Jay Maidment/Marvel Studios
If you saw Avengers: Endgame in a theater, you remember the moment: Thor’s hammer flies into the hands of Steve Rogers, Captain America, and the audience continues to go crazy.
Why this cheer-raising encore landed so hard had everything to do with how carefully it was put together, in the linear progression of the MCU films that had come before. The spectators didn’t know they were expecting it, yet they were very much, because the work had been done to lay the track. So when that moment finally arrived, it targeted and overwhelmed their brain’s pleasure centers with the cruelty of pure, satisfying inevitability.
In the latest MCU movie, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, there are many similar callbacks and cameos. Logic: The plot sends the good doctor (Benedict Cumberbatch), the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and newcomer America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) tumbling through a kaleidoscopic series of alternate universes. What they see and experience along the way is inspired by characters and situations established in past Marvel movies and broadcast TV shows, recent and current Disney+ streaming series, and fervent fan speculation. from Marvel.
But something has changed – irrevocably, it seems.
Not too long ago, the MCU was a straightforward, if noisy, progression of narrative events along a single timeline that Marvel Studios execs divided into a series of “phases.” Today, the studio produces films and streaming series in tandem.
As a result, the MCU is now an increasingly diffuse web of content – a universe, like ours, in which everything expands outward, its multiple characters and plots spinning wildly, drifting apart. in all directions.
So whenever, in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madnessa character or event is dutifully pulled from a dimly lit and poorly remembered corner of the MCU – a hero, for example, from when Marvel produced broadcast TV shows – said character’s appearance does not reach not to muster the required power, the pure narrative momentum, to make the audience go, “WOOOO!”
What he can and does do instead is get the audience to say “Hunh.”
“Hunh. How about that.”
For the record: “WOOOO!” is an emotional reaction, purely reflexive. If you’re making a great superhero movie, you want “WOOOO!” and a lot. “Hunh” is an intellectual, mediated response. This means your audience feels both distance and dissonance. It’s not a dealbreaker, but it is cause for concern.
Jay Maidment/Marvel Studios
Strange’s New World(s)
Marvel is therefore fortunate that even when the sheer volume of callbacks and cameos weighs down events and muddies the narrative waters, the film has something else to do.
That something: Sam Raimi.
This, of course, isn’t the director’s first time at the Marvel Rodeo – at the dawn of what we now call superhero cinema, he helmed the original Tobey Maguire Spider Man trilogy. But at the time, Marvel was still just a studio, and not yet a genre.
In interviews, Raimi has been refreshingly honest about the challenges of making this film. He came on board after his original manager (Scott Derrickson, who helmed 2016’s strange doctor), left, citing creative differences with Marvel Studios’ vision for the film. Originally, the film was to be released before Spider-Man: No Coming Home, which meant the script was constantly evolving and he had to keep checking in with the studio executives responsible for directing the MCU’s narrative traffic. All of that, plus a series of COVID delays and reshoots.
Then yes, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a mess. As you watch it, you can’t help but imagine you’re only looking at it through a hazy canvas of hastily released last-minute studio notes and frantically dashed memos.
But Raimi spent his early career making chaotic, clunky, deeply messy movies, and every time Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness building on its horror roots (which it often does; the film pushes hard against its PG-13 rating), the film manages to achieve a clear, if idiosyncratic, point of view. The callbacks that work the best aren’t Marvel callbacks, they’re Raimi callbacks: zombies, ghouls, a quick dolly shot from the villain’s perspective.
Raimi’s latest Marvel movie — Spiderman 3 – is controversial among Marvel fans, and a little less so among Raimi fans. In this film, Raimi listened to his bosses as he does here, and dutifully loaded the overly complicated plot with an overabundance of studio-required villains – but he did it while indulging his clumsier side. by turning Peter Parker into a pompous tool, grooving a Manhattan sidewalk. Marvel fans loved villains and hated Dancin’ Peter, while we Raimi fans ate Dancin’ Peter with a big spoon and rolled our eyes at the need for a shoehorn in so many villains.
There’s an echo of what’s going on in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Marvel fans are going to love all those fan-serving, momentum-sapping cameos, but Raimi fans are going to find themselves loving the movie more and more as it goes on, because the director seems more firmly in control later, once things get darker. and darker towards the conclusion.
Much will be made of the film’s digital effects, which deftly evoke colors of space, alien geometries, impossible architecture – all the weird, otherworldly visual schmear you’ve come to expect from a strange doctor film. The various universes we visit on our thrilling interdimensional tour vibrate with bright colors and swirling psychedelic patterns. A forbidden cliffside citadel seems to radiate malevolent intent. The characters defy gravity as they leap between pieces of crumbling masonry floating mysteriously in space. A villain launches an eldritch assault on a familiar shrine. All of this is portrayed with pleasantly disorienting spectacle and grandeur.
And yet, a brief scene that takes place on a grimy Greenwich Village rooftop manages to look screaming, patently fake – as simple and one-dimensional as if rendered on a Nintendo NES.
And yet a movie that spends millions on green screen effects, stunts, elaborate costumes and big acting salaries can’t squeeze a few hundred dollars into its wig budget: all the way through , Strange’s hair perches on Cumberbatch’s head like an acrylic skunk. skin.
If that sounds like quibbling, consider how important it is that this particular movie pulls you into its world – into its worlds — and dazzle you with the spectacle of limitless possibilities. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is excellent at describing the impossible wonders of other universes, while the more mundane details of our own universe stubbornly hover beyond its reach.
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