18 May 2022

First Impressions: Doc Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

I feel like all the hot takes for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) are really obvious. Like, Sam Raimi shining under the Disney leash, how do you understand this without seeing WandaVision, why is everyone obsessed with the multiverse suddenly, and the glory of Bruce Campbell. Well, I saw this and have some thoughts so here is my amazingly fresh take. I just want to ramble, so SPOILERS forever, be warned, mortals.

Let's unpack quite a bit of this, starting with our boy, Sam Raimi, most famous in superhero circles for the original Spider-Man trilogy, but also known for the Evil Dead movies and lots of random good stuff in the 90s. I don't know really what to say about Marvel at this point, there are clearly many paint by numbers jobs and they don't seem to have great relationships with really creative visionary-type directors...until they do and it works out just perfectly fine. This film definitely feels plenty weird and has some very distinctive Raimi trademarks, but it also does feel like part of a complete universe (despite traveling to many other universes), which is everything a movie like this needs.

Sam Raimi clearly knows his Doctor Strange, he canonically exists in Spider-Man 2 (2004), as mentioned by J. Jonah Jameson. There were so many camera angles, zooms, and quirks that felt explicitly Raimi. Then somehow he prominently worked in zombies and Drag Me to Hell (2009) style witches and jump scares that really sold the horror elements of the magic world. Finally, a bit of corniness that somehow combines with earnestness in that Raimi way. It's fun to have this dude back. Also Bruce Campbell.

Second Marvel movies really are something special. Well, most of them. It takes us a minute to get past the slogging origin story and evil double who is always the villain, but usually in the second film we breathe, we're on board with the nonsense and we can just roll. This is totally in that zone. Doc Strange is an established wizard, but he's still got a bummer personal life, since the girl he never dated is getting married. Or did they date? I forget, but certainly annoyed that Strange is basically a pouty incel at the start of this film. Rachel McAdams was always thankless in her role and none of that has really changed.

Just then, a portal opens up and not-Shuma Gorath pops out fighting a young Latina who punches stars in dimensions. I don't totally understand folk who say that all Marvel movies are the same, I mean, look at that last sentence. Anyway, there is a multiverse, it's getting wacky, and hilarity ensues.

It turns out the big villain is the Scarlet Witch, Elizabeth Olsen herself, totally taken over by the Darkhold from the end of WandaVision. So let's dive into that first common gripe. I agree that it seems awful unfair that Scarlet Witch is the big villain of this film. Her powers are definitely nasty and something to be reckoned with, and she's surely towed that line (her first appearance in Age of Ultron [2015] was fighting for the other side) and yeah, WandaVision set her up as an antagonist. But that was fueled by trauma, grief, and felt like she wasn't fully even aware of what she was doing. Here she's just moustache-twirling, despite bits of self-awareness.

It does feel like too soon of a turn for a reasonably well-liked character. There are plenty of nods to Wundagore and its defenders, who I mistook for Mindless Ones, and diving into the chaotic magic realm of the MCU is and always will be a ton of fun. But it definitely felt like a character betrayal. We need some redemption (maybe even akin to Al Molina's Doctor Octopus), something to get us on her side a bit better. She's also definitely not dead forever.

I liked America Chavez, she's fun and does what she needs to do in this film, but surely could have used a bit more character development. She pops around and the crutch of "I don't know how to use my powers!" is always a bit lame, but it's a fun, solid effect when it's deployed. The sound in general in this film is great, loud, and crunchy! She doesn't really have much of an arc or learn anything besides her actual powers, so let's progress.

Benedict himself is having fun, getting to play a few different versions of himself. His accent is a little widgy as always, but this Strange is a lot more enjoyable since he's progressed beyond just a Tony Stark who is a magic doctor instead. He is always pushing for more, which we saw a little bit better in What If... and truth be told, feels like something we saw from his counterparts more than 616 himself (btw, a whole other can of bands of Cyttorak is that they call this universe 616, which is definitely a nod to the comics designation, however, this clearly ISN'T the comics designation, so what is going on here). What I'm saying is that Strange learns his lessons through other Stranges, not his own experiences, which is kind of a bummer.

Should we get into the cameos? Fine. This film is lousy with them. It's clearly all the Illuminati, which has Hailey Atwell's Captain Carter from What If..., Lashana Lynch as an alternate Captain Marvel, Karl Modo who took over for their Doctor Strange, and then the three biggest shockers - Anson Mount coming back as Black Bolt, Patrick Stewart reprising Professor X, and the fan wank casting of John Krasinski as Mr. Fantastic. Crap, let's get into all of these.

Hailey Atwell is fantastic in this role and has been doing it relatively tirelessly for like ten years now. It's easy to forget the Agent Carter series back when the MCU spin-off shows were actually on network television. That's where the Inhumans landed as well, which is perhaps the biggest stumble of anything Marvel has done. I'm not impressed at all with anything Anson Mount has done, but he does a good job here, mostly of looking cool in a costume and not saying anything. Well, until he does.

