Mechanical ‘Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’

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Rating: 3.0/5.0

CHICAGO – “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” proves that more Doctor Stranges do not necessarily equal more fun. And more so than other comic book adventures, this seems like a cog in the Marvel machine first, and an adventure in its own right a very distant second. This film’s duties are to promote other Marvel movies and TV shows. More so than many other parts of this ever expanding Marvel universe, this one seems like you need to have done extensive homework just to have any sense of what is going on.

As our story begins Doctor Steven Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is attending the wedding of his one true love Christine (Rachel McAdams) when a one eyed octopus from another dimension begins tearing up Manhattan looking for teen-aged girl named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez). She has the power to travel the multiverse, but can’t really control it. She’s pursued by the Scarlet Witch AKA Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) who seeks to travel to another dimension in the multiverse where the two sons she dreamed up in the series “Wanda-Vision” are real. And she turns to Doctor Strange for help to find a magic library book which can counteract the spells in another evil library book – that she had gotten a hold of – called the Dark Hole.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
Photo credit: Marvel Studios/Walt Disney Pictures

Wanda uses the evil spells to “dream walk” into the body of another Wanda in another multiverse – to try and capture the young teen so she can take her powers for herself. It’s a shame the film doesn’t build on the surprising emotional resonance of Wanda in the TV series either. I was frankly a little skeptical when the “WandaVision” series came out, but it won me over by telling a great story and making us care about the characters. Here she takes a major step backward, requiring the audience to know all of the beats of "WandaVision," while providing a tiny fraction of the emotional resonance.

Director Sam Raimi makes his return to the superhero genre for the first time since the widely derided debacle of “Spiderman 3” (2007). It’s not an anonymous piece of filmmaking, but the story itself lets him and us down … partly because Doctor Strange in-and-of-himself isn’t all that interesting. He’s not half as charismatic in his own movie as he was in “Spiderman: No Way Home” just five months ago. He works best as a supporting player, one of the lesser Avengers, who can do what he needs to do when the action calls for it. But he’s clearly isn’t up to the task when called upon for such herculean efforts as making an audience care about his personal life.

Along the way we’re treated to multiple versions of Doctor Strange from multiple universes … one has a ponytail, another is dead tired, while another is just plain dead. We’re also treated to some fan service cameos from other Marvel properties. The selections seem equally random, and designed to stoke fevers among true comic book fans. Their identities will not be spoiled here, but they’re all not so much characters as vehicles for the lengthy exposition dumps necessary to keep this unwieldy machine moving towards its conclusion.

Here and there Sam Raimi manages to insert some visual touches. In one tantalizing sequence, the characters go crashing through multiple layers of the multiverse, including one underwater, and another bathed in the bright primary colors of paint. This sequence teases at the possibilities of the concept which undoubtedly seems to be having a moment. However, it’s nothing but the briefest of montages before the film gets down to its corporate machinery and a multiverse that looks much like our own with some digital window dressing. Raimi only manages to stage some truly inventive set pieces in the final act, including a battle where dueling wizards wield musical notes as weapons, and hounds of hell swirl around an undead corpse as it walks the earth once more.

Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch)
Photo credit: Marvel Studios/Walt Disney Pictures

As for Xochitl Gomez as the multiverse hopper, she is a remarkable in her inclusion as Marvel’s first Latina superhero. But this movie does her no favors, since she’s mostly reduced to just running with a heightened frightened look on her face or getting captured with yes, a heightened frightened look on her face. Whatever charms she may possess have clearly been saved for some upcoming project down the road because they are barely visible here.

The multiverse is a concept of limitless possibilities, but here it’s already starting to show its age. Sam Raimi has a bit of the same problem here as he did with “Spider-Man 3,” as he tries to keep so many balls in the air at once. Imagine if Marvel truly let the director of the best comic book movie of them all (“Spider-Man 2”} let loose and focus on what’s important beyond the Marvel machinery requirements. This is not to say this Doctor Strange film is awful. Even the worst that Marvel Studios has to offer is never less than watchable … but this Doctor is not even close to being at the top of his class.

“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” opens in theaters on May 5th. Featuring Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, Xochitl Gomez and Rachel McAdams. Screenplay by Michael Waldron. Directed by Sam Raimi. Rated “PG-13” contributor Spike Walters


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