New from Jeff York on The Establishing Shot: DOCTOR STRANGE & COHERENCE GET LOST IN THE MADNESS OF THE MULTIVERSE

The Marvel Cinematic Universe may be in the middle of its Phase 4 of storytelling, but it actually might be at more of a crossroads. With DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS, the MCU’s latest multimillion-dollar tentpole, it very well could be time for Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige to recognize how the studio’s projects are starting to get carried away with spectacle, oftentimes sacrificing coherence and character development. There’s too much narrative, too many universes, and too much CGI. The MCU is becoming everything, everywhere, all at once. And it’s simply too much. Madness indeed.

Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) returns in his first starring vehicle since his origins story on the big screen six years ago. His persona has strengthened over the years through the wonderful AVENGERS films INFINITY WAR and ENDGAME, and especially, SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME. That last film established Strange as Peter Parker’s quippy new mentor and less of a stiff than he had been in previous outings. In this new story, Strange has a lot on his plate, battling genuine demons as well as inner ones. His nights are haunted by dreams of failing to save the universe from various monsters and his days are just as troubled since he’s forced to accept his ex-girlfriend Christine (Rachel McAdams) has married another man.

Soon enough, he discovers that his nightmares are visions of real events in the multiverse and that now those creatures have breached our world. They’re in pursuit of a supernaturally gifted teen named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) who hasn’t learned to control her portal-opening powers just yet. It’s a lot of cosmic energy to control so the good doctor enlists his sidekick Wong (Benedict Wong) to help protect America from her pursuers, while even calling upon Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), the supernatural Scarlet Witch herself, for assistance. Unfortunately, Wanda is the one employing the monsters in her bid to kill America so she can consume her powers to open a new portal herself where she can recreate her fantasy family thwarted by the CIA in the WANDAVISION series.  

One would think that Wanda could create a new portal herself, or start a real family, but for the purposes of the plot, such logic is eschewed. Thus, Michael Waldon’s screenplay must, unfortunately, turn Wanda into a villain this go-round, destroying all the audience empathy the character has built up since first appearing in AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON back in 2015. And, as Wanda becomes more and more destructive, Strange and America must go on the run, leaping from one universe to another to escape her. They’re also hoping to find a magic spell book in one of those galaxies that will help them stop her madness.

It’s at this point that the story starts to become too frenetic and choppy, bum’s rushing through too many worlds, too many set-pieces, and too many fight scenes that feel more like they’re from a JOHN WICK actioner. The film fails to develop much of a relationship between Strange and America and settles for introducing a lot of stunt casting of various characters that pop up in one of the multiverses. (If you’ve seen the trailer, you already know a couple of the glorified cameos coming your way.) Some of it is cheeky, but most of it seems gimmicky, not truly driving the story forward in any crucial way. And despite some of the actors employed, Cumberbatch has little time to interact with any of them. It’s a waste of their talents and his.

That’s a shame as Cumberbatch tries hard here to make Strange’s journey meaningful. The English actor has always been superb at creating sympathy for snobby characters, be they Strange, Holmes, or Turing, but here Cumberbatch is asked mostly to bounce about like an action figure. Gomez is adequate in her sidekick role, but there’s little if any banter between her and Cumberbatch as written. (Strange’s usual sidekick Wong is underused throughout.) Even bringing back Rachel McAdams is a mixed blessing here as the story fails to give her more to do with Strange, even when he discovers an alternate version of her in one setting. 

Director Sam Raimi throws in some horror bits as is his style (THE EVIL DEAD, DRAG ME TO HELL), but midway through he starts to lose control of the narrative as it becomes more and more complex and convoluted with zombies, crumbling worlds, and characters ping-ponging back and forth across multiple settings. Of course, all the production design and CGI effects conjured here look stunning, but there’s simply too much of it. Good characters get lost in all of the excesses.

A few years back, a Diet Coke commercial on the Super Bowl showed that the simple pairing of the Hulk and Ant-Man made for a hilarious and riveting adventure with those two disparate characters. And it lasted only 120 seconds. It might behoove the MCU at this phase to start curbing all the chaos, CGI, and over-produced narratives. They’ve certainly milked the multiverse what with the animated SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE, ENDGAME, LOKI, WHAT IF?, SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME, and even the recent series MOON KNIGHT all going there. I’m all for world-building in cinema, but how many alternate realities do MCU fans need? Perhaps it’s time to reign in the madness and aim for something that is, quite frankly, a little more down-to-earth.

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