The first “Doctor Strange” movie introduced an idiosyncratic character using an appropriate cinematic peculiarity, but its sequel, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness”, squeezes the character into the Marvel franchise by trimming all the quirks away. The strength of the first “Doctor Strange” is the embrace of its protagonist’s peculiarity, which embeds him among the franchise’s fictional personalities. The sequel is conservative: the strangeness is curbed, and the symbolic loose ends of the narrative are replaced by chains that tie it to other characters and story lines from the Marvel stable. (The same fate befell the dizzying “Ant-Man” in its sequel.) “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” eliminates the playful idiosyncrasy of formulaic interest – in Marvel’s self-reinforcing business. The new movie is not just branded entertainment; it’s branding as entertainment.
In “Multiverse of Madness”, Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a former neurosurgeon who lost his dexterity in a car accident but gained magical powers, has an apparent nightmare involving his efforts to rescue a teenager named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) from the claws of a monster that threatens to tear her limb from limb. The nightmare turns out to be an alternative reality because America has the superpower to travel from universe to universe (and dreams are portals – so much for Freud). She introduces Strange to the theory of the multiverse, and he quickly gains first-hand experience as a guest at the wedding of Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), a doctor and former colleague he loves and hopes to marry, observes another monster on a rampage in downtown Manhattan. He jumps out of a festive balcony and flies out into battle. It turns out that Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), also known as the scarlet witch, longs so much to be reunited in an alternate universe with her two young sons that she tries to take America’s power (and yes, the script is full with such bilateral). She is ready to kill the girl and leave crowds desolate. Neither reason nor moral conviction can deter Wanda from her disgusting mission; Therefore, Strange, his longtime ally Wong (Benedict Wong), Christine and America themselves have no choice but to challenge the almighty sorceress in catastrophic battles.
Along the way, Strange meets and fights with a host of other Marvel characters, most notably the members of a secret society called the Illuminati, which includes his friend and foe Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and other delegates from such a wide variety of Marvel properties as the can just as well wear name tags and do team building exercises. The film is promotional and functional. It’s an omnium collection of the company’s films, series and comics – an attempt to promote these qualities and support them as needed to understand the plot. (Fear not: you can understand everything fine, even if you have missed “WandaVision” and “Inhumans.”) It is also a plan for the expansion of subsequent productions involving these still underdeveloped assets. The elaborate all-worlds conceit plays a similar multiple role. It eliminates all definitive results from the dramas of Marvel franchise products – a mercantile cheat code that already raised its head when Thanos’ assassination attempt at the end of “Avengers: Infinity War” proved to be reversible. And of course, it multiplies the potential number of traits and story lines that popular characters can anchor.
Yet these principles of script construction – wrapping it with footnotes of story lines and characters from other characteristics and planting them in a multiverse scheme – do the opposite of freeing the protagonists and their dramatic possibilities. Strange, America, Wong, and Wanda are reduced to minimally defined, maximally manipulated action puppets whose behavior oscillates within such a tight and narrow range of interrelationships that they obliterate the remnants of humanity and the complexity of their inner and outer struggles. The dialogue is reduced to heavy sayings and telegram-like statements. The action sequences – the key source of pleasure in the first “Doctor Strange” – reduce the wonder of the previous film’s inspirations to pro forma gyrations and transformations. Mass destruction scenes that should be scary and painful seem easy and turn around.
The involvement of a stylish horror film director, Sam Raimi, in this tough battle of corporate constraints is as fascinating as it is discouraging. His directorial personality is used for superficial, all-too-conspicuous use in the film’s later episodes, which tease horror-centered troops – both mildly bloody, such as a crack in the neck (parallel to the one in the superhero’s nearby “Alt” Everywhere All at Once “) and a beheadings, and classics from zombie movies, especially the blood-sprayed Scarlet Witch’s meandering gait and the degraded monstrosity of an all-universe undead Doctor Strange, the very absurdity of the horror trope on which the entire film depends – mother-fiancé – has neither an element of camp nor of parody.It plays rather like a sacred Disney prayer for family and maternity, in which Raimi’s art of expressive exaggeration is immersed.
But there is one sequence that feels as if it was created by a person rather than composed by committee, which embodies a point of view and a sincere sense of wonder. It arrives surprisingly early as part of the seemingly outlandish and obligatory exhibition. Moments after an absurdly destructive battle at the center with a monstrous giant cyclopean squid, Strange and Wong join America at a pizzeria, where she describes the multiverse system. Raimi’s visual sensibility there is manifested in wide-eyed, frankly bent close-ups that convey his own attentive fascination with the strangeness of simultaneously existing multiple worlds and the diverse identities of characters. The small scene rumbles with the potential of a mighty work of speculative imagination – which of course the rest of the film, squeezed into the narrow and infantilized franchise form, does not come close to realizing. Early on, Raimi seems to declare that the most expressive and far-reaching “Doctor Strange” film he could make is a film in speech – a speech superhero film that in texture and format resembles the work of the Coen brothers and Richard. Linklater.
No, Disney has not ponyed two hundred million dollars for a movie shot at cafe tables – but it is nonetheless a movie that is happily hinted at at the core of the superhero genre. Such a film where talk gives the action would prove that those who take the comic book stories seriously can love the narrative just as much as the show, the dramatic entanglement as well as the super spectacle, the ideas as well as their effects. Such films would be possible if only the characters and stories that it would involve were not kept under the lock and key of the studio.
Fans and even scholars have argued that comics are modern myths – as are critics who bow back to justify the ubiquitousness of superhero movies. The claim is repealed by the copyright lock box, which prevents filmmakers and artists of any kind from posting their own bids on these stories and characters. (The Greek tragedies did not have such problems as they dramatized stories from Homer.) If superhero stories were modern myths, their creators would rejoice in the open source freedom to recreate the tales of Marvel and DC. Instead, corporate studies turn these stories into quasi-religious texts that are Pharisaically protected by copyright against heretical reinterpretation and innovation – in other words, fan service. The proprietary control of such popular stories exalts the very state of unfreedom which it embodies; viewers are conditioned to see the commercial considerations of corporate control as the natural condition of art. In this respect, the current dominance of the franchise and blockbuster cinema is not a betrayal of the classic Hollywood heritage, but merely a distillation and intensification of its essential practices. To the extent that the studies hold control over the stories in their own hands, their views on the narratives should not be considered as myths, but dogma, not interpretation, but propaganda.