Martin Scorsese once said the MCU “isn’t cinema” and it kicked off a firestorm of rage from fanboys of Hollywood’s biggest franchise.
Fans accused him of being an “elitist,” a “gatekeeper,” and a “jealous old man” for simply pointing out in his op-ed that the homogenization of Hollywood is killing creativity. Frankly, whether you are a fan of these films or not all this should concern you. But most fans of course didn’t read past his first statement and have not tried to think critically about the MCU’s place in the greater Hollywood landscape, namely how much airspace it occupies. Disney and the MCU may talk a big game about elevating marginalized voices and promoting “diversity” in their films but at best it’s only through the limited lens of these cape flicks and at worst it actively pushes other more original, more personal takes by artists out of theater screens.
But in terms of the movies themselves, I think that is slightly more debatable. Are MCU flicks cinema? I might agree with some ardent defenders of the MCU that defining what cinema is can be an impossible task but I think defining what it isn’t should be considered. Cinema shouldn’t be movies that are created in boardroom labs by people who have crunched the numbers and decided “this will make us the most money” as opposed to “I have this idea and story I want to tell.” When you realize Tony Stark biting the dust in “Endgame” has more to do with RDJ’s contract expiring as opposed to a storytelling decision this is what I think guys like Scorsese are getting at to a degree. When movies feel like they’re created by machines, even when they are entertaining (something Scorsese does say), you lose some of that le Cinema magic so to speak.
You want a movie that feels like it was created by a person not a business algorithm.
So, after I saw “Spider-man: Nowhere Home” back in December I wasn’t exactly excited to see “Dr. Strange in The Multiverse of Madness” because of how cynical the former was when I saw it. The last Spider-man movie is very much an exercise in corporate synergy where again storytelling choices feel like business decisions and not narrative ones, so I wasn’t expecting much of anything special from this Strange sequel.
But it had one thing going for it that gave me the tiniest hope that I might be pleasantly surprised and that’s the fact that director Sam Raimi would be at the helm of this one. Raimi is of course a unique film director and writer whose style is easy to notice anytime you get to watch one of his movies. His “Evil Dead” movies are scary, crazy, over the top, and an absolute blast to watch and his Spider-Man films, whether you still enjoy them or not, are largely responsible for making this genre as prevalent as it is today. There’s a reason Scorsese has harsh words for the MCU but notably has a soft spot for Raimi’s work.
So what happens when arguably the Godfather of modern superhero film-making got his hands on a property from Hollywood’s largest and most homogenized franchise? Well you get something that actually feels more like someone’s creative vision as opposed to something just made to appeal to as many people as possible in order to turn a profit and the result is probably the only MCU film I have any interest in watching again.
“Multiverse of Madness” continues the story of Dr. Strange after the events of “Nowhere Home” and “WandaVision” where he finds himself the guardian of a multiverse hopping superhuman named America Chavez. Chavez explains to Strange that an alternate universe version of him was trying to seek out the book of Vishanti to protect her from a demon trying to steal her powers for reasons unknown to both of them. When it becomes clear that this demon was created via witchcraft Strange seeks out the only witchcraft wielding magic user he knows; Wanda Maximoff. When he travels over to tell her what is going on however he discovers Wanda is actually the one who sent the demon as she has been corrupted by the evil magic of the Darkhold. Wanda wants Chavez in order to replace a Wanda from another universe so she can be with the children she never had. Strange of course, does not agree to hand over Chavez and now finds himself as well as the Sorcerers’ coven directly in the war path of the Scarlet Witch. Now he and Chavez must travel the multiverse to get away from Wanda and find the Book of Vishanti to stop her before the Multiverse is ripped apart for good.
One of the big problems of these cinematic universe movies is that unless you’ve watched the previous 30-plus movies and TV shows it’s really impossible to watch most of these as their own thing. Individual directors who decide to take on one of these properties are doing it less because they have a unique vision they wish to share about these characters but more to fulfill a contract by Marvel and Disney. You can say that’s also what makes these charming too of course since the appeal is that all these movies are interlocked, but keeping up with the now 14-year long franchise can be an exhausting and daunting prospect that plenty of folks are becoming less and less interested in staying entuned with for more than a few reasons.
It makes these movie’s main purpose less to tell a good story and more to just get you to come back for another. It’s less about what’s going on in the movie itself and more about what’s coming next instead. These movies end up becoming basically very expensive two-hour long trailers and it’s kind of an ingenious movie business model but not exactly art either.
It’s a commercial…
This franchise may have started as sincere under Paramount with the first “Iron Man” flick in 2008 but since Disney took the reins its very much been about profit first. To paraphrase my thoughts from another blog around Disney, if it came down to turning a profit or telling a good story first, what do you think The Mouse will choose? You might say that a good story is what is driving profit here but again I would argue a sizable percentage of the storytelling choices of this franchise are market driven and not narrative. There is a difference between ideas motivated by genuine thought/personal tastes and those motivated by the monetary goals of dudes in suits.
