24 Lies a Second: Strange Report

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Strange Report

Smaller studios and mid-budget mainstream films scatter and run for cover as the dominant force in popular cinema makes its presence felt once more: yes, Marvel return with Sam Raimi's Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, a somewhat baroque title which nevertheless is certainly appropriate for the film. That said, there are a number of factors which may combine to have some viewers expecting things which aren't quite there in the movie: given the striking level of ambition some other Marvel productions have shown, perhaps this is only to be expected.

Benedict Cumberbatch is back in leading-man mode as surgeon-turned-sorcerer Stephen Strange, who is generally acclaimed for his role in saving the universe a few movies back but still not entirely happy in his personal life (as is practically obligatory for a Marvel character). The doc is also afflicted by bad dreams, specifically one about a young woman being pursued by malevolent supernatural forces while being aided by a slightly different version of him.

Well, the girl from the dream crashes a wedding reception Strange is at, pursued by a big gribbly demon, and naturally he saves the day and rescues her (with a little help from Wong (Benedict Wong), whom these movies have done an impressive job of making into much more than just a sidekick). She turns out to be America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a unique individual in that there is only one iteration of her in the entirety of the multiverse of parallel worlds, and she has the gift of being able to travel between the different worlds almost at will. Naturally this makes her a person of interest, especially to a powerful and ruthless supernatural being who wants to kill America and steal her power.

Well, Strange and his various allies (in addition to Wong, he goes to the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) for help) aren't going to stand for that sort of thing, but needless to say they find themselves hard-pressed and Strange and America have to flee through a series of other parallel worlds, some of them jarringly odd, others rather familiar. But can they find a way of saving America's life and defeating their adversary for good?

As noted here passim over the last decade or so, it's quite rare for Marvel to turn out a movie which is not a solidly constructed and imaginative piece of entertainment – crowd-pleasers are what they do, and anyone who usually enjoys a Marvel film is likely going to enjoy this one too. Expectations are probably higher than usual for this one, partly because it's directed by Sam Raimi (who has previously made some of the best Marvel superhero films ever), but also because it's following on the heels of Spider-Man: No Way Home, another film with Cumberbatch which was deeply involved in matters multiversal.

Well, there are elements of Multiverse of Madness which certainly seem to be informed by Raimi's CV as a director, but rather further back than his Spider-Man trilogy: there's much more of a horror movie vibe to this film than anything else Marvel have done on the big screen recently. Some moments in the film are unexpectedly grisly and macabre, although I wouldn't describe it as actually being any more scary than most mainstream films.

The multiversal element of the film is likely to be one of the things that may throw and possibly disappoint especially ardent viewers: following the cameo-stuffed pleasures of No Way Home, there has been a lot of excitable on-line chatter about just who could be turning up in this film. It's tricky to talk about this without risking spoilers, obviously, but expectation management might not be a bad idea here – the closest thing the film has to a big gosh-wow moment won't really come as a surprise to anyone who's been paying attention to the publicity for it. The rest of its surprises are clever, but you really need to be a devotee to get all the references and jokes, to the point where a Disney+ subscription is almost obligatory. This is certainly the case with a major element of the film's plot, which is arguably lacking in the dear old objective correlative if you haven't seen the applicable streaming series.

This is possibly a problem for the film, as it makes a big deal out of seeing alt-universe versions of familiar characters, certainly at the expense of other possible ways of exploring the multiverse concept. Strange is repeatedly asked if he's really happy, and you might expect the film to explore the possibility of a world which has a Strange-iteration who genuinely is content. There's dramatic potential here, obviously, but the idea is never really gone into – a typhoon of CGI and fan-friendly death-matches are what the script plumps for.

Long-term viewers might also be inclined to raise an eyebrow at how a character who was originally presented as powerful but not exceptional has, over the course of their last few appearances, become a virtually unstoppable force of reality-warping cosmic power, but that's what the script here requires, I guess: in the same way, while the comics version of Doctor Strange is so nebulously omnipotent he's often sidelined, treated as a plot device more than a character, the movie character is much more fallible and limited much of the time. He spends a lot of this film looking worried and running away – but, as I say, it's all about the requirements of the story.

Nevertheless, the movie has a charm and energy of its own, especially in its weirder moments. This is what you hire Sam Raimi for, after all. What's perhaps a little unexpected and quite pleasing is the fact that – for all its metaphysical extravagance – the impulse driving the plot is firmly rooted in recognisable human emotions and drives. This gives the actors something they can really work with – and while Cumberbatch is as good value as ever at the centre of the film, what's really eyecatching is a very impressive performance by Elizabeth Olsen, almost certainly the best she's given in a Marvel movie. The various ghoulies and spectres the film summons up are very insignificant compared to the moment of genuine emotional anguish at the heart of the story. It's this which holds the film together and keeps it satisfying even when some of its peripheral pleasures threaten to become rather unravelled.

This even extends to the ending of the film, which comes close to being a less-than-fully-satisfying cliffhanger (maybe even more than one). If this latest phase of Marvel films is heading in a particular direction, what that direction is is by no means clear yet. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a mid-table entry for this franchise (perhaps just a little higher than average), but I don't imagine the huge audiences Marvel movies routinely attract will be disappointed by it.

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