Combustible Celluloid
 
With: Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, Xochitl Gomez, Michael Stuhlbarg, Rachel McAdams
Written by: Michael Waldron
Directed by: Sam Raimi
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, frightening images and some language
Running Time: 126
Date: 05/06/2022
IMDB

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Slap Happy

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Sam Raimi's Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is frenetic, zany, ghastly, and absolutely thrilling, a pure, full-on Sam Raimi movie. Images like a severed eyeball, a magic book, and a sentient cape that tries to slap its owner awake — as well as frenetic camerawork, dutch angles, and innovative cutting — recall all the things from his cult-favorite filmography. But how does all that make this a great movie?

In any very expensive and successful franchise, it's difficult for any one auteur's voice to come through, and when it does — as in, say, Shane Black's Iron Man 3, Rian Johnson's Star Wars: The Last Jedi, or Chloé Zhao's Eternals — it's often met with either indifference or outrage, blindsided by things daring to be different. But when it hits, as in Taika Waititi's Thor: Ragnarok, it's like a miracle.

Let's talk about why that matters later on and get to the movie. Following the broken multiverse shenanigans of both Spider-Man: No Way Home and the Loki Disney+ series, Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) has a dream. Someone who looks like him (but with a ponytail), and an unnamed teen girl, are being chased by a demon through some kind of cosmic realm. They are attempting to get to a magic book, The Book of Vishanti, that apparently can stop it. Unfortunately, they fail. Stephen wakes up in a sweat.

He dresses and makes his way to the wedding of his former flame, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). After the ceremony, they share an emotional moment before a giant one-eyed octopus attacks. During the fray, Stephen sees the same girl from his dream. Somehow, the monster seems to be targeting her. Wong (Benedict Wong), who has now become a Sorcerer Supreme, joins in, and they rescue the girl, America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez).

It turns out that America has the power to leap between universes, although she can't control this power; it just happens when she's stressed or scared. She explains that, when we dream, we're really visiting our counterparts in other universes. She says she has no counterparts, and that she doesn't dream. Apparently, the monster or demon or whatever it is, is after her powers.

Stephen goes to Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), a.k.a. the Scarlet Witch, for help, and I don't want to say what happens there, except that it's probably not what you expect. Also, I should add that it's fairly essential for viewers to have checked out the excellent Disney+ show WandaVision. In any case, Stephen and America end up sent to various alternate universes, and must find a way back as well as stopping whatever is causing the problem.

There are many surprises in these sequences, which are better discovered than described. (Raimi fans can expect a certain someone to show up as well.) The screenplay is credited to Michael Waldron, who worked on Loki, and he crafts a swift, twisty tale. He manages to thwart the heavy speculation that hounded this movie, making it seem as if we might guess where things are going, but there are always new turns.

Raimi is at the top of his game here, even effectively bringing some horror elements into the Marvel Universe for the first time. An impish prankster (can you imagine what his Loki would have been like?), Raimi loves finding the intersection of humor, horror, and violence, a sweet spot that, like Ernst Lubitsch, requires the right "touch." In one sequence, a figure has fashioned a flying cape out of a group of damned souls, and as it takes flight, it wobbles and struggles for control of its course. It's a horrific image, but made funny by its movements.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness does recall Thor: Ragnarok in that it lightens its hero and makes him all the more lovable and human. This Strange is a cynic, always ready with a gruff, even-toned one-liner, and even when he's perturbed, he snarls sly insults at his foes. His relationship with Wong is also forever hysterical; Wong matches him barb for barb. Moreover, Strange and America also make a great team: the plucky kid and the grumpy Gus.

But Raimi has another side that's rarely discussed, which is his penchant for operatic anguish, perhaps best seen in Darkman. Here he brings that to Wanda's character, still distraught from grief and loss, and it feels elevated, cosmic. Olsen is more than up for the challenge and gives the most powerful performance in the film, full of so much pain we can only weep for her.

The film is ultimately about something rather simple. At the wedding, Christine asks Stephen, "are you happy?" It's a good question, and perhaps a great deal more complicated than one thinks. Do any of us deserve happiness? Do we all deserve it? How far does one go in search of happiness? Do others need to suffer? In the end, Wong provides the best answer: in spite of all the tribulations, I am grateful.

Now, why is it important or interesting that Raimi's voice comes through on Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness? I think that's also a simple question, and it's one that pertains to movie stars as well. We have largely lost both auteurs and stars in recent decades, with the rise of franchises and "content," and the decrease in middle-sized films and original tales. And their appeal has always been, very basically, connection. We connect to them. Their personalities become familiar to us, and we go back to visit them again, like old friends. It's human, and it's part of what all art is about.

Some may dismiss Raimi as less an auteur than perhaps Renoir or Ford or Bergman, given that he deals in silliness and monsters, but his greatness lies not only in his sheer inventiveness, but also in his absolute enthusiasm. In his sixties now, he has the same thrill for the motion and rhythm and feel of film that he did when he was in his twenties, and perhaps even in his teens, when he began to shoot Super 8 movies with his friends (Bruce Campbell among them). And he has the gift for conveying that thrill to us.

Before viewing Doctor Strange, critics were given the opportunity to see a 60-second 3D trailer for James Cameron's upcoming Avatar: The Way of Water. It contained the usual state-of-the-art computer animation, with blue people fighting, running, jumping, walking on floating rocks, flying on dragons, swimming, etc., and including a few hyper-closeups of photorealistic eyes. And behind those eyes was... nothing. Cameron focuses so much on the physical details of the eyes that he forgets what they're supposed to reveal. Unfortunately, the majority of movies these days tilt that way, more towards the impersonal than the personal.

So for Sam Raimi, and his personal Doctor Strange, which reveals everything, I am grateful.

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