Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (Spoilers)

Wanda Maximoff is dead. Perhaps not literally but metaphorically. After 7 years of wasted potential, like most women in the MCU, this shouldn’t come as a shock, but it does. The TV Series Wandavision focused primarily on Wanda’s grief after killing her one true love, Vision, and allowed Elizabeth Olsen to demonstrate the full range of her acting capabilities. As a mother, she can be caring and full of warmth. As a wife, she can be loving and kind. As an adversary, she can be powerful and vengeful. With the series finale, Wanda finally fully embraced the title and powers of The Scarlett Witch, a big deal for the MCU who have thus far been legally unable to use that moniker. With the Darkhold in her possession and a fierce determination to steal alternate dimension variations of the children she manifested and lost out of magic, she seemed primed to cause havoc on a multiversal scale.

Multiverse of Madness sees this character development and raises you…possession. The Darkhold corrupts everything and everyone around it, leading to Wanda and The Scarlett Witch being treated as two separate entities. This could have been a fascinating dynamic, with Wanda’s non-child-murdering morals combatting. The Scarlet Witches hold over her body but this is not the route taken. The only time that the “real” Wanda makes an appearance is during a scene that takes place in her mind where she is buried under a mound of rubble and can only utter a single “help me” before being pulled back inside. This confirms that the entity known as The Scarlet Witch (a manifestation of the Darkhold) has full control which absolves Wanda of literally everything that occurs during the plot. Wanda isn’t evil or morally questionable like she was in Wandavision, she’s just an innocent victim. To further demonstrate this, The Scarlett Witch speaks with Elizabeth Olsen’s natural American accent instead of the Sokovian accent that she puts on for Wanda. It does mean that Olsen isn’t being held back by an accent that she has struggled to maintain in the past but it also acts as a constant reminder that there is no Wanda anymore.

To cap it all off, she sacrifices herself to destroy the temple where the original Darkhold spells are inscribed. Now, of course, this is the MCU so nobody is ever really dead. As the building collapses on top of her, we see a small poof of red smoke, seemingly to signify that she has teleported out of there. But if this is the case, then it’s not really a sacrifice so any emotion from that moment is lost. The worst-case scenario is that, somehow, the smoke wasn’t a teleport and she’s dead. But what are the chances of the MCU killing off a popular female character…?

The other major spoiler is handled much better. Having been a large part of the marketing (maybe too large a part), the presence of Marvel’s Illuminati comes as no surprise. What is surprising is the characters they chose and the actors who portray them. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Baron Mordo makes a welcome return as a variant of mainline Mordo. His warm charisma and underlying resentment for Strange serve as proof that mainline Mordo should finally make his return to the MCU. Haley Atwell’s Captain Carter is sure to excite fans, even if the trailer spoiled her presence, especially considering Peggy hasn’t been seen in live-action since 2016. Anson Mount reprising his role of Black Bolt from the unacclaimed Inhumans show is a welcome surprise for those who recognise him. Lashana Lynch returns as Maria Rambeau, taking up the mantle of Captain Marvel. The most divisive casting choice is John Krasinski as Reed Richards/Mr. Fantastic. It’s a casting that fans have been clamoring for, but his presence here seems to imply that he won’t be taking on the same role in the mainline MCU, which may be for the best. He’s fine in the role but his presence is fairly distracting and his uniform is the worst in the entire group. The final member of the Illuminati is proof that nobody is ever really finished playing their most popular character…it’s Sir Patrick Stewart as Professor Xavier. Here he’s portraying a live-action version of the character from the 1997 animated series. His entrance is even accompanied by a snippet of the animated show’s iconic theme, which may be pandering but is sure to provide a smile at the very least.

What may not provide a smile is what happens next. The Scarlett Witch arrives and annihilates the Illuminati. It’s a horrific scene to watch, purely because of the terrifying way in which she dismantles each member. The first sign that you’re about to witness a massacre like no other is when she removes Black Bolt’s mouth, meaning that when he screams (a scream with the power to destroy anything in its path), his head literally caves in. It doesn’t ease up from here with spaghettification and decapitation providing a manic display of her power. This is where the classic Raimi horror element really comes into its own. Using these characters like this may feel like a waste to some but it’s a heck of a perfect demonstration of what The Scarlett Witch is capable of.

