Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
In which Sam Raimi proves that he can stand proudly with the best – or worst – of them as a good little foot soldier of the woke apocalypse. You’d expect the wilfully anarchic – and Republican – Raimi to choke on the woke, but instead, he sucked it up, grinned and bore it. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is so slavishly a production-line Marvel movie, both in plotting and character, and in nu-Feige progressive sensibilities, there was no chance of Sam staggering out from beneath its suffocating demands with anything more than a few scraps of stylistic flourish intact.
I guess this shouldn’t be so surprising really, as his last movie, also for Disney and almost a decade ago, was pretty anonymous and focus-group sculpted (albeit featuring now cancelled and then ubiquitous James Franco). There was lots of talk from Kevin Feige and Benedict Cumberbatch of how this is a full-on Sam Raimi movie. Instead, with its occasional giant flying eyeball, gurning zombie and CGI-assisted crazy camera (never truly crazy, as of old) moves, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is closer to a Raimi homage, or at best an out-of-condition former pro trying to remember what his peak form was like (hence, old-hand Bruce Campbell beating himself up à la Ash, and for the end credits too, no less, like he’s knocking out a SNL-sponsored greatest-hits moment).
The most disappointing part of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is that – leaving aside the inevitable progressive paraphernalia, difficult as that is – it’s so utterly pedestrian in conception. Screenwriter Michael Waldron was the Loki showrunner, so perhaps he was all multiversed out. Or perhaps the rigors of woke-first left him scrambling for plot material. “Young ingenue needs protection from Big Bad, necessitating an escape across an array of alternate worlds” isn’t by any means terrible in bare bones – although the ‘young ingenue” rarely pays dividends, even without the woke factor, which was why Hawkeye was a relatively pleasant surprise – but very little makes these worlds pop.
There’s a mad scramble of universes (including cartoon and food) on the way to the first stop, but the limits of the imagination at play is clearly identified by having Cumberbatch play all the Stranges (Campbell’s April Fools gag of him as Strange was funny, but now it just hurts); he’s not a wacky larger-than-life actor, and so not the ideal fit for Raimi’s absurdist conjuring. Further still, the more crowd-surfing rumours – Tom Cruise as Iron Man – proved unfounded, and what we do see is kind of obvious. Not terrible, but obvious (Strange turned bad in the Illuminati world; Strange in a destroyed universe where he has the Darkhold). I envisaged something more akin to the Louvre chase in Joe Dante’s Looney Tunes: Back in Action; more fool me.
The conception of this multiverse is at least noteworthy, to the extent that it fits precisely into the “God is dead” materialism/humanism of standard Hollywood fare. One might expect the arena of magic to invite speculation on the afterlife and ethereal realms, but what we get instead is reductivism. The dead (or the soul) has no place here. The dream state is literalised as a physical reality (even as Benedict Wong’s Wong calls out the rank absurdity of the same). Anything to limit us spiritually. Sure, one can invoke the creative possibilities of reading the dream state in the form of a fiction narrative – much as Nolan made them obedient to coherent structure in Inception – but it’s the cumulative intent behind such reframing that demands attention.
This comes in tandem, after all, with a creed of moral relativism that has less to do with empathy than it does suggesting we are all as evil – in some version of reality – as the masters who feed Disney (and Hollywood) their instructions (this would be Gnostic Luciferianism Jay Dyer talks about, something carrying specifically transhumanist overtones in the MCU). We saw this in Harry Potter, apparently innocuous but including actual spells in its tapestry. Here, we learn witchcraft is bad, yet sorcery is somehow good? Good sorcerers are consistently seen to utilise negative/dark magic with positive intent, be it the Ancient One or Strange himself.
Who develops a third, all-seeing eye here, in a movie presenting the Illuminati as a positive force. The MCU Illuminati derives from relatively recent comics – circa 2005 – and comprises an elite “secret government” of superhumans; Brian Michael Bendis was evidently playing on the established, intrinsically negative connotations of the name; that his organisation was identified as paralleling the UN, though, tells you all you need to know about the globalist overtones involved. He’s thus implying not on his fictional incarnation but also its real-world counterpart is well-intentioned, regardless of whether their actions are compromised. To further underline this – and add the real-world namesake comparisons – there’s also an overtly negatively inclined counterpart in the comics, the Cabal.
The Illuminati are presented as a stolid bunch of supertypes, thus ripe for being wiped out when it suits the MCU, so as to give Wanda/the Scarlet Witch insurmountable powers (ones that can best Captain Marvel with her insurmountable powers; that’s the trouble when everyone has insurmountable powers, it all gets a little insurmountable, narratively speaking).
We have a dependable Reed Richards, played by dependable John Krasinski, whose jump suit emphasises his enormous heed. Anson Mount – whom I failed to recognise, despite being about the only decent thing in the abomination that is Star Trek: Discovery – is Black Bolt, killed in very Raimi gleeful style. Hayley Atwell’s Captain America/Carter is a fairly consistent alternate as she’s exactly as interesting as Chris Evans was (being cut in half with her shield is left to the imagination). Super-size black female 007 Lashana Lynch is now super-size black (also) female Captain Marvel (and every bit as persuasive as she was in No Time to Die).
