Review of “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness”

Grief can be debilitating. When my parents died less than 11 months apart, I tried to bury my feelings deep inside. I thought it would make it easier to deal with their loss if I chose to ignore the pain and remembered them as the invincible beings they were in the prime of their lives, not the sick and frail mortals they became. Unfortunately, grief is an emotion that always collects its bounty. I would lash out in anger at my coworkers for minor issues that weren’t worth the effort. I found everyday life to be unbearable at times. It wasn’t fair that everyone was going on like nothing happened and I was suffering this unimaginable and seemingly targeted loss of the two people who had been there all my life. Looking back, that mindset feels very immature and selfish. Most people will lose a close loved one eventually. None of us lives forever, including our parents. Neither were perfect, but they were my mom and dad, and that was good enough for me. I saw a professional, explained how I was feeling and got what I needed to balance my moods. I highly recommend contacting a mental health professional if you feel like your life is something you just get through. That got heavier than I meant it to. I said all that to say this, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” is a comic book movie that looks at grief and the extremes someone might go to trying to minimize it. Even if it means taking another’s life and possibly destroying the multiverse.

Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is having a dream about a young woman being chased by a fiery demon through a weird other dimension. After attending the wedding of his former romantic partner Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). he sees this woman, America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), being attacked by what looks like a giant octopus. With help from Wong (Benedict Wong), the two sorcerers defeat the creature. They learn America can open doorways to other dimensions but cannot control when it happens. Strong emotions like fear are frequently the trigger. Strange is told by America, his dream wasn’t a dream. She and another universe’s Doctor Strange were being chased by that demon as they tried to get the Book of Vishanti, a spell book that gives a sorcerer exactly what he needs to defeat an enemy. Wong realizes America is being chased by a powerful wielder of magic. Strange goes to Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) for help protecting America and her power. Wanda reveals she’s the one trying to gain America’s power so she can go to another universe and be with her two boys, Billy and Tommy (Julian Hilliard and Jett Klyne), from the grief-induced fantasy world she created. Unable to defeat Wanda in her form as Scarlett Witch, America accidentally transports herself and Strange to Earth-838 where they hope to get help defeating Wanda from Strange’s old frenemy, Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the Sorcerer Supreme in this alternate universe.

That’s just the beginning of the weirdness in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.” It is a film that runs, including credits, just over two hours, but contains enough ideas and concepts to fill at least two movies. Director Sam Raimi, who came in when original director Scott Derrickson left due to creative differences, is no stranger to genre filmmaking. His “Evil Dead” films were low-budget gems, and his “Spider-Man” trilogy starring Tobey Maguire is credited with kicking off the bonanza of comic book films were in now. Raimi understands the need for spectacle and flash in genre films. Perhaps that gets in the way of storytelling in this film, along with numerous cameos and fan service, but the movie does deliver on thrills and pulls together various aspects of Marvel’s TV and cinematic properties. In other words, fans will love it, while critics will thumb their noses at “more of the same.”

The film is visually striking in all aspects. The special effects dazzle as well as confuse at times. The visualization of passing through numerous universes as is seen early in the film may bend one’s mind as we see a universe that is 2D animated, looks like a cubist painting, and is entirely underwater, among others. The concept of an infinite multiverse, where anything can and does happen, is the realm of quantum and theoretical physics. There is math to support the hypothesis, but there’s likely no way we’ll ever know in our lifetimes. That’s why imaginative filmmakers like Raimi show us what they might be like in the context of superheroes.

The numerous CGI battles in the film can get tedious. The audience knows Scarlett Witch will win until the film’s final showdown, but we must get there somehow. Fortunately, there is always something in these fights that makes them marginally interesting. We are introduced to the Illuminati, a kind of board of directors for the multiverse. The fight involving them is fun if predictable. There are cameos and dream casting that is done in this scene. I personally enjoyed seeing the return of some actors and the introduction of others. I’m not sure any of the Illuminati will be back for any future installments, so this may have to satisfy all those wanting appearances from characters introduced in other Marvel TV projects and the wishful thinking of the internet.

The performances from the main cast are strong and never disappoint. Benedict Cumberbatch is suave and cool as always. His easy style is a perfect fit for Doctor Strange. While he was a big part of “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” I hope he gets more solo films as is teased in the mid-credits scene (there is a short post-credits scene that pays off a joke). Benedict Wong’s Wong is the perfect foil for Cumberbatch’s Strange. While their characters are frequently at odds, their chemistry, friendship and mutual respect is never in question. Wong deserves a bigger role, perhaps a solo film of his own, in the MCU. The addition of Xochitl Gomez as America Chavez is a breath of fresh air. As we get deeper into Phase Five of the MCU, we’re going to need the introduction of new characters, and Ms. Gomez fits right in with our established heroes. Her character is just mastering her powers, but her abilities could make for a powerful addition to Marvel’s stable of female and POC heroes.

“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, frightening images and some language. We see a version of Doctor Strange killed by a monster. A giant octopus-like creature is killed when its eyeball is pulled out with an improvised spear. A dead character is revived, and we see how decay has destroyed part of its body. Various evil spirits attack characters. Several heroes are killed in various graphic ways during one fight scene. Foul language is scattered and mild.

There is so much going on in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” nothing gets the attention it needs to be fully fleshed out. However, what we do see and learn about the high strangeness of Marvel’s multiverse does open the door for all kinds of story and character offshoots. There are multiverses where Loki rules Midgard, Ultron wiped out humanity and Thanos’ snap wasn’t undone. We may get peaks at those other realities and the brave varieties of other heroes trying to save what little remains or undo the damage that’s been done. This more thorough introduction to the multiverse kicks the door wide open for more stories, more villains and more heroes. The possibilities are infinite.

“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” gets four stars out of five.