The credits scenes are neat too. The first introduces actress Charlize Theron as Clea – daughter of Dormammu and possible love interest for Strange. Obviously, there are many big-name actors in the MCU, many of whom got there in part due to the MCU, but Theron is already a huge name. It feels like proof that the MCU is only getting bigger and that it isn’t slowing down anytime soon, which is a thought that may exhaust some. The second scene brings back one of the most entertaining cameos in the entire film – Bruce Campbell as Pizza Poppa. He provides a zany, early comic book movie energy that only Campbell could provide, and which should leave the audience smiling as they depart the cinema.

As discussed in the spoiler-free review, there is plenty to enjoy in Multiverse of Madness. The Raimi vibes really work but many of the decisions made by the creative team will be divisive, if not infuriating. It’s still worth watching for the little moments of gold…not that MCU fans have much of a choice. Missing one story may mean missing an important piece of context for future tales, so keep your eyes fixated.

If you’re lucky, you might get rewarded with a Bruce Campbell.

(My thanks to Nate at Natflix for checking this one out with me. Check his review HERE)

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (Spoiler Free)

Director Sam Raimi created one of the greatest superhero films of all time. It’s a sequel, so it doesn’t have to spend much time establishing character backstories. The villain’s origin is full of tragedy while the character themself is immensely likable. The hero is a quip machine with the charisma of a young Tom Cruise. Above all, despite often being a campy comic book movie, it has solid horror elements embedded into it. It is unmistakably a Sam Raimi production and doesn’t feel like it was poked or prodded by studio executives. That masterpiece’s name is… Spider-Man 2.

This is why, when it was announced that Raimi would be taking over directing duties from Scott Derickson on the sequel to Doctor Strange, excitement was high. When the trailers finally started appearing, it seemed as if Multiverse of Madness would be a much darker tale than any in the MCU, and it was… so why doesn’t it feel like a top-tier Marvel production?

The plot sees Dr. Stephen Strange attempting to save multiverse-hopping-teen America Chavez from the clutches of The Scarlett Witch (aka Wanda Maximoff). Despite a promising premise, there is very little of the multiverse actually being explored. The first time that Strange and Chavez jump to a different universe they crash through 20 separate universes, but they will spend the majority of the runtime in the final one they land in. These universes look absolutely stunning, and they are brimming with potential as well as looking like they could house an interesting story. Instead, the plot is split between the universe they land in, dubbed 838, and the one they came from, dubbed 616 (a cute comic nod as the actual designation is 19999). It allows more time to be spent with the 838 characters, which is fine as they’re all interesting enough, but it’s difficult not to feel a little disappointed when you’re promised a multiverse. Using more universes could have further demonstrated how ruthless, powerful, and merciless The Scarlett Witch is. It could have shown off more variations of Stephen and Wong (who is sorely lacking in the rest of the plot) as proof that 19999 Stephen is the only nice one. It could have been an opportunity to shove in more cameos, should the studio be inclined.

This doesn’t mean that there are no shoe-horned cameos. It’s a move that’s sure to divide audiences on several different levels. There will be people who feel like the plot doesn’t warrant these cameos, those who disagree with the characters chosen, those who disagree with the actors chosen for these roles, and those who disagree with how these characters are utilised. Personally, I only disagree with having the characters present, but to say any more would be to venture into spoiler territory, which is also the case with The Scarlett Witch. Throughout this piece, she has not been referred to as Wanda Maximoff because Wanda hasn’t been present. The film robs her of any real agency which, in turn, prevents her from being a sympathetic villain, which is a shame because this may be the defining performance of actress Elizabeth Olsen’s career. Wanda, as with most MCU women, has taken a backseat to her male counterparts but Olsen has always been terrific in the role. She was really allowed to display the full range of her capabilities in the show Wandavision which earned her deserved acclaim. It’s present here too, with The Scarlett Witch being one of the gravest threats any hero has ever faced and providing some truly chilling moments.

Divisiveness is rife in Multiverse of Madness. The aspects that don’t work (Wanda, presence of cameos, pacing, some of the humour) are noticeable but the moments that do work provide some MCU highlights. When Sam Raimi’s signature voice is allowed to shine through, it provides a comic-book vibe similar to his work on Spider-Man and an MCU experience like no other. Many have suggested that the film is too scary for a 12 rating but scaring young people (if the film does so) is a good thing, as if children aren’t allowed to experience fear then they don’t learn how to cope with that fear. Besides, many children enjoy the rush that comes with being scared. Saying that, although the film may not have earned a 15 rating, it may have been better had it been allowed one. Raimi can work well within restrictions, but if he’s being allowed to craft a horror film then he should be allowed to craft a full-Raimi horror film. When his voice comes through, it provides some wonderfully dark stuff and Zombie Strange is straight-up one of the best characters in the MCU. Partnered with Danny Elfman’s beautifully chilling and occasionally triumphant score, it provides some stellar storytelling. Where it falls apart is in the “MCU” of it all.

