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Saturday, May 7, 2022

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness



"Are you happy?" Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) asks Wong, the Sorcerer Supreme (Benedict Wong). If he asked me, I'd answer with an unequivocal "yes." Sam Raimi's Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness - the director's first superhero movie since his Spider-Man trilogy and his first foray into the Marvel Cinematic Universe - is a giddy good time, a wild and weird magic carpet ride through the Marvel Multiverse that was established in the animated Marvel's What If...? series and unlocked in live-action by Spider-Man: No Way Home. This is Doctor Strange's fifth movie appearance since his debut film in 2016 and it's the wizard's best outing as Strange and his magical and multiversal friends dive headlong into the wacky alternate realities of the greater Marvel Universe.

Perhaps the best thing about Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is that it's a direct sequel to WandaVision. Not surprisingly, Elizabeth Olsen's Wanda Maximoff is the best thing in the movie. When a teenage girl named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), who has the power to travel across the Multiverse, lands in the main MCU's Sacred Timeline (the universe designated 616), Doctor Strange decides to protect her from whatever is trying to steal her power. Seeking help from an Avenger, Strange turns to the other most powerful magic-user in the world, Wanda Maximoff, who wastes no time revealing she has become the Big Bad known as the Scarlet Witch. Still coping with the trauma of losing her husband, Vision (Paul Bettany), and her twin sons, Billy (Julian Hilliard) and Tommy (Jett Klyne), Wanda succumbed to the evil magic book called the Darkhold and became the Scarlet Witch. Wanda has simple desires: she wants to reunite with and be a mother to her sons. If she has to kill lots of people to be with her kids again, well, that's just her being reasonable. Wanda as the main villain is an unexpected treat but it logically follows up her fall from grace as a result of WandaVision, and she is a spectacularly frightening evildoer. Yet because it's Wanda, and she's still an Avenger at her core, we root for her even as she slaughters her way across universes. Elizabeth Olsen proves herself as the MCU MVP in Multiverse of Madness and she delivers what may be the best villain performance of the entire 28 movie MCU oeuvure. 

As for Doctor Strange himself, life isn't going too well for the world's most famous magician. People seem 50/50 on Strange; some love him for his role in stopping Thanos (Josh Brolin) in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, but others question his judgment that there was "no other way" and Strange helping enable Thanos to wipe out half of all life in the universe for five years, to begin with. Meanwhile, Strange is still pining for the woman he gave up to become a wizard, Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), who he loves in every universe. But Christine always sees Strange for who and what he is - the one who always has to "hold the knife" - and she wisely moved on. Even America is wary of Doctor Strange since the other versions of him she's met (and we meet) are much less likable than ours. When Wong and Strange attempt to protect America from the Scarlet Witch, their magical stronghold of Kamar-Taj easily falls to Wanda's black magic. Strange and America flee through the Multiverse, landing in the 838 universe, which is where Doctor Strange gets really strange.

Strange and America are taken hostage by the Illuminati, a superteam comprised of incredible Marvel cameos and Easter eggs: Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), Captain Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), Captain Marvel (Lashana Lynch), Black Bolt of the Inhumans (Anson Mount, getting the chance to redeem his hero from the godawful Marvel's Inhumans), Baron Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and, best of all, Reed Richards AKA Mr. Fantastic of the Fantastic Four (John Krasinski, fulfilling the most prevalent Marvel fan-casting of recent years). The Illuminati end up getting wiped out by the Scarlet Witch but just seeing this mind-bending assemblage of heroes is so dazzling and opens up so many possibilities, that it's worth the price of admission all by itself. Ultimately, Doctor Strange has to figure out a way to stop Wanda and it all leads to a MacGuffan called the Book of Vishanti, which is, cleverly, a swerve since the book is a non-factor. In the best Marvel tradition, the real key to beating Wanda is to force her and Strange to face their own internal inadequacies. Wanda comes face-to-face with her alternate universe self and realizes that she would be stealing her own children from herself. Meanwhile, Raimi, who already frolics in every weird idea screenwriter Michael Waldron conjures up, goes gonzo by having Strange possess a zombie version of himself, complete with multiple arms and a third eye.

If Multiverse of Madness has an inherent flaw, it's that Doctor Strange, try as he might (and he does try), is still the least interesting person in his own movie. In order of How Much I Love The Characters, I'd rank them: 1. Wanda 2. Wong 3. America 4. Doctor Strange's magical flying cape 5. The Illuminati 6. Doctor Strange. Yet Strange still becomes the most compelling and sympathetic version of himself in the Multiverse of Madness, and his pain and loneliness at having all the magical power he needs to save the Multiverse yet still never getting the girl - unlike, say, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) - is palpable and touching. Thankfully, Wong is a rock who has rapidly become one of the MCU's best characters, and Xochitl Gomez is a fantastic new addition to the pantheon of Marvel heroes. The day America meets Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld), Cassie Lang (Kathryn Newton), and the other new MCU heroes to form the Young Avengers can't come soon enough. Most importantly, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is about men and a woman wanting to literally take a young girl's power from her. And Doctor Strange learns that the right thing to do is to empower that girl and teach her to use it to kick a witch's ass. A relevant lesson for our world today. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is so much fun and so packed with Marvel goodness, that you'd practically need a third eye to take it all in, but multiple viewings will more than suffice.