Opening this weekend:
Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness--On the one hand, I'm a little over the Marvel "Multiverse." On the other hand, this newest adventure of Marvel's mystical mage is a lot of fun.
For those who may be unacquainted with this conceit in the "Marvel Cinematic Universe," I'll summarize as best I understand it: The Multiverse is the premise that our reality exists alongside countless concurrent realities in other dimensions, complete with other versions of ourselves and the people we know, including our favorite superheroes, and that many of these alternate realities are similar, but none are quite identical. When we dream, according to this movie, we're really experiencing a taste of the lives of other versions of ourselves.
The Multiverse has already played a major role in two previous entries, 2018's dazzling animated flick Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, where it was wittily used to explore racial, gender and other variations on comic book themes, and last year's Spider-Man: No Way Home, where it was used as an amusing excuse to mingle the actors and situations from various "reboots" of the franchise. In both cases, it was also a spoof (and a servicing) of the familiar, OCD nerd need to make every "canonical" version of a pop culture franchise at least technically consistent with every other version (Star Wars and Star Trek fans sometimes demand this too).
Enjoyable as both of those earlier movies were, I'm afraid that the Multiverse has the effect, for me, of diluting the dramatic stakes. Death has always been negotiable in superhero stories, of course, but in Multiverse-heavy yarns, major characters--iconic characters--are killed off, or lose their heroic status, and it doesn't feel like it matters that much, because there's an apparently endless and easily accessible supply of replacements from other Universes.
Thus I don't know how sustainable the Multiverse gimmick is for me; even though I greatly enjoyed the original 2016 version of Dr. Strange, I went to this sequel a little grumpily. It turned out to be a non-stop, vigorously imaginative blast.
This time the surgeon-turned-sorcerer Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is called away from the wistful experience of attending the wedding of his ex (Rachel McAdams) to come to the defense of America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a teenage girl who has innate magical powers she can't control. She's pursued by Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), who for some reason needs the kid to obtain a book that will allow her to steal the life, including two little boys, of a suburban-mom version of herself in another Universe. (All of this is related, I understand, to a Marvel TV show called WandaVision that I haven't seen.) Strange and his allies attempt to prevent this; tentacled Lovecraftian abominations interfere with his efforts.
Or something like that. Big-name Marvel characters from other franchises turn up, sometimes in new versions, sometimes in versions we've seen. Epic surreal action scenes leap giddily from Universe to Universe. And if you sense more than a nod or two to the Evil Dead flicks, it probably won't surprise you that the director is Sam Raimi, back after a hiatus from directing features. His wild headlong style is as exhilarating as ever, as is his flair for macabre slapstick, and both are splendidly abetted by a driving score from Danny Elfman.
Cumberbatch plays Strange with his usual old-school movie star suavity and aplomb, and Gomez is charming as America. The standout in the cast, however, is Olsen, who keeps her voice down and makes Scarlet Witch intimidating, but also poised and glamorous, with a strong undercurrent of the sorrowful.
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