Doctor Strange In The Multiverse of Madness

Six years after his origin story and three years after Avengers: Endgame, the second solo outing for Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) has finally arrived.  In Doctor Strange In the Multiverse of Madness (or DS2), Strange is regarded as a hero for helping to defeat Thanos and bringing back everyone who was killed from “the snap”.  Things aren’t as great as you would think for the Master of the Mystic Arts, however.  He’s no longer the Sorcerer Supreme, a job he surrendered to Wong (Benedict Wong)when he was “snapped” out of existence.  He also lost the heart of his true love Christine (Rachel McAdams), but that was well underway before Thanos arrived on the scene.  He may be a superhero, but he isn’t above punishing himself for his bad choices, namely by attending Christine’s wedding.

As it often happens with superheroes, a huge eyeball-octopus beastie arrives in New York to shock Strange out of his pity party.  The monster is chasing a teenage girl named America (Xochitl Gomez) who has the power to traverse the multiverse.  After learning the girl’s origin and suspecting dark magic behind the monster’s appearance, Strange visits the only other magical superhero he knows, Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen).  Unfortunately, Strange’s intuition proves right.  Wanda, in the thrall of the Darkhold (evil book with evil spells), has been chasing America across the multiverse.  Wanda, haunted by the loss of her magically-sourced children, needs America’s powers so that she can appropriate her children from a different universe.  

Put simply, DS2 is a MCU-horror movie mashup, directed by Sam Raimi with verve and abandon rarely seen in a Marvel movie.  The movie is also visually inventive and takes risks with its characters in ways that may not be appreciated by the faithful.  DS2 also manages to be a (simple) primer on emotional intelligence, showing how one should (Strange) and one should not (Wanda) deal with life’s setbacks and heartbreaks.  Regarding the latter, Wanda’s transformation shouldn’t come as a surprise if you’ve been paying attention.  What’s happened to her hasn’t been fair, and your enjoyment of this movie probably hinges on whether you buy into her transformation or not.  As for the former, I enjoyed watching Strange’s character evolve, something that Cumberbatch is well-suited to handle but hasn’t had the chance to show until now.  DS2 diverges significantly from Marvel superhero template, an approach I appreciated, even when the execution is a bit clumsy at times.  Regardless, I hope this isn’t a one-and-done for Raimi.  The MCU could definitely use his flair. Recommended.

DS2 marks the first time that an MCU movie requires you to have watched a television show on Disney+:  WandaVision.  (It premiered on January 15, 2021 and wrapped up on March 5 the same year.)  If you’ve never seen that series, I highly recommend you do so before seeing DS2.  Otherwise, when Dr. Strange cautiously refers to “what happened in Westview”, your reaction will likely be “Huh? What?”

A quick recap:  in WandaVision, Wanda Maximoff is trying to cope with everything she’s lost since coming into contact with the Avengers, specifically her brother Pietro, her boyfriend Vision and five years of her life.  She retrieves Vision’s body from an organization called SWORD (not SHIELD) and uses her magic to create the life she wanted to share with Vision, one that included marriage, children and a suburban life straight out of the sitcoms she enjoyed as a child.  Unfortunately, living out that fantasy required putting the entire town of Westview under a spell.  Her magic attracts Agnes, a witch who attempts to take Wanda’s power using the Darkhold, a book with evil spells.  Wanda ultimately defeats Agnes, capturing her power instead and leaving her brainwashed.  At the end of the show, Wanda is shown studying the Darkhold, looking for a way to regain her imaginary children.  (There’s a lot more going on in the series, including the inclusion of several supporting characters from other MCU movies and the manifestation of a new superhero.)

In DS2, Wanda is haunted by dreams of her children.  The movie explains that when you dream, you are actually experiencing what is happening to a version of yourself in another universe.  So if you’ve dreamt of showing up at work completely naked, that actually happened in another universe.  Great, right?  But I digress.  Ever since the Westview incident, the Darkhold has been warping Wanda’s mind.  She’s become the Scarlet Witch, a being of immense power and evil portent.  She’s been using the book’s dark magic to dreamwalk across the multiverse, seeking the children she’s been dreaming about.  While she can see her children on a dreamwalk, she can’t take them from one universe to another.  That’s where America comes in.

