‘Multiverse’ runs wild and mad as my love-hate for MCU deepens

Images courtesy Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

8/10 The history of the MCU and the Disney empire generally is a history of the struggle between directors and what has effectively become a second studio system. Massive names like Jon Favreau, Edgar Wright, Gareth Edwards, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, Joss Whedon and James Gunn have all been dismissed or otherwise undercut from Disney projects in recent years.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness started out telling the same tale. The first Doctor Strange way back in 2016 was written and directed by Scott Derrickson, a longtime fan of the psychedelic comic line who basically had the entire film storyboarded out and ready to shoot just for the job interview. It’s not exactly a masterpiece, but passion shines through, and he was reportedly excited about taking the sequel in a full-on horror direction. Instead, he was fired over those dreaded “creative differences” before he got to write a single draft and kept on as an executive producer so he couldn’t complain about it publicly.

Then this empire with a soul-crushing history of and apparent dedication to being as bland as possible gave the project to Sam Raimi.

Manhattan- America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a girl who can move through parallel universes at will, crashes into Earth-616 pursued by a giant octopus demon. Stephen Strange, master of the mystic arts (Benedict Cumberbatch), saves her and kidnaps her for observation. He enlists the help of Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), who is coincidentally the best demon summoner he knows. Bit of a tactical error there. Maximoff uses The Necronomicon The Darkhold to pursue Chavez and Strange across the multiverse.

In the cold open, and then the secondary cold open with the octopus demon, the cuts are just a little too fast, like the movie itself is rushing through its pipe-laying phase instead of properly enjoying it.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness drives you crazy as you’re watching it, because you can feel the segmentation. There’ll be a 20 minute scene of boring pipe-laying or exposition dumps, and then the entire theater lurches and falls like a botched gear shift and suddenly it’s a Sam Raimi movie.

In a series that has long been criticized for mostly having no score and in which most exceptions to this are hailed as its best entries, Danny Elfman’s score sounds like he took his old Spider-Man 2 record, scratched off the label and turned it in. In the really extreme Raimi moments, which roll into an avalanche as the film goes on, everything’s suddenly straight out of Evil Dead II, with the crazed whip-zooms and body horror and some pretty hardcore visual quotes from Drag me to Hell. There’s even some nice, thick blood splatters in a movie that censors the word “bitch.” The highlights are moderately long takes set across universes in which the character holds in the same position, but their costume and background cut back and forth.

Instead of exploring its multiverse of madness, Doctor Strange 2 hangs out in the pointedly utopian Earth-838, in which every skyscraper is a vertical forest and the Manhattan skyline is somehow even more dazzling. The movie contorts like Mr. Fantastic to fit Chavez’ lesbian parents in, and as soon as she gets to 838, she turns to the camera and says, “Food is free in most universes. It’s weird that you have to pay for it.”

As Chavez whisks Strange away to Earth-838, we get an extended sequence of blink-and-you’ll-miss-them moments underwater, in a dinosaur jungle, in a dimension made of paint – give me that! Don’t just flash bananas concepts across the screen for a minute or two, make an entire movie that is that nuts.

At the same time, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness sort of is that nuts. This is Marvel’s wildest looking, most dangerous feeling movie and has some of its most compelling character work. This is great, and the heavy slather of Raimi’s influence is the key reason why.

Here in the MCU’s 28th feature film, the frequent trope of a mirror image villain, now taken to its most literal extreme, starts to really make sense. As they cross the multiverse, Strange is confronted with slightly different versions of himself, forcing him to revisit private moments to confirm his identity, second-guess his choices in the battle against Thanos and dwell on pivotal moments in his life that never seem to have gone any differently, biting into meaty, uncomfortable questions about how different his life might or might not have been.

This contains some of the best character work the series has ever done just by sticking to basics – the characters are forced into situations where they have to reveal their priorities and second-guess their decisions, and the uglier sides of who they are, Maximoff’s unfathomable selfishness and Strange’s recklessness and profound vanity, drive and eventually overtake the plot.

I’m still waiting on the multiverse movie that really takes the concept off the rails. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which would have been brilliant without this plot contrivance, introduced the concept as a narrative excuse to help Sony make a full cinematic universe with access only to Spiderman-related characters, which they’ve been trying to do for years. Everything Everywhere all at Once was marketed as the big multiverse movie in March, but it would have been better titled “Karate in a drabber-than-you’d-expect IRS office for 20 minutes too long.” Now, Doctor Strange 2 is here with the word “Multiverse” in the title, and it’s also a plot device to introduce properties Disney plundered in the 20th Century Fox acquisition.

Continuity does not matter! Continuity is for losers! I hate serialized media – most TV shows are a never-ending series of short cons in the service of mid-range cons in service of long cons. Even my comic book experience mostly revolves around limited-series Batman novels with the type of consistent style, clear voice and narrative throughline that’s almost impossible to maintain in serialized products, the type of internal, nothing-outside-the-binding-matters consistency that movies should aspire to. The concept of a multiverse could be so much more fun and interesting than an in-narrative continuity tool.

It goes all the way back core questions about how serious comic book movies need to be, questions that seem to play out onscreen in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness both as it folds in characters from this pre-MCU era of comic book movies and in its sudden lurches between spoiler dumps and insane Raimi sequences. In the early ‘00s, when Raimi was making his Spider-Man movies among the other properties that tested the waters for what’s happened since then, they all had completely different tones and ideas and relationships with reality. When the MCU started in 2008, the vibe and degree of realism was enforced to be uniform across all projects, and we mostly lost that variety from the early ‘00s. No one would ever confuse Raimi’s Spider-Man movies with the X-Men movies that were coming out at the same time, but MCU characters are completely interchangeable, in function if not in theory.

The choice to bring Raimi in for this and to embrace the multiverse and its madness is a choice to lean into the crazier possibilities of comic books, but as seemingly always in Disney’s monopoly era, this movie has to be all things to all people, so they also spend multiple Disney+ shows and half an hour of runtime explaining why the floaty rock dimension is just as realistic and serious as the Al Qaeda caves this series started in. The best example of how this tension manifests in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is the visualization of Charles Xavier’s (Patrick Stewart) psychic battle with Maximoff. He tries to dig a less violent part of Maximoff’s psyche out of a pile of rubble, hoping it will allow her to take over, but as he’s doing this, he says out loud, “Maybe if I can dig you out of this rubble it will allow you to take over.” The filmmakers have brought together this wonderful visual representation of what’s happening, and then someone made Stewart narrate it out for the benefit of – who? It’s not for small children, they’d understand that kind of intuitive storytelling better than language. Is it for adult viewers who just came with their buddies and aren’t really paying attention? For whatever reason, we can’t just have a fun, cool movie, we have to have all this bloviating.

But the bloviating is what gets the applause. The continuity-loving losers who insist on whooping and applauding in the theater do so when they see something they recognize, when Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness confirms new batches of media for them to consume. When they actually get to the process of consuming what’s effectively a $200 million Evil Dead movie, something I’m enjoying very much, nothing. Crickets.

The MCU has fostered an audience that enjoys being strung along by serialized media installments more than it enjoys savoring finished products, and that reflects the business model. Disney has made a top-level decision that streaming content is more important for its bottom line than theatrical releases. In Doctor Strange 2, they’ve brought on a real filmmaker and put those separate appeals right next to each other, and it nails both of those appeals, but boy is it weird to see them so separated and yet so close together.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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1 Response to ‘Multiverse’ runs wild and mad as my love-hate for MCU deepens

  1. Pingback: Shock-jock horror makes unwelcome return in ‘The Black Phone’ | Reel Entropy

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