Doctor Strange in the
Multiverse of Madness
Directed by Sam Raimi
A new Benedict Cumberbatch! (He was better in The Power of the Dog.)
A new Marvel superproduction! (As if that was a recommendation.)
A new Sam Raimi!
And so it came to pass that I found myself sitting down to my first Marvel movie in years — okay, since last year’s The Eternals (actually liked that one). This picture starts off running, literally, with one Dr. Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) sprinting across the gap between universes with one America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) till they reach the Book of Vishanti — only they don’t; a multitentacled demon is in hot pursuit, and the demon manages to finish off Strange and is about to do the same to Chavez when a star-shaped hole in reality pops open and Chavez and corpse fall through into the city of Manhattan, where Stephen Strange is attending the wedding of former girlfriend Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdam), and around one corner a giant one-eyed octopus is on the rampage —
And so on and so forth. At this point I’m blanking out on details — Book of Vishanti? Darkhold? Westview? I don’t have Disney+ and haven’t bothered to see Wandavision or Spiderman: No Way Home so maybe half the narrative’s zoomed past my head; the movie’s a beat too fast to follow (why is Manhattan full of flowers?) so I’m leaning back hoping to just enjoy the ride.
Might as well note while sitting that the movie has an old-fashioned regard for books: one seems to be the source of dark power, the other a symbol of hope; pages are flipped or singed, and whole volumes burnt to crisp; nothing wrong in my book with the assertion that the printed word is an important source of knowledge and inspiration and should be respected as such; fully expect to crack open Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, speak the word “bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!” and find myself running for my life inside someone’s dream.
Meanwhile grooving to this movie is more fun than one might expect, and I blame Raimi: he hasn’t made a picture in nine years and you miss his gonzo often low-tech sensibility — the way his camera suddenly zooms in for emphasis, say, or the way eyeballs pop out of sockets, or the way twisted half-decomposed bodies refuse to stay quiet. Folks get me wrong about superhero movies; my problem isn’t that they’re too comically lightweight or too darkly grim; my real problem is that there’s nothing to look at. Hiring malleable directors to manage traffic flow in your franchise may help churn out stable predictable product, but if you want to capture lightning in a bottle, first you have to have lightning.
Raimi is lightning, or at least used to be; in cult films like the Evil Dead movies and Darkman he’s proved to be inventive and imaginative with little to nonexistent production budgets. Maybe the trouble with this picture is that it has too much money (a lot of the effects look too polished); worse, maybe he’s running low on imagination and is simply drawing from his old if capacious bag of tricks; those of us who remember the earlier filmmaker are perhaps only grooving to what we remember of his trademark mov—Oh! Is that Bruce Campbell squirting mustard all over his face?
Maybe not. Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda a.k.a. The Scarlet Witch provides the electric charge that jolts this patchwork mess to life. Her quest to seek her lost children is a struggle any parent, or anyone who’s lost a loved one can understand. That furtive thought lurking at the back of one’s grieving mind: “Maybe if I bring them back” — the results may never be good, but we’re not being honest if we say we never entertained such thoughts.
And Raimi plays it up; wraps Olsen in shadows as she strides forth with red LED eyes, splatters her face with drying blood (Brian de Palma’s Carrie much?). As far as gore goes, this is Parental Guidance Raimi, barely worth mentioning, but one look at Olsen’s wild despairing face and you know where the true horror lies: this is love without hope seeking a way to keep itself alive, knowing what it’s doing is wrong wrong wrong, lying to itself constantly that maybe somehow somewhere there’s a way. I saw the movie with some people, and one of them remarked: “I kept rooting for the evil witch.” I can relate to that and suspect Raimi can too — at one point we see Wanda’s imagined children watching TV, and on the small screen was Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. I remember Woody Allen in Annie Hall saying “I immediately fell for the Wicked Queen.”
Multiverse of Madness is pretty good, perhaps the best Marvel since Raimi’s own Spider-Man movies and, really, it’s hard to fault the picture for anything save for flaws that don’t really matter (rigorous plotting, realism, characterization of everyone not played by Olsen). Oh! And timing — over a month ago A24 released Everything Everywhere All at Once and what Dr. Strange achieved for $200 million the Daniels did for only $25 million; the universes are wilder (Paint Universe and Dispersing-Cubes Universe vs. Hotdog Fingers Universe and Just Rocks Universe), the MacGuffin even more bizarre (Book of Vishanti, meet The Everything Bagel). Perversely, the fight sequences in Everything are superior because: 1.) very little if any of it involves CGI, and 2.) it’s performed mostly by Ke Huy Quan and Michelle Yeoh — talk about low-tech, they are perfectly capable of and do the action for real. Yes, Olsen was affecting but Michelle Yeoh, I submit, has the richer role, playing Loser Evelyn, Movie-Star Evelyn, Sausage Fingers Evelyn, and so on. And none of this is arbitrary; turns out almost every Evelyn is a result of a choice her character makes or fails to make (the rest were created by the choices of people who have affected Evelyn, or basically everyone else), suggesting the branching, bewildering complexity of even such an ostensibly low-profile life. In effect The Daniels now are what Raimi was when he first started, directing his own scripts with almost no resources — and this I see is where I first came in; pardon me while I let myself out the side door.