Along her dreamwalks, Wanda discovered America Chavez, a young girl with the power to transport herself between universes.  An alternate version of Doctor Strange has been protecting Chavez from Wanda, but is no match for Wanda’s power.  Together, Strange and America have been looking for the Book of Vishanti, a book of good magic (the opposite of the Darkhold) that contains spells capable of defeating Wanda.  (If you’re up on your Harry Potter lore, you know that good books and bad books are definitely a thing.)

When Strange and Chavez locate the Book of Vishanti in the space between universes, they’re confronted by a monster sent by Wanda.  Strange believes that he can defeat Wanda by forcibly taking Chavez’ power, an act that would help him save the multiverse but would effectively kill Chavez.  Before he can do that, he’s mortally wounded by the monster.  In a panic, Chavez transports herself to our universe and our Earth, with the monster and Strange’s corpse in tow.

The Strange in our universe is not doing well.  While his conviction that the scenario where Tony Stark defeats Thanos was correct (a 1-14,000,000 chance), his personal life is at its lowest point yet.  His focus on his work (surgical and then superhero) cost him Christine Palmer, the love of his life.  As she puts it, his insistence on being the one who “holds the knife” during surgery drove her away, and she ultimately fell in love with someone else.  He attends her wedding and right after confessing his regret at having lost her, all hell breaks loose.

The monster that just defeated the other Strange is revealed to be a huge octopus-eyeball-thingie, and is wreaking havoc on the city, not far from the wedding ceremony.  In an eye-popping opening sequence (sorry), Strange and Wong, the actual Sorcerer Supreme, protect Chavez and defeat the monster.  (Magic is great, but a sharp stick in the eye does the  trick.)  Chavez explains that she’s from a different universe and has the power to transport herself across the multiverse, but can’t control it.  She also says that another Doctor Strange tried to help her failed, and offers his corpse as evidence.  Our Strange figures that there’s only one person who could help him with his multiverse conundrum, namely Wanda.

Curiously, after everything that Wanda did in Westview, no other Avenger has paid her a visit to ask, “Hey, what’s up with all that mind control business?”.  Strange cautiously asks her about the multiverse and then Westview, seemingly aware that Wanda is not as calm, cool and collected as she pretends to be.  Within moments, Wanda reveals that her lovely apple orchard is really a dead tree shrine for the Darkhold, and demands that Strange immediately turn over Chavez to her.

Strange naturally refuses, and takes her to Kamar-Taj for her protection.  Unfortunately, the wizard army that protects the place is no match for Wanda, who quickly decimates them.  In a panic, Chavez transports herself and Strange across the multiverse in a scene that is one of the most visually striking ones I can remember in an MCU movie.  They finally land on Earth-838, which is a lot like our Earth except flowers grow everywhere and–most importantly, they have pizza bowls!   In case you’re keeping score, the place you and I call home is Earth-616, by the way.  (Couldn’t our earth be 5150, or 187, or 411?  Use your imagination, Marvel people!)

Back on Earth-616, a surviving member of the Kamar-Taj Core destroys the Darkhold.  Wanda forces Wong to take her to Mount Wundagore, the place where the Darkhold was transcribed from its very walls.   After arriving, Wanda puts Wong in chains so that he can later free himself and cause her trouble.  (I guess Wanda never saw Austin Powers.)  Wanda proceeds to locate and possess the 838-version of herself.

Strange learns that his Earth-838 variant died trying to defeat Thanos and is seen as a hero, with a statue erected in his honor.  He regretfully seeks out the help of his nemesis Karl Mordo, who likes him just as little as his Earth-616 variant.  Mordo overpowers Strange with some strong chamomile tea, and once he’s imprisoned at the (ahem) Baxter Foundation, Christine-838 applies devices that block his powers.  Mordo’s grudge against Strange evidently extends across the universe, and he takes Strange before the Illumiwhati.  Sorry, the Illuminati.  (Marvel, please stop with the mad libs, dad jokes, or whatever you think that was.)  

The Illuminati include alternate versions of Captain America (Agent Carter’s Hayley Atwell), Captain Marvel (Lashana Lynch), Black Bolt (Anson Mount), Dr. Reed Richards (John Krasinski) and Professor Charles Xavier (still Patrick Stewart!).  They reveal that they had to kill their Doctor Strange when his research into using the Darkhold to defeat Thanos resulted in destroying a universe (a.k.a. an “incursion”).  Black Bolt delivers the fatal blow, proving that sorry definitely is the hardest word to take.  (Thank you, Sir Elton John.)

