I’m sure I’ve said this before but Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness has confirmed it more than ever; Marvel Studios and their every growing Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) are now at a point where it is nigh on impossible for them to jump the shark. There is so much in this film that evidences this but let’s take the giant angry cephalopod creature that Doctor Strange fights in New York within the first twenty minutes of this film. Seriously, there is no way that this would have got past the concept art stage in any other movie; it just looks so silly. It is like something out of Looney Tunes with its one big swivelling eye and exaggerated movements. It’s Mike Wasowski meets Cloverfield. Still though, they totally get away with it.
The way they have got to this position is two fold. First they have slowly introduced more and more outlandish things across their twenty eight movies, imperceptibly moving forward with each one so that you can’t see the direction it is going, like the motion of the hands of a clock. We had gods in Thor, then Thanos followed closely by a talking raccoon and his big tree buddy, Ego the Living Planet, the Infinity Gauntlet, Dragons, Eternals (!) and now here we are with the most cartoony thing to attack New York since Mr. Stay Puft.
Secondly, and more importantly, they have generated a huge amount of good will from their audience through strong characterisation and a commitment to quality story telling. This is the true reason we’ll go anywhere with them.
So it is that Marvel can now bring in any of the full range of bonkers characters from their comics. (Indeed the octopus monster originated on these pages. It’s a prehistorical entity named Shuma Gorath that used to demand human sacrifices before being magically imprisoned in a mountain, no wonder it’s cross.) Also, through a winning combination of chutzpah and big bucks, this ability to play with any Marvel comic book superhero is no longer limited to those from the MCU series of movies. Spider-Man: No Way Home played this card beautifully when it brought back the webslingers from Sony’s Spider-Man films alongside their own. This of course was narratively possible because Loki broke the barriers between multiverses (yet Stephen Strange keeps getting the blame) and as the title of this film suggests we are still playing in that expansive arena. In one extended sequence then we get characters together from the MCU and 20th Century Fox’s superhero films, sometimes played by the same actors and sometimes not. You do need a fairly extensive knowledge of the last twenty years of genre cinema to get the most from it (or at least access to the internet which has been going bonkers with theories before release and having in depth discussions since).
This, of course, is all fan service at best and massively self indulgent at worst. It does work with the plot but at the same time the plot would work without it. Any potential arrogance on the part of Marvel Studios is measured though, as best indicted by one character who they have brought back from what must be the most derided of all of the MCU films and TV shows, put them in a daft comics accurate suit and made them a laughing stock. Yes, they are building on their successes but they are owning their failures too.
(Still, I got to see my favourite Marvel character again so I’m happy either way.)
I’m not sure which is in service to the other then but in amongst all of this, the movie does have that aforementioned plot. The story follows the now famous Bleeker Street sorcerer on a mission to save a teenage girl from sinister forces that are after her powers for their own selfish means. Despite this only being the second Doctor Strange film, Benedict Cumberbatch has played this part six times now and is very comfortable in the beard and cloak. The girl is new character America Chavez (not new to the comics) played by fifteen year old Xochitl Gomez. Strange’s relationship with this plucky kid is a little more cliched than it was with Peter Parker but Gomez is a strong addition to the superhero gang. Much has been made of her being the first gay Latino hero but I’m not sure where the first part of that is evident in the film. She has two mums but her own sexuality is not featured at all. Along for the ride are Benedict Wong’s Wong and Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda Maximof and they both add a lot as well. Wanda’s arc is really developed here after her misadventures in the WandaVision show and Olsen brings excellent new layers to her performance. Needless to say she is still emotionally fragile after the loss of her family, and it seems her friends. I know she was probably closest to Tony, Cap and Natasha but shouldn’t Hawkeye be looking in on her? (Mind you, he’s probably not the best person to give advice on handling grief.)
The best thing the first Doctor Strange movie had going for it was the visuals and this follow up really digs down into this too. There is a scene where two of our heroes take a quick trip through different universes that is the maddest moment among all the madness, even more than the rando cycloptopus, and it is glorious in its design and its many concepts. For every other part of the film you need to see this in the cinema but for that bit you need a pause button to truly take it in. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse lead on this kind of thing four years ago, the universe jumping and the imagery, but this movie goes to these same places (maybe even literally at one point).
All in all then, if you can roll with its wild choices then there is a huge amount to enjoy here. It is a direct sequel to at least six other MCU films and TV shows so those who have done their homework will be most rewarded but wherever you’re coming from, I say jump in. You don’t, as I say, need to worry about the sharks.
The Ripley Factor:
Avengers: Age of Ultron got some flack for appearing to suggest, in a comment made by the forcibly sterilised Natasha, that a woman who could not conceive was some sort of monster. They addressed this in the Black Widow movie but here they seem to have gone too far the other way with Wanda, saying in another single line of dialogue that it is the women that have become mothers who are the ones to be wary of. I’m really not sure this has balanced the scales from a feminist point of view. In fact there are other aspects for Wanda’s characterisation now that she has become a full on witch (as happened at the end of WandaVision) that fall into sexist tropes in this area.
Weighing against this though is America Chavez who is a great role model for young Latinos and young girls (if not young lesbians). This film also finds a good use for Rachel McAdam’s Christine who is far better utilised than she was in Doctor Strange. Here she is fiercely intelligent, brave and with huge amounts of agency separate to her relationship with the leading man. She’s no Peggy Carter but then there only one of those,
or is there?