my main problem with this whole thing. As a new Sam Raimi superhero flick, it’s exactly what I wanted from that, with its quiet but intense emotional moments, creative use of the medium, and actual willingness to explore the moral grey areas of the characters. But when I look beyond the presentation, the main things that are tying all the multi-dimensional angles together (namely the larger plot and its two lead characters) fall short of what I already know these people are capable of delivering. It doesn’t help that the film’s cred as a horror flick isn’t as strong as it could have been, and it ends up whiffing on the bigger questions about power and the right to wield it. It’s still an entertaining feature, don’t get me wrong, but… I’ll just say this: I knew that there would be a sizeable gap between this and Everything Everywhere All At Once, but I was hoping it wouldn’t be this sizeable.

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