Even though the revelation that Strange-836 was killed by his “friends” definitely stings, Strange-616 still asks to be freed so that he can help them face Wanda.  Unfortunately, trust issues cloud their judgment, and the Illuminati are quickly slaughtered by Wanda.  While the carnage takes place down the hall, Strange manages to trick Mordo into freeing him, proving that while Strange may be untrustworthy, he is one clever dude.

Strange, Chavez and Christine do their best to run away from Wanda, who stalks them like a monster in, well, a monster movie.  A last-ditch attempt to secure the Book of Vishanti in the space between universes fails spectacularly.  Wanda destroys the book, takes America back to Earth-616 and jettisons Strange and Christine to another Earth in the incursion-destroyed universe.  In that dissolving world, Strange confronts what basically is his worst self: the person who thinks he’s always right and takes action without collaborating with others.  Strange manages to defeat his dark self with some nifty use of musical chords.  (You’ll just have to see it.)  He then takes the fight to Wanda by possessing the Strange corpse on Earth-616.  Strange still can’t defeat Wanda, but after seeing how he has repeatedly chosen the wrong course of action in other universes, he lets America confront Wanda.  She knows that the only way to defeat Wanda is to show her that she is a monster.  Shocked to her senses, Wanda destroys the temple atop Mount Wundagore.  Christine returns to her universe, and America begins her sparkly-thing training in Kamar-Taj.  The end of the movie is pretty darn strange, pardon the pun.  As is the first credit cookie. The second credit cookie is a gas.

Analysis

DS2 is one of the most visually interesting Marvel movies I’ve seen.  Credit goes to director Sam Raimi, who knows a thing or two about directing movies with flair.  Raimi’s movies have always had their share of visual anarchy, and DS2 is no exception. There’s the scenes set in the “space between universes”, with their tripping-the-cosmic-fantastic feel.  And the scene where Strange and America crash through numerous universes.  I really liked how the planet in the incursion-destroyed universe was breaking apart into nothingness (an image that reminded me of 2002’s The Time Machine.)  And when Strange confronts what I would call “his worst self” in the Sanctum Santorum on that planet, those scenes had a classic, haunted mansion vibe to it.

DS2 still includes the usual superhero-charged fight sequences, but instead of being purely functional, director Raimi stages them with panache.  The confrontation with the eye monster in downtown NYC is one of the best individual battle sequences in the MCU, effectively showcasing Raimi’s skill with directing action sequences that operate in three dimensions.  (Wanda’s assault on Kamar-Taj is another excellent example of this.)  Raimi pulled this off routinely in his Spider-Man trilogy, but it seems like a lost art today.  

In terms of character development, DS2 takes some significant risks with its three main characters: Strange, Wanda and America.  For Strange, the focus was not just on giving him a stronger villain to defeat, but also with having him evolve.  In the span of a single movie, he came to not one but several epiphanies.  He recognized that he isn’t always right.  He realized that he can be a mentor, something he’s never been to Peter Parker.  He admitted that he needs to trust others to do the right thing, particularly when he’s not strong enough to defeat the challenge in front of him.  Lastly, he admitted to himself that his lone wolf routine was the result of the death of his sister.  His belief that he needs to go-it-alone because he’s the best surgeon or a superhero was his way of avoiding being vulnerable.  In terms of emotional intelligence, I would say Strange definitely improved by several degrees.  Whether Strange maintains this new level of self-awareness remains to be seen, for sure.

For Wanda, DS2 brings her character arc to its logical conclusion.  The idea that Wanda has broken bad and is now a supervillain may come off as a bit of a shock.  However, if you’ve been paying attention to her character’s evolution over the course of Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: Civil War, Infinity War, Endgame and WandaVision, her turn towards evil shouldn’t come as a surprise.  I do feel like the movie should have included a “previously on” recap of WandaVision, given how I haven’t seen that series in fourteen months.  As it stands, Wanda’s reveal as the movie’s big bad comes off as abrupt, regardless of how long it’s been telegraphed within the MCU.

