Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness ★★★
(M) 129 minutes
Forget the galaxy. The current big thing in fantasy movie-making is the multiverse, a network of dimensions where it’s possible to find many versions of yourself leading alternative lives.
Michelle Yeoh experiences the phenomenon in the independent hit, Everything Everywhere All at Once. Now you can take the deluxe tour with Benedict Cumberbatch in his role as Marvel’s master of the mystic arts, Doctor Strange.
The film has had a roundabout trip to the screen. It was to have been steered by Scott Derrickson, who directed its predecessor, Doctor Strange, but those familiar obstacles known as creative differences cropped up and he was replaced by Sam Raimi, who supervised Spider-Man’s feature debut in 2002. Raimi is also a horror movie veteran and in signing him, Marvel’s production chief, Kevin Feige, gave notice of the studio’s desire to give audiences a scare or two.
Stephen Strange comes from the more arcane reaches of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. If you possess a doctorate in MCU metaphysics, you may be able to toy with notions of Jungian archetypes and the Egyptian pantheon once the storyline finds its rhythm, which is frenetic. The rest of us have to muddle along as best we can, and it isn’t easy. The portals between universes open and shut at mind-numbing speed and the script’s aversion to exposition, along with Danny Elfman’s booming score, may leave you struggling.
Admittedly, it does help to have seen WandaVision, the Disney+ series starring Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff, alias The Scarlet Witch. A specialist in chaos magic, she’s responsible for a lot of the troubles afflicting the good Doctor, along with a couple of his less appealing selves, one of them being a zombie.
Strange was introduced to the existence of hidden universes in the first film, which also covered his discovery of the mystic arts and how to use them. And during his appearance in Spider-Man: No Way Home, he employed this knowledge to provide the film with its crowd-pleasing conclusion.
But he’s begun to see the pitfalls that have to be negotiated if he’s not to come to grief and now he’s in for an even more salutary lesson. When the film opens, his nights are being disturbed by a recurrent dream that rapidly grows into a nightmare as he discovers that it’s a preview of the tour he’s about to take if the multiverse is to open up to him.
A lot of haunting goes on before the show is over. Wanda is haunted by the conviction her young sons, Billy and Tommy (Julian Hilliard and Jett Kline), who died at the end of the TV series, are alive in another universe and she’s ready to turn the cosmos inside out to find them.
It takes an actor with an unshakeable air of authority to handle the deep dive into the multiverse’s history, rules and rituals and Raimi has been lucky in snaring Benedict Wong and Chiwetel Ejiofor. As Strange’s fellow sorcerers, Wong and Mordo, they manage to bestow a semblance of seriousness on some highly risible lines. So, too, does Patrick Stewart. Disney’s takeover of Fox studios has given Marvel access to the X-Men, so Stewart’s Professor Charles Xavier has been freed to do the inter-dimensional travel between franchises that makes his very solemn cameo appearance possible.
Cumberbatch is more fortunate. While he certainly has the voice to make the ludicrous seem credible, he has an easier task. He’s scored the script’s few jokes. Looking very much the stage magician in a black wig with a widow’s peak and grey streaks at the temples, he’s the only one in the cast who displays any of the irreverence that has enlivened the Marvel style since Feige became the studio’s production chief.
Despite their slam-bang nature, the action sequences are tediously repetitious. Each one is a CGI carnival with the combatants poised like javelin throwers as they hurl multi-coloured laser beams at one another. The result of all this is a lot of crumbling masonry and an abundance of gruesomely charred bodies that make it clear Raimi is out to honour his horror movie credentials. But for all his efforts, the effect is curiously uninvolving.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is in cinemas from May 5.
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