I was a bit slow to the party with Dr. Strange. I don’t really like magic and sorcery-based characters, for reasons that are both spiritual and narrative-based (characters’ abilities are so often so frustratingly vague). But Marvel Studio’s cross-pollination strategy is pretty effective, and after seeing Benedict Cumberbatch in Thor Ragnarok and Infinity War and Endgame and No Way Home, I decided to give his solo films a go.
Spoilers ahead, plus a lot of ranting. You have been warned.
I’ll make a comment about 2016’s Dr. Strange at another point, but my middle (and arguably nerdiest) daughter and I went to see the new film, Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (directed by Sam Raimi) a day before the “official” opening. The movie moves along at a dizzying pace and is full of crazy and reality-bending special effects and a few doses of the standard MCU charm. There is perfectly fine acting from Cumberbatch, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong and especially Elizabeth Olsen. And Wong is part of things and that is always fun. So with all of that, while I was watching it I kept trying to convince myself that I was having a good time, and that the movie was at least passable.
But you know, you can’t keep lying to yourself forever. In my case, the deception didn’t even last as long as the movie itself.
The movie’s problems are frustratingly widespread, but we’ll start with the decision to make Wanda Maximoff full-blown evil, since that affects everything else that happens in the film.
Now I know some will object to this development simply on the basis that they like Wanda as a character and a hero. For my part, I am not particularly attached to her. But in general I’m not a fan of “heroes turning evil arcs because they are so often frustrating and badly done.
In Wanda’s case, the character has always had a bit of a spotty record in the MCU, but generally speaking they have always tried to keep her redeemed. Here, there’s no redemption in sight–sometime since WandaVision she went from troubled heroine to full-blown child-murdering villain. Or, more accurately, she does it sometime in the credits of the last episode of WandaVision since the post-credit scene there foreshadowed the events of this movie pretty strongly. Either way, if the character development is so subtle as to be unoticeable, then I count that a failure. The result is the audience has to deal with a former hero functioning as the villain, but doesn’t get to experience the story that brought her there.
It doesn’t help that Wanda’s villainous motivations make her akin to an entitled brat. She sort of lost her mind in WandaVision because she was sad about losing her husband. This time, Vision barely rates a mention, and instead she’s sad about losing her fictional children. Shes dreamed they are real in another universe and now she’s willing to kill everyone to get back to them.
In addition to going full baddie, Wanda has also gone full “over-powered” Again, this is something which was sort of set-up by WandaVision, but not really. And it doesn’t serve this movie well–if she’s as powerful as she’s portrayed here, then it shouldn’t be remotely difficult or her to achieve her goals in the film in an instant. Once she and America Chavez (the girl whose power she wants) are in the same universe, all the movie’s running around and chasing should be irrelevant. I mean, she makes a dude’s mouth disappear with no more effort than a blink–if she’s capable of stuff like that, she should be able to just grab her quarry, send her enemies away, and be done with it.
And all this ties into the movie’s fundamental problems with narrative pacing. Wanda’s fall to the dark side is revealed within five minutes of the character appearing. This was a mistake–it’s the movie’s only big card to play, and after that their are no surprises left that are actually relevant to the plot. And it’s made worse that Wanda’s villainy is exposed in one of the clichéd and overused ways possible–she lets slip that she knows a name that she shouldn’t if she wasn’t really eeeevil. It would have been far better to preserve this surprise to the halfway point at least; this could have been done easily by making her scheme more complex than just “grab the girl”. She could have pretended to go along with Stephen’s request for help until she was able to achieve her goals, and along the way we could have more strongly connected with her to understand her perspective on things.
Instead, Wanda is fully entitled, selfish and powerful from the first moment, which leaves her nowhere to go but to get more entitled, selfish and powerful. And from there she can get even more entitled, selfish and powerful. If things had been done differently, it could have given Dr. Strange more to do than just run away, run away, run away. It’s dressed up, of course, but that’s what the whole movie boils down to for him.