Perhaps the future should be a little less multiversal and a little more mad.

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer

The Grinch (2018)

With Benedict Cumberbatch voicing The Grinch in his attempts to ruin festivities for the Who’s of Whoville, this story is an amalgamation of all that came before, with a couple of new ideas sprinkled in. Much like the 2000 adaptation, this Grinch has a tragic backstory, however instead of being raised by lesbians and hating Christmas from the start, he was an orphan whose orphanage stopped celebrating the holiday. Whilst the former opts to keep his Christmas hatred a mystery, amplified by a traumatic childhood event, the latter robs him of mystery entirely. He doesn’t hate Christmas, really, he hates being alone. It robs him of that unfathomable maliciousness that makes the character so great. It isn’t helped by the narration keeping the classic line “The Grinch hated Christmas, The whole Christmas season. Now please, don’t ask why, No-one quite knows the reason.”

His overall attitude is softer too. Near the beginning of the film, he ventures into town to stock up on food and whilst there is treated by the script and the Who’s as a grumpy old curmudgeon. He does some mean things, like knocking over a child’s snowman, but the child merely seems disgruntled, as if this sort of thing happens all the time. In previous iterations, the Grinch either hasn’t met the Who’s (1996) or has his name mentioned in hushed whispers (20000) but here, he seems fairly well known and not disliked. His neighbour Mr Bicklebaum always greets him with a smile and an attempted hug. He’s less of a villain and more of a Town Kook. He also treats his dog Max with much more respect, as a best friend rather than an overly-faithful companion. The plot adds a subplot where The Grinch finds a reindeer named Fred to pull his sleigh and allows him to stay with them. This is clearly meant to set up a rivalry between Fred and Max (a la Feathers and Gromit in The Wrong Trousers) but the Grinch never acts like he has any intention to replace his friend. He continues to use Max as his assistant regardless with the only real moment of tension being Fred making The Grinch’s morning coffee. Fred leaves shortly before the big heist so that Max still has to pull the sleigh, but returns at the film’s end to help prevent the sleigh from plummeting over the top of Mount Crumpitt.

The other big change is Cindy Lou Who, who used to be no older than two. Here she is 5 or 6 years old, like her live-action counterpart, and one of 3 children, like both her previous iterations. However, she is now the child of a single mother and wants to capture Santa to ask for his help in making her mother’s life easier. It’s a cute subplot but often feels like it distracts from the main plot. In The Grinch (2000), Cindy Lou is researching The Grinch’s past to solve her own ‘yuletide doubts’ (in her own words), thus acting as both an insight into his character and into the mentality of the Whos. Here, she is on her own journey, completely separate from The Grinch, with the meeting of the two coming across as more of a coincidence. It’s not that her plot is irrelevant, it’s actually perfectly in keeping with the morals of Dr. Seuss, rather that it pads out an already padded movie. It feels like there are two films here, but neither one is being given the time that they deserve.

The final act of padding comes in the form of narration from musician Tyler, The Creator. Being based on a short children’s book, and given previous adaptations of said books, it makes sense that there would be narration. However, instead of using all the lines from the original source material, the script adapts them and adds to them. Both previous adaptations had used every word, so to replace them here feels utterly absurd. Seuss’ work survives, in part because his writing’s so tight and to change even a single line feels close to sacrilege. Then there’s the remix of You’re A Mean One, Mr Grinch, which provides an update to something classic despite it not needing updated, as well as being tonally inconsistent with the rest of the film.

The main issue The Grinch (2018) has is that it is the third adaptation of this tale but that it doesn’t add anything to the mythos. The original 1966 adaptation brought in music and colour whilst the 2000 adaptation was a misinterpreted mockery of capitalism and send-up to classic action movies. The 2019 adaptation seeks only to entertain, which it does but is ultimately inferior when compared to its predecessors. This comparison is the root issue that any adaptation will have to overcome and it’s not something that the Illumination team was able to overcome.

The message of the original (that Christmas is about being with the people we love) is there, and rises to the surface regardless of what gets thrown on top of it., but this feels like it only happens because that original message is so strong. The Grinch is like any other Illumination picture in that it’s very pretty to look at but therein lies perhaps the biggest problem. This is just like any Illumination film and The Grinch shouldn’t be done that way. If you’re looking for a child-friendly take on this story then the old adage is true:

There’s nothing like the original.