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Review of “Doctor Strange”

Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant but arrogant neurosurgeon. He takes on cases that are difficult but he feels he can help the patient recover and live while turning down cases he is concerned might besmirch his perfect record. His former girlfriend Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) is a trauma surgeon in the same hospital. While they are no longer in a relationship they are still friends. While driving to an awards banquet in his honor, Strange has a car crash that severely damages his hands. The nerve damage is so severe he can no longer operate. Strange is lost and searching for some kind of remedy while at the same time driving Christine away with his self-pity and lashing out. His physical therapist tells Strange about a former patient of his named Jonathan Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt) who had a spinal cord injury that confined him to a wheelchair but had found a treatment that let him walk again. Finding Pangborn playing basketball with his friends, Strange begs to find out how he was cured. Pangborn tells him to go to Kamar-Taj in Tibet. As Strange is walking through the streets of Kathmandu asking people if they know where Kamar-Taj is, he is seen by Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Saving Strange from some street thugs looking to rob him, Mordo takes Strange to Kamar-Taj to meet The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a teacher of the mystic arts. Showing Strange there are other realities besides the one he knows, Strange begins to study and soon is able to cast spells that conjure shields and weapons as well as open portals that allow instant transportation to just about anywhere on the planet. The Ancient One also teaches Strange about the dangerous realms where creatures of great evil dwell and to avoid being seduced by their power. She tells him of one of her former students, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who was tempted by a dark power and is trying to use a forbidden spell stolen from The Ancient One’s library to open our world up to being taken over by this evil creature. Kaecilius and his followers have attacked and destroyed one of the three sanctums that protect the Earth from threats of the metaphysical kind. It’s now up to Strange to use his newfound powers to protect the Earth from Kaecilius and a dark evil from another dimension.

“Doctor Strange” is a middling entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It doesn’t have the emotional punch of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” of even the first “Iron Man” film. It has some interesting ideas about realms beyond this universe and terrific performances from Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong. It also has some of the same problems as many other comic book movies.

My biggest issue with the movie is the miscast villain. Mads Mikkelsen is a great actor as he has shown in the TV show “Hannibal” and numerous movies. Kaecilius is a role that doesn’t allow Mikkelsen to use his great ability of quiet menace. Kaecilius is a flashy villain that casts spells and makes a big show of his power. While Mikkelsen does an admirable job of portraying Kaecilius as both thoughtful and ruthless, the part doesn’t match up to the actor’s strengths. Either the role needed to be written with less action, allowing Kaecilius’ acolytes to do all the fighting and running and he gets to be quiet and menacing, or another actor should have been cast. The part of the action villain doesn’t really fit Mikkelsen.

The story also lacks emotional heft. It never made me feel like the characters were the kinds of people that I was concerned for. At times, I wanted worse things to happen to Strange as after the accident he becomes even more self-obsessed and cruel, especially to Rachel McAdams’ Christine Palmer who shows him nothing but concern and compassion. I realize the character has to be portrayed as selfish in order for him to come around and be a hero but the script by director Scott Derrickson along with Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill does almost too good a job at making Strange a monster before putting him on the path or redemption.

Speaking of McAdams, she is criminally underused in the film. While her character, which shares the name of a comic book character known as the Night Nurse, might have a recurring role in future films, it will likely be either as a damsel in distress or as a love interest for the hero: In other words, more of the same for women in comic book movies. McAdams does a great job in the limited time she has on screen but both the actress and the character could have done a great deal more other than being a stereotypical doormat for Strange.

Aside from those problems, “Doctor Strange” is at times a visual acid trip. While I’ve never personally used a hallucinogen I can’t imagine the sights being much different than those when The Ancient One sends Strange on a quick journey into the multiverse. Between that and when Strange and Mordo battle Kaecilius and his followers in what looks to be a M. C. Escher-inspired New York landscape, “Doctor Strange” has some of the most inspired visuals of any MCU film. The non-acid trip parts of the movie look great too, including the car crash that ironically starts Doctor Strange on his journey and the introduction of the Cloak of Levitation which seems to have a personality that both matches and clashes with the wearer. There are some genuinely amazing sights to see in “Doctor Strange.”

I saw the IMAX 3D version and while the added dimension really never pops off the screen in an entertaining way, the larger format certainly made the movie feel more immersive. Still I don’t know if the added cost was worth it.

“Doctor Strange” is rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action throughout, and an intense crash sequence. The violence is both fantastical and intense. Kaecilius and his followers conjure spears that look like glass. There is also a whip that is made of orange energy that looks like it burns. While it isn’t directly shown, one character is beheaded. Another character appears to lose an arm. There are numerous fights of both the magical and non-magical kind. Blood is minimal. The car crash, while clearly computer generated, might scare smaller children. Strange is shown being thrown around inside the car and his hands being crushed. Foul language is scattered and consists of words often heard on basic cable shows.

For all its mind-bending visuals and talk of the multiverse, “Doctor Strange” is a pretty conventional superhero origin story. Stephen Strange is a flawed character that needs something extraordinary to open his eyes to the world (and worlds) beyond his knowledge. Most who become super beings from relatively normal beginnings bring along some kind of flaw or issue that needs to receive an other worldly kick in the pants to straighten them out. Much like Tony Stark and Thor Odinson, Stephen Strange was presented with a problem he couldn’t fix and had to set aside his ego to become a better person. As superhero origin stories go “Doctor Strange” isn’t breaking any new ground. It also doesn’t give us an emotional connection to the characters that would set this film above the middle of the Marvel pack. It isn’t great but it is pretty good.

“Doctor Strange” gets four magical stars out of five.

This week, the holidays arrive early, the help arrives to find strangeness afoot and the aliens just arrive. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

Almost Christmas—

Arrival—

Shut In—

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