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 “Avengers: Age of Ultron”

While raiding a HYDRA base in the small eastern European country of Sokovia to retrieve Loki’s mind control scepter, the Avengers, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), Steve Rodgers (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) in the form of the Hulk, encounter the Maximoff twins Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen).  He possesses super speed while see can manipulate minds and emit energy pulses.  Their powers have been enhanced due to HYDRA experimentation that has killed all other test subjects.  The raid is ultimately successful and the scepter is recovered but Wanda plants the nightmarish image of all the Avengers dead in the mind of Stark.  This leads him to restart a program to create, in his words, a suit of armor around the world.  The Ultron program was stalled due to software issues but Tony believes he and Banner can use the mind-control stone in the scepter to rewrite the program and create an automated defense system.  Tony’s helpful computer program J.A.R.V.I.S. (voiced by Paul Bettany) continues working on various configurations of the program and it comes to life.  Confused, J.A.R.V.I.S. tries to aid Ultron (voiced by James Spader) in understanding his existence.  Ultron quickly overwhelms J.A.R.V.I.S. and takes control of Tony’s robotics lab, creating a rudimentary body for himself.  Ultron has misinterpreted Tony’s intensions and decides the only way to protect the Earth is to destroy all human life.  During a celebration party in the Avenger’s tower, Ultron makes his presence known and attacks the team but they are able to defeat him; however, the program of Ultron escapes into the Internet and finds facilities to create more versions of himself.  Ultron also approaches the Maximoff twins about helping him destroy the Avengers.  The pair has a particular hatred for Tony as their parents were killed by weapons from Stark Industries.  They agree to help and the three, along with several robots, head to the African nation of Wakanda to meet with arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) who possesses a huge amount of the super strong metal vibranium.  The Avengers show up as well and a major battle ensues.  Wanda is able to place spells on nearly all the Avengers and each is shown devastating images of either their past or their greatest fears.  Banner is transformed into an out of control Hulk causing him and Tony, in his Hulk-Buster armor, to battle and nearly destroy a Wakandan city.  The world is turning against them due to all the property damage they cause, the team is in shambles and questioning if they can still be an effective fighting force and if they can defeat Ultron.

If you see “Avengers:  Age of Ultron,” strap in and leave the large soft drink at the concessions stand as you are in for a 140 minute rollercoaster of action and special effects.  You may also want to bring ear plugs as the film is quite loud with all the metal clanking and various things exploding nearly all the time.  It is a visual spectacle that works well within the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU); however, if you are looking for meaning on a deeper level you may be disappointed.

The early trailers made it appear “Avengers:  Age of Ultron” would be a dark and serious affair.  That worry is unfounded as the trademark banter between the characters is fully on display even in more serious moments.  Each character has a chance to lighten the mood with the interplay between Stark and Rodgers delivering the most lighthearted moments.  Thor, Natasha, Barton and Banner also get opportunities to make the audience smile and chuckle.  Even the newly added Maximoff twins get a chance to throw off a quip.  It can’t be considered a full-on comedy but the film is much less dour than first looks suggested.

The quality of acting is about what you expect in any Marvel film but having Spader provide the voice of Ultron raises the quality of the villain’s performance.  James Spader gives Ultron a level of gravitas that might have been missing from another actor.  Ultron’s commanding baritone voice ringing with condescension, his ease in dancing verbal rings around Stark and the others and the cold calculation of his ultimate plan puts him head and shoulders above most other Marvel villains.  Plus, the robot Ultron is literally twice as tall as anyone on screen.  That physical dominance of the frame only adds to Spader’s voice acting.