The only capital to be gained from including an alternate Baron Mondo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) would be to mix thinks up and make him sympathetic to Strange. So obviously, they keep him adversarial. And then, of course, there’s the increasingly decrepit Patrick Stewart, almost horizontal in his bath chair and probably held upright by CGI’d-out stage hands when appearing in the dream sequence. Wheeling out someone barely functional this way is the height of cynicism – the same was true of Clint in Cry Macho – but at least Professor X was only cameoing, in contrast to the abomination that is Picard (the collected works of Alex Kurtzman are, you guessed it, an abomination).
It appears the point of Strange’s various travails across the striations of the multiverse is to emphasise just how much he is now identifiably a persona non grata. Strange isn’t obliged to die, but that’s because it’s sufficient to highlight him as the most dangerously toxic white male in all universes. Per Phase IV, such types must be pushed to the fringes of their own starring vehicles, so as to make way for more acceptable representatives of the progressive world (Hawkeye, the forthcoming Ironheart, Mighty Thor in Thor: Love and Thunder). Thus, Doctor Strange’s presence here is a means to facilitate the becoming of another of Disney’s Amazing Wonder Reys, one who comes into her own with super-spectacular powers; it is she who defeats the (female, but misunderstood) villain, and Strange is able to aid her in this only thanks to the advice of the wiser female (Rachel McAdams’ Christine) who rejected him romantically in favour of an inoffensively non-toxic African-American (he’s not Will Smith) male.
Our new super-spectacular-powered heroine – Xochitol Gomez as the emphatically named America Chavez – ticks the blandly prerequisite representational boxes as an actress (Latina – or Latinx, if you must) and as a representative of inclusive nu-America (her name and, unspecified in the movie, her sexuality). She also, icing on the cake, hails from bona-fide Transworld – or rather, hilariously, I kid you not, the Utopian Parallel – where she lived blissfully with her two gay mums while bounding freely about, flashing her Progress Pride flag (I have to credit my resident woke analyst for pointing the latter emblem out to me).
America is “running away from her uniqueness until she learns to embrace it” per Gomez. Such uniqueness doubtless being a shared transhumanist future for us all (one where food is free – if you like eating bugs, or lab-grown meat – and most likely you own nothing and are happy © Agenda 2030, sponsored by the WEF). Even more bizarrely, this Transworld (per the comic, created 2011) finds America imbued with powers by the Demiurge, no less. Marvel’s just fucking with us, right? Probably pertinently, America’s portals are formed in the shape of pentagrams.
Of course, one might readily imagine unfettered, irreverent Raimi of old tackling trans themes. Most likely in the form of a trans Stephen Strange à la one of the more memorable incarnations of Being John Malkovich. But that would certainly have been deemed mocking and disrespectful. Which used to be a reason to employ Raimi. That and crazy, mocking, disrespectful camera moves.
Doctor Strange: We’ll get you back on the lunchbox.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’ Wanda arc is desperately weak. On a level, it’s symptomatic of the meagre character development offered earlier phases’ MCU female characters, such that she – as with Black Widow – ends up dead without really having been given enough airtime to feel you’ve been on any kind of journey with her, and thus her exit having negligible impact. Olsen’s a much better actress than Scarlet Johansson, but she’s also encumbered with a similarly flat character. She lacks the quirks of former paramour Vision while being superpowered-but-so-what, à la Captain Marvel.
Wanda’s tunnel villainy here is forced and obvious, such that the sobering sight of her would-be kids yelling “Mommy you’re scaring us!” is downright risible. No one expects Marvel to yield the height of sophistication, but even I’m surprised they thought they could get that one past an audience (on this evidence, it’s very obvious why Scott Derrickson felt out of the movie over creative differences). One might propose the subtext, following WandaVision, that transhumanist virtual kids just aren’t the answer, since they led Wanda to this, and such a state of deception can only be one’s undoing. However, the preponderance of MCU progressive content would suggest otherwise. As for Wanda going forward, well there are numerous nice Wandas with precocious little offspring out there, evidently. The MCU can go wherever it likes, exhuming its offed characters’ corpses, just as long as it’s in the general direction of the Utopian freakin’ Parallel.
The appearance of Charlize Theron – one of Hollywood’s seasoned travellers of the trans caravan re her brood, also an avowed admirer of Guantanamo Hanks and exec producer of Mindhunter, so actively feeding the Company’s serial-killer paradigm – is wearily predictable at this point. The only surprise is that she hasn’t been in the Star Wars. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is also notable for – joshing, obviously – references by Strange to the entire organ transplant grift. And Bruce’s stand is called Pizza Poppa.
Cumberbatch has been maintaining a relentlessly high profile of late, whoring himself to any popular cause any which way he can, not least by offering free board and lodging to the entire Ukrainian nation. I was a fan of the first Doctor Strange, despite his messy attempts at an accent and the complete lack of inspiration in choosing him. Alas, in the six years since, the character has become such a supporting fixture that, it seems, when we come back round to a “starring” vehicle, the only place left is muscling him aside. As for Raimi, there was much more of him in the first Spider-Man, when he was actively reining himself in, than here, where he’s boasted as having being let loose. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness fails to deliver on both the multiverse and the madness fronts.
Addendum (12.05.22): It’s been suggested to me that one might, in contrast to my take, conclude reactionary elements at work in the movie. After all, super-woke nu-America girl has her super-woke parents terminally snatched away from her and is consigned to train diligently in an essentially patriarchal monastery at the end. Meanwhile, the main female character dabbles in darkness and child snatching and dies for her pains. Add to that the good Illuminati. Yeah… I’m not really convinced in staunches the flow.
First published by Now in Full Color on 06/05/22.