Lastly, how DS2 handles America’s introduction to the MCU was interesting, to say the least.  I can’t recall another Marvel movie that introduced a significant new character without providing any backstory.  All we learn about America can be summed up in three sentences.  She has two mothers.  She’s unique across the multiverse.  She can travel to other universes by throwing a punch into the air, which creates a star-shaped portal.  For some reason, I thought she would be appearing in the Marvels television show on Disney+, but after some Googling, I don’t think that’s the case.  Given that the movie’s run time is just over two hours, the filmmakers could have spent five minutes providing her character with some context.  Gomez is a very appealing presence, another prime example of how Marvel has a knack for finding young actors to fill out its ever-expanding company of actors.  She and Cumberbatch have great chemistry, which helps smooth over the obvious fact that we still know little-to-nothing about her when the movie ends.

As for the plot of DS2, it primarily functions as a monster movie.  Just like teenagers being chased by Michael Myers, Jason or Freddie Kruger, Strange and company are constantly on the run from Wanda.  Those who believe that superhero movies have been appropriating genres to broaden their appeal will certainly have another example to throw out with this movie.  From my perspective, movies have cribbed ideas from other movies since movies began.  I really don’t care what genres superhero movies are using as the basis of their narratives, so long as the movie itself works.

Being familiar with Raimi’s movies going in, I could easily spot his trademarks throughout the movie.  The climax of the movie, with Strange possessing the corpse of an alternate universe Strange, felt like something within Raimi’s wheelhouse.  In many ways, DS2 comes off as a mashup between a Marvel movie and one of Raimi’s Evil Dead movies.  I got a kick out of the combination, but I can understand why others may not feel the same way.  I’m shocked that Raimi hadn’t directed a feature film since 2013’s Oz the Great and Powerful.  I hope that he enjoyed this experience and does another film soon, Marvel or otherwise.  He’s much too talented to be sitting on the bench.

I do find it curious that Marvel brought Raimi on board to direct this movie after Scott Derrickson bowed out over creative differences.  This movie, with its many horror movie touches, seemed like the perfect fit for Derrickson.  He never had the chance to explore those themes in the first movie, which was more-or-less a standard superhero origin story.  Horror and the supernatural are usually front-and-center of Strange’s comics, so I can see why Marvel turned to Raimi for this movie.  Why Derrickson left a production that is in his wheelhouse currently is a mystery, though.

If you haven’t guessed by now, I have an affinity for the MCU’s take on Dr. Strange.  For better or worse, I can relate to the guy on many levels.  He’s highly intelligent and doesn’t hesitate to let anyone else know it.  He’s also one of the best at what he does (surgeon and superhero).  He believes that his approach to a problem is the best solution.  He applies sarcasm liberally in his conversations.  He’s a lone wolf, always choosing to work solo instead of relying on others.  He’s also willing to put his life on the line to help the people he cares about, even if it means risking his own life.

I was skeptical when Cumberbatch was cast in the role.  Before Doctor Strange came out in 2016, I’d only seen him in Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) and The Imitation Game (2014).  He seemed to be good at playing characters who were intense, highly intelligent and arrogant, which was not how I remembered Dr. Strange from the comics.  That character started believing he was on top of the world, but suddenly was laid low by an accident that ended his career as a surgeon.  When he became a second life as the Master of the Mystic Arts, he appreciated how fortunate he was and became a much humbler person, if a bit dour.

While the Stephen Strange character in Doctor Strange (2016), has the same origin story as in the comic books, he was still an arrogant and sarcastic SOB after becoming the Sorcerer Supreme.  Unfortunately, instead of getting a sequel two or three years later, where his character would be further explored, Strange was relegated to being an ensemble character in Infinity War (2018) and Endgame (2019).  

Dr. Strange was also a supporting character in Spider Man: No Way Home (2021).   That movie softened his character a bit, turning him into a benevolent uncle figure to Peter Parker.  I can’t bring myself to call him a “father figure” because no father would ever be as reckless as Strange is in the movie, endangering the world in an effort to ease Peter Parker’s burden.  He’s more like the uncle who lets you steal his smokes, covertly drink his whiskey or ride his motorcycle when your father isn’t watching.

Six years after his first appearance in the MCU, DS2 goes a long way towards humanizing his character.  Much like Tony Stark, Stephen Strange is gradually evolving from being an overconfident snark factory to a character audiences can care about.  If Doctor Strange will be one of the leaders on the next iteration of the Avengers, I would have to believe that his character growth sticks and continues.  The first credit cookie makes me wonder, but I suspect that it, in conjunction with the second one, was just Raimi having fun.  Which is what DS2 is, when you come down to it.  It’s superhero-driven fun.

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