Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

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Benedict Cumberbatch in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.
Benedict Cumberbatch in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.
Photo: Marvel Studios

MOVIE:

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

WHERE TO WATCH:

Now showing in cinemas

OUR RATING:

4/5 Stars

WHAT IT'S ABOUT:

When America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a teenage girl with the power to traverse the Multiverse, arrives at the doorstep of Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) with a bewitched demon on her tail, Strange goes to the one person he knows would have the power to help her and has sufficient knowledge in witchcraft, Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) aka the Scarlett Witch. What ensues is a wild trip across alternate realities in a rush to save America's life – and to prevent a powerful force from shattering the very fabric of reality.

WHAT WE THOUGHT:

So... even before getting into this much-hyped and really rather good Doctor Strange sequel, there is something of an issue we have to get out of the way first. At this point, there's really no such thing as a standalone Marvel Studios movie – well, okay, Eternals, but who knows how that will pan out – as every new entry builds on what came before. A certain amount of "homework" is usually required before each Marvel release – not so much to actually understand them (sufficient context is usually given to catch newbies up with what's going on) but to get the most from them, especially emotionally. For many, this is a flaw with this "shared universe", but to me, it's mostly been a feature as the MCU has set a new standard for serialised cinematic storytelling.

With the advent of Disney+ and the onslaught of new Marvel TV series set squarely in the MCU, though, we have run into something of a problem: Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness references Spider-Man: No Way Home and the first Doctor Strange film, but more than anything, it's actually a follow up to the Disney+ series, Wandavision - which has not been available to watch in South Africa and numerous other countries across the globe. It will be, of course, in a couple of weeks when Disney+ finally launches in South Africa, but it's not yet. And though Wandavision is perfectly bingeable, most people who actually choose to subscribe to Disney+ at launch still need to watch a nine-episode series as quickly as possible if they're in a rush to see the latest Marvel movie but want to get the most from it. 

Now, I (as I'm sure is true of many South Africans) have found a way to watch Wandavision ahead of subscribing to the service, and I can safely say it probably is the first thing you should watch on Disney's streamer because it's really bloody excellent, but this is a major error on Disney's part. Obviously, most of the countries that are still getting Disney+ make up a very small part of the global box office – and South Africa is no exception – but for a company so obsessed with "brand synergy" (bleugh), this seems like a massive oversight.

Dr Strange 2, as I shall now call it for brevity's sake, is mostly understandable even without Wandavision, but much of its emotional impact (though, arguably, also one of its biggest flaws) will be lost. Stephen Strange may get slightly more screen time, but make no mistake, this is every bit as much a Scarlett Witch movie as it is a Doctor Strange sequel. And considering how Wandavision was, above all else, a character study of Wanda Maximoff, that's really a problem.

Still, whether you choose to wait and watch Wandavision first or not, Dr Strange 2 is still a total must-see – especially for both MCU devotees and, crucially, Sam Raimi fans.

Yup, after a decade's absence from our screens (aside from contributions to his Evil Dead spin-off Starz show, Ash vs Evil Dead), Sam Raimi is finally back, and he's back in force. Dr Strange 2 has been described as the first Marvel horror film – and it is, but it's a horror film very much in the Sam Raimi mould. Albeit one that's a lot less gory and a bit more (and too much) reliant on (sometimes dodgy) CGI than something like Drag Me to Hell, and, actually, is much closer to Armies of Darkness than the original Evil Dead.

The idea that Marvel Studios and Kevin Feige prevent their directors from bringing their singular visions to the MCU has long been either abandoned or transformed with the likes of Thor Ragnorok and Guardians of the Galaxy, but it was still a real thrill to see how much of Sam Raimi is in Dr Strange 2. Especially since Raimi was brought in late to the production when the original director, Scott Derrickson, bowed out gracefully to work on his own horror creation (the upcoming The Black Phone) not long before filming was to begin.

Certainly, in comparison to his Spider-Man films, which hinted at Raimi's signature style (especially in the awakening of Doc Ock in Spider-Man 2) rather than fully embracing it, this is Raimi at arguably his most unabashedly Sam-Raimi-esque since Drag Me to Hell. Yes, possibly even more so than Ash vs Evil Dead.

Once again showing how thin the line is between slapstick comedy and full-on horror, Raimi has created the scariest (but still PG-13) Marvel film, yes, but also the most kinetic, even hyper, as he takes what is already a pretty breathless script from Michael Waldron (Heels, Loki) and amps it up with his trademark kaleidoscopic visuals and restless, aggressively in-your-face camera work that is basically a character – and the film's most important special effect – in its own right.

It would be exhausting if it wasn't so damn entertaining, but it is true that the film can be a bit too manic for its own good. It's the shortest Marvel film in years, but it never stops moving, packing as much into its 126-minute runtime as possible. The result is that there are certainly times when it's hard not to wish that the film would chill for just a couple of minutes and allow some of its most powerful moments to sink in properly.

And yet, for all of this, it's actually how impressive how focused the film actually is. The basic plot is helpfully straightforward, even with all the universe-hopping lunacy going on, and Waldron and Raimi smartly keep the characters front and centre, with the Multiverse of Madness being, in effect, a container and visual metaphor for the character arcs of its two main characters. The entire cast – including those in small, cameo roles (including the inevitable Bruce Campbell appearance, which is one of his funniest to date) – is excellent, with newcomer Gomez especially impressing as a character that could so easily have been little more than a plot device, but it can't be stressed enough how much of the success of the film rests on the beautifully observed performances of Benedict Cumberbatch and Elizabeth Olsen. Cumberbatch has never been better in the role, and Olsen, well, she just proves, once again, that she may just be the very best actor in the entire MCU, and Feige and co would do well to keep them both around for years to come. 

To say any more than this will inevitably run into spoiler territory because, despite a seemingly endless deluge of promotion and hype behind it, Dr Strange 2 actually managed to keep most of its secrets very, very close to its chest. Even the trailers, which so often give much too much away, may have certainly captured the tone of the film, but they didn't just obscure the plot, they actually misdirected audiences towards a different plot completely. Which is quite a neat trick for a film about sorcerers and witches, wouldn't you agree?

Suffice it to say, though, that the film may be a bit of a mess and a bit too hyperactive, and I certainly have misgivings about certain character-based decisions, but it mostly works, and when it works, it really, really works, providing one of the MCU's most singular and surprising entries to date.

You might still be better off holding off from seeing it for a couple of weeks, though, but if you're anywhere near the target audience for this, do see it and do see it in a proper cinema with the best picture and best sound possible.

WATCH THE TRAILER HERE:

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