The acting of Scarlett Johansson and Mark Ruffalo is put to the test in the film’s biggest flaw:  The will-they-won’t-they romance of Natasha and Banner.  While an unknown length of time has passed since “The Avengers,” the notion of these two becoming a couple seems a bit out of left field.  Perhaps this is writer/director Joss Whedon’s attempt to humanize these bigger than life characters.  Since we know very little of their lives outside of teaming up to fight a world-threatening evil, this might have been an effort to bring these demigods down to our level.  Quite frankly, it feels a bit tacked on.  Banner and Natasha are probably the two most dangerous members of the team.  She has been trained practically since birth to be an assassin and he fears he will hurt innocent people when he transforms into an out of control rage giant.  The two of them together strike me as a disaster waiting to happen.  It also doesn’t help that she was flirting with Rodgers in “Captain America:  The Winter Soldier” and in the comics has been romantically connected to him and Barton.  Of course, I don’t understand how anyone could turn down the affections of Natasha who is probably the sexiest woman in any of their lives, but that’s just me.  While the romance sections of the movie pay off by the film’s end, they tend to bring the story’s momentum to a halt.  They probably could have been incorporated in a different way to fit better within the narrative.

Then there’s the problem with all the Marvel movies and superhero films in general:  The concept of meaningful stakes for the characters.  So far, nearly every MCU film has followed a predictable pattern of a worldwide threat bringing out the hero or heroes, that threat nearly defeating the hero then with one final effort the hero wins.  Marvel has a slate of films mapped out over the next decade that involves these characters.  Since we know they will be around in 2018 for whatever sequel, where is the danger to the protagonist?  It simply isn’t there.  We know Iron Man, Captain America and the rest will live to fight another day since they have a contract calling for them to appear in however many more movies.  The only mystery is how the villain will be defeated and that’s not nearly as satisfying as truly being in doubt as to if the hero will survive the final attack.  This formula make get a shakeup in coming films as both Robert Downey, Jr. and Chris Evans are nearing the end of their contracts.  Also, the next Captain America film is based on the comic book storyline of a battle between factions within the superhero community where not everyone survives.  The fiscal realities of increasing star salaries and actors desire to work on different projects may be what puts some real threat into the evil plans of the villains.

“Avengers:  Age of Ultron” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action, violence and destruction, and some suggestive comments.  There are fights throughout the film between robots and Avengers, Avengers and Avengers and Avengers and others who are not robots or Avengers.  It is all fairly mild as film violence goes.  There is very little blood and no gore unless you count the robot guts that are displayed when one is destroyed.  During the Hulk vs. Hulkbuster fight, a building under construction is demolished, some people in an elevator are nearly killed and the Hulkbuster suit has a piston-action fist that repeatedly punches the Hulk in the face.  All the suggestive comments are between Natasha and Banner except for one ancient reference by Stark during the scene where each Avenger tries to pick up Thor’s hammer.  Foul language is widely scattered, very mild and used as the set up for a running joke.

The weirdness of business agreements between companies is on full display in the film.  In the comics, the Maximoff twins are the children of main X-Men villain Magneto; however, since Marvel sold the movie rights for the X-Men and the use of the term mutant to Fox, their heritage could not be mentioned.  You might wonder how the characters could be used at all.  It comes down to the fact that the pair has been in both the X-Men and the Avengers so the lawyers decided both companies could use the characters.  Clear as mud, right?  Then, here comes Spider-Man who had been the cinematic property of Sony but can now appear in both Marvel and Sony movies.  It is enough to make one’s head spin; but if the complicated storylines of superhero movies don’t induce vertigo then legal issues between movie companies should be a piece of cake.  What does this have to do with whether “Avengers:  Age of Ultron” is worth your time and money?  Nothing, I just thought it was interesting.  Since most Marvel movies are critic proof, it really doesn’t matter what I think.  I will offer this one bit of advice:  Don’t pay for the 3D.  There is a few times it makes items on screen really pop out but most of the time it is hardly noticeable.  See the standard version and enjoy the ride with Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.  It isn’t art but it’s fun.

“Avengers:  Age of Ultron” gets five stars.

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.

Just a couple of new films this week and both are comedies.  Maybe I’ll review one of them or maybe it’ll be another film.  Stay tuned.

D Train–

Hot Pursuit–