Toward the end of the film, Wanda manages to capture America, but instead of just sucking the power out of her (as was implied she could do throughout the movie), she spends ages involved in vague preparations, seemingly just waiting for Strange to pull off his plan to beat her. It’s not much of an endorsement of your hero when they win only because the villain putters around waiting to be attacked.
Another pacing issue which is smaller but also annoying comes in a scene when Strange, America, and Christine are all running away from crazy Wanda, who is smashing through doors and barriers like they are paper. They close a particularly heavy-looking door and then, for whatever reason, stop running and stare at the door, waiting to see whether Wanda will come through. We see the door, then the group, then the door, then the group, then the door, then individual faces of the group, then the door…before Wanda finally shows up (admittedly in the surprising way of avoiding the door all together). It goes on forever and frankly looks like someone just stuck all the relevant footage into the editing timeline and then forgot to cut it down later.
Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is also quite the shallow affair. In this, it is not alone in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (or amongst superhero films in general), but it is still a weakness. Wanda’s whole character journey consists of, “She’s feels angry, selfish and entitled, but then something happens and she feels bad.” Similarly, America Chavez’ journey is, “She feels scared and helpless, but then something happens and she feels stronger.” As my daughter said, if a character’s story has only two points, than that’s not an “arc”, it’s just a “line.”
Christine, Mordo and Wong are too unimportant to have arcs of any sort. Indeed, Mordo isn’t really even in it–we only see one of his parallel universe iterations, and we get a bunch of “development” of his character in the least interesting way—via exposition from Dr. Strange about what has happened between the two of them since the last movie.
For Dr. Strange, there is a bit more of a journey, but it’s quite vague. He starts as a guy who goes to ex-girlfriend’s wedding with the intention of telling her that he wishes it had been different between then, and eventually turns into a guy who is willing to let go of could-have-been girlfriend to avoid the multiverse collapsing. In a post-credit scene, he gets to run off with Charlize Theron, so I guess it worked out for him.
Now, you might think these problems wouldn’t really matter for a film like this, because what about the “Illuminati”? Wasn’t that cool and fun enough to make up for any other deficiencies? I mean, come on, Professor X is there! Captain Carter! Captain Marvel! Reed freakin’ Richards!
Sounds fun, right? Well, no, its not. In fact, that was perhaps the worst part of the movie, where all the film’s problems are conveniently packaged into one extended sequence.
Warning: Almost the entire rest of this post is devoted to the Illuminati sequence and how much I hate it.
Now some context here–this movie is coming out in the wake of Spider-Man No Way Home, the film that we assume will someday be recognized as the peak of modern superhero movie and TV’s fixation with multiverse / parallel reality / alternate timeline stories. A big part of the appeal of such stories is that it’s an easy way to satisfy older fans like myself with reappearances by old favorite actors. No Way Home especially pulled off a massive coup by keeping it’s big guns (Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire) a secret from the audience until opening night. If we’re going to just play to the fans, they said, let’s really play to those fans.
In contrast, Dr. Strange revealed Patrick Stewart’s involvement in a trailer a long time ago. Having been blown away by the No Way Home reveals, certainly we’d hope Marvel wouldn’t spoil it’s new big treat in the trailer–so when you see him, you think there is going to be something else even bigger coming. But nope, that’s it, he’s the last of the cameos to appear.
Apparently the marketing also hinted at Hayley Atwell’s Captain Carter (from the animated What If?). But I hadn’t seen that so I got to be surprised, and I thought it was cool to see her. With Black Bolt, they actually got Anson Mount back from the Inhumans TV series–I don’t know how many Inhumans fans out there to get excited at that. For my part, I was just wondering if it was the same guy (and I like Anson Mount, although from Star Trek). I did cheer a little at the sight of Reed Richards, but my excitement turned to disappointment at the terrible character-work that was to follow.
