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Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)::rating::3.5::rating::3.5

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness will draw inevitable comparisons to Everything Everywhere All at Once, Michelle Yeoh’s bravura indie feature from last month.  Like that film, this story imagines an infinite collective of universes, where anything that can happen, does happen.  But where Everything used its reality-hopping premise to ponder the very nature of existence, Strange 2 assembles its intra-dimensional hodgepodge into a sprawling, dweeby, pop culture happening.  That might not be the stuff of Academy Awards, but director Sam Raimi (helmer of Tobey’s Spider-verse) delivers a gorgeous, rollicking acid trip.  While MCU fans will enjoy their fix and salivate for more, noobs might come away dazed and confused.

The film kicks off a few months after Spider-Man: No Way Home.  (About twenty Marvel movies ago, I’d caution you for spoilers. At this point, we’re deep in the nerd-mines of Moria.  If you can’t find your way by now, I’m afraid there’s not much hope.)  Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) has helped Spider-Man disappear, and he probably wishes he could do the same.  It seems Christine (Rachel McAdams), the love of Strange’s life, is marrying another man.  The good doctor barely has time to gulp martinis and sulk at her wedding reception before all hell breaks loose in Manhattan–again.

Turns out, another slobbering monster is tear-assing through the streets–again.  Strange slaps on his sentient cape and heads over to investigate. We learn that this particular squid-beast is targeting one specific teen girl.  She’s America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), and there’s a lot more to her than meets the eye.  America has a big, unstable superpower:  She can hop between universes, through a portal that opens during her moments of great fear.  This ability turns out to be more curse than blessing, as America has been separated from her mothers, and she fears she may never see them again.

That power also catches the eye of Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), now settling into her identity as the Scarlet Witch.  Strange approaches Maximoff about protecting America from cosmic danger.  (I’m about to drop one mild spoiler, so reader beware.)  Unfortunately, like Walter White, Wanda Maximoff is the danger.  Still aching from her losses in Wandavision, the Scarlet Witch reveals that she covets America’s power to visit her would-be sons in other dimensions.  In a scene reminiscent of Saruman’s heel turn in Lord of the Rings, Wanda announces her intention to use and destroy America.  A war between these former Avengers now seems inevitable.

That’s all the info you’re gonna get out of me.  The resulting movie has tons of plot, MCU callbacks, surprise cameos, and, naturally, setup for future installments.  If fan service were booze, Strange 2 spends its second act blacking out and yakking on the floor.  I suspect most viewers will either:  A) Squeal with glee.  B) Get completely lost out in the nerd-weeds. C) Roll their eyes at how often this film detours from its main plot.  Me?  I had mild symptoms of all three, at varying points in the story.

This second Strange has many of the same strengths of its MCU brethren:  The visual effects are absolutely eye-boggling; each incarnation of the multi-verse gets rendered with meticulous detail.  I don’t know the final budget of this movie, but…damnnnn.  In its final act, the film resorts to an obligatory CGI battle, but at least we get a good-looking cliché.  Raimi is a gifted director; he and cinematographer John Mathieson deliver one of the most vibrant entries in the MCU.  For all this technical wizardry, this film has a decidedly old-school texture to it.  Also, the beautiful, melodic score from Danny Elfman represents some of his best work in years.

On the other side of the camera, Strange benefits from sure-footed performances.  Cumberbatch has truly grown into the role of the cocky, sardonic surgeon with a spellbook.  In fact, I’ll deliver the highest praise for such an iconic role:  I can’t imagine any other actor in the part.  That goes ditto for Olsen, who finds new emotional depth for Wanda, as she supplies a growing sadness to Madness.  Christine gets a lot more to do in this installment, and McAdams responds by giving her added warmth and humanity.  Finally, Benedict Wong continues to elevate Wong, Strange’s grumpy sidekick, into much more than simple comic relief.

In the end, I admired the pieces of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness more than the finished puzzle.  It shines in individual moments, but founders in others.  Even at 126 minutes,  this feels like a much denser, longer movie.  Plus, like other recent standalone Marvel installments, I couldn’t shake the idea that this is simply a placeholder for some bigger Avengers bonanza in the future.  (No doubt Kang the Conquerer and the Secret Invasion are lurking out there, in some part of the multi-verse.)  Still, this might be the most visually-striking placeholder in cinema history.

126 min.  PG-13.  In theaters only.

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