Lynch doesn't really do anything as Captain Marvel, and honestly gets punked out a little too easily. Chiwetel Ejiofor I thought would do more as Baron Modo, I don't buy his turn against Strange, even in the first film, it didn't really feel earned. Kind of like Sinestro in Green Lantern (2011), yeah remember that? Just like, "Hey now this guy is evil because he's supposed to be" instead of demonstrating it.

Dude, Patrick Stewart is 81 years old. He's still the perfect Professor X, and I love the 90s X-Men theme, the big yellow chair, it's all just perfectly campy in a way that superhero films were afraid to be twenty years ago. But man, he's getting old. When will we have James McAvoy take this role over in the MCU? And is this the way they do it, just multi-versing it? It's all pretty fascinating. He does a great job here, as he naturally should, and I even loved the little mind reading effect he did, which is so comic book-y.

I get the sense that we're only brave enough to do this in a multiversal context, though. Like, that's an excuse to go really weird instead of bringing it into the "616" universe. I hope we get over that. Marvel needs to watch more Doom Patrol. Okay, John Krasinksi.

I'm prepared for unpopular comments, but I don't think this dude works as Reed Richards. He's actually a really stiff and uncomfortable actor, despite the fact that everyone loves him. You ever notice how he interacts with people who aren't Pam or Dwight on the office? He doesn't really know how to joke around with people. And he doesn't give off vibes of arrogance or intelligence, which is what Reed is all about. Fans have clamoured for this forever for some fucking reason because they kind of look alike, but I don't see it. And he didn't do a good job, stiff wooden dialogue delivery without charisma. And he goes out like a bitch. Oh well. He might be our dude moving forward, or he might not be, I'm okay to just move on.

So, want to talk more about that? I love when Sam Raimi reminds us that he's a horror director. There was like some legit gruesome shit here! Black Bolt's voice echoing out of his brain, Mr. Fantastic getting unraveled until his brain also explodes. It's a lot of fun. Disturbing fun fun. Someone on twitter pointed out (sorry for not citing) that the big problem with this scene is that no one really reacts to their close friends gruesomely dying. And yeah, that's because it's all green screened and Elizabeth Olsen has never even met John Krasinski. That is certainly a problem, one that I don't care a ton about since story-wise, they're ultimately just fodder to show how much of a threat Scarlet Witch is and we don't really have to be invested in their stories, but it's also a bit of emotional distance that could have been better served. It's all fun for sure. I definitely dug how Raimi drops all these huge cameos and then immediately kills them off. There's something cheeky there.

I did like little bits like how the (presumably) Mr. Fantastic-built Ultrons work the way they are supposed to. But where the hell was Namor?! Probably in Universal Studios somewhere. I really just wanted a dude in a speedo with wings on his feet chillin out with the most powerful team leaders of the Marvel Universe, but like, he's the most badass of them all.

I dug the ending, which again like the first Doctor Strange (2016) relied more on wits and appeals to emotions than brute strength and magic outpeforming the big bad villain. The end credits scenes were decently indecipherable, with Strange's third eye suddenly opening, and indication of the evil of the Darkhold, and then him jumping in with Clea without much worry. I don't know, I feel like sometimes these credit scenes are more throwaway than we give them credit for, so whatever.

These movies are cool, I like how they explore magic and taboo and reanimate dead corpses to have evil soul snatcher capes, its just bizarre and campy and weird, which is my kind of deal. They are getting so good at fan service, too, but I'm still waiting for my Doctor Voodoo, a proper flame-headed Dormammu (might we get that with a Clea adventure), a proper evil threatening Baron Mordo, and hell, maybe even a Mephisto here somewhere. That'd be cool. Also, more gods like the Vishanti, Cyttorak, Chthon, uhh...Zom. They're all good. We've definitely breached the Elder Gods point, right?

I mean, we briefly saw the Living Tribunal! We're getting there, people. The only other real complaint is that this could have been an even wilder multi-versal romp, and we get really brief snippets, but ultimately we just see the incured universe, the Illimunati universe, and our main universe. That's not too much. It was worth it to get that music fight, that's the kind of wacky magic I want to see, but I'd like more. That's tough to say because there was already so much to cram in here, the pacing felt really really fast, but I think there is good fodder for a lot more, even when we leave this multiversal kick we're on.

As for being totally lost, I saw this with my wife who had only ever seen Endgame (2019). She surprisingly felt like she pretty much understood the whole thing and what Wanda's deal was. That was interesting to hear, I really thought she'd be lost. I like them just barreling forward and trusting that we'll either catch up or just be able to roll with things enough to understand people shooting magic lasers at eachother. That's what really counts.

I'm generally pretty positive about this, it's definitely not a perfect movie, but I dug it and as usual, look forward to whatever's coming next. I dunno, there are a lot of whiney bits about Marvel movies these days and what they're doing to cinema, but it's entertaining, so whatever. Go watch it, or not, let's have fun!

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