The Illuminati–surprises or not–are completely wasted here (the characters themselves; the concept of the Illuminati doesn’t go anywhere either but that doesn’t matter to me, I always thought it was sort of dopey). They literally do nothing but stand around and deliver exposition, and then die. None of their dialogue is character-driven, and their exposition isn’t actually important for the film (all it does is explain why they have captured Dr. Strange). Everything they say, aside from each other’s names, could have been said by anyone. In fact, the characters could have been removed from the story completely and nothing would have changed.
Marvel has done that before. A lot of the airport scene in Civil War is actually superfluous to the movie, but in that case, the scene is so much fun that you don’t really care. That scene manages to make all 12 of its heroes look awesome, which in general is one of Marvel’s strengths. But not here–the Illuminati are inept (it’s hard to imagine they could actually achieve anything in their universe), and they go down like total punks. It’s like all the filmmakers cared about was showing how deadly powerful Wanda is–but this had already been well-established, so what’s the point? The sequence of all the Illuminati getting trashed is therefore tediously predictable, repetitively boring, and a little gross. And certainly, not fun.
(Plus illogical–Black Bolt’s mouth disappears, but it’s obviously been covered with flesh, based on how it’s moving. So why do his sonic powers make a blast come out of the side of his head? Do Inhumans have really soft skulls?)
And thus the movie’s bad visual pacing rears its head again as well. As Black Bolt and Mister Fantastic get killed in extended sequences of gruesomeness (extended because obviously the filmmakers want to milk those moments appropriately), Captain Marvel and Peggy Carter are kept off-screen–but if we think about it, they must just be standing around watching, only reacting when Wanda is freed up to give them her full attention.
The presence of these characters creates a lot of anticipation because it seems to be the fruition of the long-held hope of Marvel fans that the Fantastic Four and the X-Men would make their way into the MCU. The sight of Professor X in the trailer made us hopeful that maybe we’d see more of the X-Men. The sight of Reed Richards in the movie made us hopeful that we’d see more of the Fantastic Four. But this only results in disappointment because there’s no time for any of that–we’re too busy killing everybody. Just imagine Spider-Man had shown up for five minutes in Civil War and than had got beaten to death…it’s a bit like that.
(And seriously, how many times have seen Patrick Stewart die as Professor X now? He’s been killed off, in one fashion or another, in The Last Stand, Days of Future Past, and Logan. Is there anyone out there, anyone at all, who’s like, “You know, I really hope they bring Patrick Stewart back as Professor X so he can be killed off again! Please please please….”)
And I like John Krasinki in The Office and when he was doing Some Good News, but there’s nothing about his Reed Richards that reminds me of the comic character at all. I mean, we barely even see him stretch (except when he’s being killed).
So to summarize, the Illuminati scene introduces a bunch of characters who have almost no bearing on the plot, who are not written well, who are presented without any sense of joy or sense of fun, who die in misplaced fixation on making the villain look powerful, and who aren’t used to set up anything interesting to come.
Is there anything good about the Illuminati sequence? Well, my daughter was excited to see Black Bolt. And as I mentioned it was kind of neat to see Captain Carter in live-action, and she has one good moment in the fight scene where she emerges from some smoke to attack Wanda (of course, shortly thereafter, she is chopped in half by her own shield, so I wouldn’t say it was worth it).
Frankly, the movie would have been better without it. Just give all the Illuminati’s action to alternate-Mordo and make it a lot shorter. Then maybe the film would have had a bit more time to develop the people the film is ostensibly about.
Some will surely feel like my negativity about Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is way over-the-top. Some may find a lot to enjoy in the action and special effects (even I thought the battle with musical notes was inventive, even if it was nonsensical). Some may appreciate the dark and atypical approach that the film has, compared with many other Marvel efforts.
I don’t. I felt like Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness was unpleasant and shallow. There were fun moments here and there but they were overwhelmed by all the stuff that didn’t work.
And it felt irrelevant. Before watching the film, I was vaguely interested in a Dr. Strange sequel, and I was curious about seeing the X-Men and the Fantastic Four in the MCU.
After it’s over, I feel exactly the same way.