With DR. STRANGE IN THE MULITVERSE OF MADNESS, we are gifted with a thimbleful of plot in a vast expanse of cinematic ocean. This being yet another piece of the equally vast Marvel Universe, the story is obliged to take its hero, Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), from Point A to Point B in order to tie him and his storyline into the larger narrative. It does, and with the requisite suite of dazzling CGI on which we have come to rely from this franchise. Does it make the best use of Mr. Cumberbatch’s considerable talents? No, but that was never the point. His job is to be stalwart, witty, slightly arrogant, occasionally lovelorn, and look really cool while spinning up spells from his vast repertoire. And he does. Brilliantly.
While the story itself fails to maintain the internal logic that would make such an excursion far more satisfying, it does fulfill Marvel’s rules for superheroes. There is the tragedy of losing the one true love and/or parent. There is the banter that assures us that while the fate of the planet (universe, universes) is at stake, we’re not to take any of this too seriously. There are puckish cameos and profound guest appearances from other Marvel superheroes. Plus, while may not have Stan Lee popping up, but there is no faulting the well-known face that fills in for him from director Sam Raimi’s oeuvre.
We begin in media res and in full effects spectacle mode. Dr. Strange is fighting a nasty bit of fiery CGI over a haloed book and an innocent civilian. In a crucial moment, after waging righteous battle with his impressive array of sorcerer’s spells, Strange is forced to make a fateful decision. The logic is impeccable, but also tragic. Before the worst happens, though, he wakens from this fitful nightmare to yet another one. That would be attending the wedding of his one true love, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) to another man. Polite conversation with his ex gives way to the chance to further impress her fanboy of a new husband when a spikey eyeball with even spikier tentacles begins to wreak havoc on the street below. Quaffing the last of his cocktail, Strange leaps into action, and his superhero outfit, to do battle only to find that the spikey creature is after none other than the innocent teenager in his dream. She’s America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a spunky teenager with the outsize talent for leaping universes, which, in turn, has caught the attention of the most powerful witch in this, or apparently any other, universe, the Scarlet Witch, aka Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen). And Wanda is willing to do anything to steal the girl’s power from her for a very specific reason.
As an action story, there is much here to admire. It moves along at a quick pace with performances that strike the correct balance, aside from Olsen, between irony and gravity. This is less Olsen’s fault than that of a script that deprives her character of even the tiniest scrap of humor. No banter for this disgruntled witch.
Which leads to the flick’s most glaring difficulty. Not for the first time has the Marvel Universe chosen to define a female character by her ability to procreate. Black Widow famously declared herself a monster for having been sterilized as part of becoming a Widow. Here, the Scarlet Witch literally becomes one in order to join a universe where she is the loving mother dedicated only to the nurture of her two adorable sons. Please note, I am not discounting the joys of motherhood, but there is a problem when a character of either sex limits their definition of self-worth to that of parenthood, real or potential. Albeit, here the monomania is presented as the cause of a homicidal crime spree, and hence can be interpreted as a cautionary tale. One wonders, as one does, why Wanda doesn’t just whip up some kids, by supernatural means or not, a la WandaVision or the comics, instead of going to the trouble of crashing universes. It’s never explained, and that leaves a glaring failure of narrative.
Throughout we are told that Wanda is all-powerful, with the only recourse a magical book, The Book of Vishanti, which will give Strange the means to defeat her and the Darkhold, the anti-Book of Ashanti that Wanda has been consulting in her quest. It was even part of the dream that opens the film. Still the story doesn’t focus on that. Rather, there are digressions aplenty, including the last stand of the Kamar-Taj. This, of course, makes for more of those dazzling special effects and a few glimpses of characters devotees of the comics will relish (Rintrah forever), and so our story is padded out.
Fortunately, visiting the imaginative takes on alternate universes is fun, even the few seconds that Strange and America spend in one where they are paint. The variations on Strange himself from universe to universe delight, as do his interactions with faces familiar and not. Count Morbo (Chiwitel Ejiofor) appears as Strange’s best friend rather than sworn enemy in one. And, of course Christine pops up during his extended stay in the universe run by the Illuminati, allowing a rumination on the problematic relationship these two have in every reality. It was a surprise, and a disappointment, that there is only one Wong (Benedict Wong) across these universes, though this installment allows him and Strange to work out some of their own prickly issues. This being a Sam Raimi film, the violence is heightened, with one character turned into linguine on screen, while another is bisected with only a surprised expression depicted.
Big, blustery, and at times meandering, DR. STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS bops along to Point B, and, praise be, when it gets there, the effect has the impact that it should. Please do stay through both post-credit sequences, one of which foreshadows the next adventure, and one of which ties up a loose end in a most delightful way.