Until Next Time…

Signed: Your festive neighbourhood queer

Doctor Strange

Visual effects are like magic. Through them, anything is possible and the only limit is your imagination. They are also a form of art, and one of the most underappreciated ones at that. It allowed Superman to fly and Tatooine to explode but one of the best examples of imaginative visual effects at work is 2016’s Doctor Strange.

The story sees the life of Doctor Stephen Strange- famed neurosurgeon – thrown into turmoil by a car crash that all but destroys his hands. Though surgery can save them, they may never stop shaking, so Strange goes in search of a spiritual healer who can supposedly heal any physical injury and finds himself in the company of sorcerers. As The Ancient One, Mordo and Wong assist him in his magical education, their reality is threatened by dark sorcerer Kaecilius who draws power from The Dark Dimension on behalf of its ruler Dormammu.

Half the story is told through astounding visuals which allow for creative fight scenes. Reality bends to the sorcerers’ wills with folding buildings, moving roads, and splitting sidewalks. The very first scene is one such fight and perfectly demonstrates how powerful these people are as well as what they’re capable of, without the need for auditory exposition. These masterful feats occur within a space known as The Mirror Dimension, which is a perfect copy of our reality, layered over the top of ours, but never interacts with it. This makes Kaecilius all the more threatening when he is able to conjure these effects outside of The Mirror Dimension, in our reality.

On top of these technical marvels are the designs of the sorcery and The Dark Dimension. The magic itself appears in the air as a line of bright orange light that emits sparks like electricity. The lines form symbols that act as a physical barrier when required, in a very clever and very pretty piece of worldbuilding. Meanwhile, The Dark Dimension is worthy of its name, devoid of light, but not without colour. The darkness is comprised of rich, deep purples, blues, and greens which allow for a sombre but visually interesting space. This is to say nothing of The Astral Plane, where corporeal forms exist, which provides the wildest, most bizarre scene in the entire MCU.

There is a ridiculous amount of worldbuilding at work here, though it never bogs down the story. Magic is a brand new concept for the MCU so it requires establishing but it also lays the groundwork for time travel and alternate dimensions. Of course, alternate dimensions have already had their first mention within the MCU during Ant-Man but this is the first time that the concept of a Multiverse is floated. There are mentions of branched timelines and The Living Tribunal, which will both become extraordinarily relevant as the franchise progresses. Avengers: Endgame is only several films down the line so it makes sense to explore the bare bones of these ideas here. It matches the story well and, bar Ant-Man, there isn’t another instalment where these ideas would sit so comfortably. As a result, Doctor Strange finds itself to be one of the most important films in this franchise, although several angles such as the villainous Baron Mordo are still to pay off.

There’s a lot of discussions to be had surrounding elements of Doctor Strange. Benedict Cumberbatch’s American accent for Strange is befitting that character’s surname and Mads Mikkelsen’s performance as Kaecilius is terrific if not a smidge underutilised. However, the largest conversation to be had is around the casting of Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One. Since conception, The Ancient One has been a Tibetan monk but to avoid falling into racial stereotypes it was decided that the role should be recast in the MCU as an androgynous Celt. It did not go down well, with accusations of whitewashing and China-pandering (since China is famously anti-Tibetan). These accusations are fair given Hollywood’s long line of whitewashed roles and The Ancient Ones’ non-racist portrayal in other media like the 2007 animated film Doctor Strange: The Sorcerer Supreme. The reasons given for recasting as still fair too, though it’s a decision that seems laced with cowardice to the extent that Kevin Feige would later state that it could have been handled better. With all that said, Tilda Swinton gives a powerful yet subdued performance which gives the character an air of mystery and a large amount of heart.

For once, the mid-credits scene aligns with a chronological viewing of the MCU. It sees Strange conversing with Thor who has come to New York with his brother Loki in search of their father Odin. This scene is ripped directly from Thor: Ragnarok and allows for a smooth transition between the two films. The post-credits scene is the aforementioned turning of Baron Mordo that, as of the time of this publication, is still to pay off.

Doctor Strange is a marvellous feat of visual effects work with mostly solid performances and a whimsically dark soundtrack. It’s an excellent blend of self-contained origin story and wider-universe worldbuilding that makes for entertaining viewing. It may be Strange, but isn’t that for the best?

Excelsior!

Signed: Your friendly neighbourhood queer