Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness  Directed by Sam Raimi. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Elizabeth Olsen. Plugs: Just the usual franchise stuff. Nearest: Cottonwood Mall. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness begins with ex-surgeon-turned-magical superhero Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a guest at a tony cocktail party interrupted by a monster tearing up the city for no apparent reason. He leaps into action, literally, and is soon rescuing a teen named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez).

America, it’s soon revealed, is from another universe and is being hunted by another powerful magical hero, the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), who wants to be reunited with her two sons in another universe. The Witch wants America’s powers and is willing to destroy the world to get them.

Or something like that.

There are different versions of Doctor Strange and the other characters, some personal moments, a dash of humor, and so on. It’s all a little fuzzy but the plot is just an excuse to stage a series of dramatic battles and meet a variety of superheroes setting up spinoffs.

 Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is the latest in a series of films that take advantage of multiple universes, or multiverses, as plot devices. There was of course 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and more recently Everything Everywhere All At Once.

Incidentally, for those interested, there is a grain of truth to the multiple universes idea in theoretical physics, which uses mathematical models to explain and predict natural phenomena. Some experts —the ones who do this for a living, not the ones who go down the conspiracy rabbit hole on YouTube— believe that if one or more parallel universe exist, they might be detected through minute fluctuations in a gravity field on a quantum scale.

The multiple universes idea is a possibility —not a proven fact— and even if they exist, there’s no reason in the world (or, I guess, universes) to assume they’d be copies of our universe or the people that inhabit it. If these other worlds exist, they’re not just duplicates or variations of our world. But it’s fun fiction.

 Unlike most superheroes, Doctor Strange does a lot of dramatic gesturing. He’s not slinging webs or tossing hammers or shields around, he’s summoning colored light patterns that read onscreen as attacks or defenses. It looks cool, but reveals a cinematic character limitation. If a battle is fought with brute force or weapons, for example, it’s usually pretty clear who has the advantage: the character with the most strength, skill or weaponry. But because magic power is unseen on screen —and without the benefit of videogame-like power bars— it’s hard to really know where the heroes and villains stand. A warrior who loses his sword in battle is at a disadvantage, but a spell-casting magician may always have some different magic up his or her costumed sleeve to save the day.

There’s a little too much leeway for (literal) deus ex machina rescues for my taste; we know that Green Arrow is in trouble when he runs out of arrows and Superman is in dire straits when a chunk of kyptonite is lobbed at him. But with magical characters it’s never quite clear when they’re in peril; just when all seems lost they can just grimace harder, recall an ultra-earnest life lesson, and resolutely shoot more CGI lightning from their hands to save the day.

In a film of magic and multiverses, what’s the point of superheroes risking their lives to save the world if a simple magic spell or portal to another world can fix things and defeat the villains? This isn’t to criticize the characters, but merely to explain why the stakes are hard to judge in the battles, which take up much of its bloated, bladder-busting two-hour-plus runtime.

 As it happened, just before I saw Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness I had come from a talk by local puppeteer Michael McCormick, who described and showed his work on the films The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. Virtually all the special effects in those films were practical —that is, not computer generated but real: real elaborate sets, real puppets hiding real actors, real stuntpeople, and so on.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is an amazing special effects achievement. The visuals are cutting edge and awe-inspiring, but in the end the audiences know that much of what we’re seeing, as genuinely impressive as it is, isn’t real. It also puts the actors at a disadvantage —reacting to imagined greenscreen threats instead of other actors— but the cast does a good job.

 Not only is Strange relegated to generic gesturing, but also extensive exposition. In order to help the audience figure out what the hell is going on, why they’re heading into one or another universe, Strange has to explain it to his companions (or, even sometimes to himself). The result is a bit clunky, but necessary to fill the formulaic mandate.

 I often dislike time travel films because they often serve as a deus ex machina plot device, serving to create (or tidily wrap up) any conflicts or problems. For the same reason I’ve never been fond of superheroes who are also gods (such as Thor, Storm, and Wonder Woman) or are otherwise magical (such as Doctor Strange) because their nature seems like a cheat. They’re not aliens (such as Superman), nor are they ordinary folk enhanced by technology (Batman, Iron Man, and Captain America), nor victims of power-providing scientific mishap (Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four). No, these are presumably immortal figures whose powers are vast and whose vulnerabilities are murky, reducing the emotional stakes.

 Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is full of spectacle and sound (bring earplugs if you’re sensitive to loud noises), and a reasonably entertaining summer tentpole superhero movie if you don’t expect much.

Benjamin Radford

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