Maybe this doesn’t matter for a few of you, or don’t see much of a difference because in the end for most, being entertained is enough. But it should concern you still that as these movies take up more and more theater screens and those more personal films made by sincere artists are going to become fewer and fewer. Some fans like to depict Disney and A24 (the most prominent alternative to mainstream studio) as equal opposing forces but in the grand scheme of things they really aren’t. When a personal movie like “Everything. Everywhere, All at Once” struggles to add more theaters to show their movie on while this film can make that film’s entire box office in a single Thursday cause it’s playing on 50 times more screens, that’s a problem.
So what makes this latest Dr. Strange better than the average MCU flick is it definitely feels like Sam Raimi was allowed to make more of those genuine and sincere narrative choices. Raimi is able to make a movie that with some explanation of the previous films/TV shows can definitely stand on its own to a certain extent as the director’s vision so to speak. Dr. Strange is in many ways the perfect comic book hero for Sam Raimi to put his personal spin on. His horror films and other pulped stylized films and TV shows have a pretty heavy focus on violence, frenetic editing, and of course, body horror and a Sorcerer who deals with mind-bending reality and occult-ish magic is a great fit for Raimi’s style. Is “Multiverse of Madness” “Evil Dead” but with Dr. Strange? No, but it’s about as close as we may ever get to it and the result is a far more memorable MCU film than we are used to.
Fans of Raimi will definitely enjoy his creative touch that is noticeable from scene to scene from action set-up zooming close-ups, to wacky almost Looney Tunes-esque humor (Nice to see you again, Bruce Campbell), and a few decent jump-scares. We get some elements of those classic Evil Dead movies throughout the film’s runtime that will leave at least a few Raimi fans smiling from ear-to-ear.
There’s been some internet discourse surrounding the horror and violence of this film, with some fans thinking it should’ve been Rated R but the film is hardly anywhere close to as violent as even the early 2000’s PG-13 superhero flicks. The violence is definitely more graphic than usual though but it’s also part of what makes this movie feel faaaar less corporatized than previous MCU flicks. Raimi is more than likely being reined in here by The Mouse in order to sell more theater tickets by playing it safe mostly but he gets unchained just enough here to create some actually memorable light action horror sequences that this franchise doesn’t really ever partake in.
My dad, whose favorite character is Dr. Strange in fact, often told me growing up that his preferred film adaptation of Strange would be a rated R flick. Even though this is definitely not that type of film, it’s at least about as close as fans such as my dad and myself can hope for and in that way “Multiverse” succeeds.
Another issue these MCU flicks tend to have and are often harped on by detractors such as myself is that they are waaay too quip heavy. Humor in this series is often just characters doing light improv banter over and over again and its frankly tired and boring at this point. So it’s great when a director as well-versed in humor as Raimi gets to work on one of these films because comedy in this film is much more about set-ups and pay-offs, and character development. Humor doesn’t feel too forced or as a replacement for storytelling too often in “Multiverse of Madness” because Raimi is far more creative with comedy than the average MCU director. There’s genuine laugh out loud moments in the film that feel natural as opposed to manufactured and even though it leaps a very low bar, it’ll be a breath of fresh air for more disillusioned film-goers of the MCU.
The story itself though is fine. In somewhat of the same vein as the far better, more thoughtful film about multiverses, this Dr. Strange sequel also deals in the question about the “what ifs.” In this case Strange is dealing in the “what ifs” regarding his love interest from the first film, Christine Palmer. It’s still a pretty half-baked romance between the two here but for what it’s worth, like other elements of this film, it feels more genuine than other MCU films. While I wasn’t exactly feeling Cumberbatch as Strange in the first film that debuted waaaay back in 2016, he does a much better job with a far better script here and carries the film in a multitude of interesting ways, especially its more drama heavy side. Alongside Elizabeth Olsen, who is at her best and most unhinged version of Scarlet Witch here, the two play a fun cat and mouse game to the film’s surprisingly sharp finale and fans of both the MCU and of Raimi will likely be pleased.
The most refreshing thing about this film is only a few parts of it feel interested in teasing the future of this franchise. It would’ve been really easy with another film about the multiverse for this script to over indulge itself in Disney’s rapidly increasing IP, just as they did with “Nowhere Home.” The film could’ve just had a dozen cameos and endless references to other movies but it’s rather hilariously tossed to the wind as soon as it’s brought up in the best way here. Again, it feels like Raimi was allowed to make a little more of the movie he wanted as opposed to simply inserting random characters from the MCU’s and Hollywood’s superhero past to fulfill a monetary need for Disney to put butts in seats.
It’s a VERY low bar of course. Make no mistake, this is still an MCU film at the end of the day and not really recommended for people who aren’t a fan of this franchise or the comic books they come from. It might please some of the more cynical of fans such as myself who still have a mild soft spot for them but at the end of the day, even though it is surprisingly more enjoyable than expected, it does feel like a better film could’ve been made. That might feel unfair but that is the main issue most folks who aren’t fans of these films have with the franchise. For all the money Disney pours into this series, all the talented people they bring on both in front of and behind the camera, when it’s all said and done it does feel like the creative side of these movies are still beholden to shareholders first as opposed to “Cinema” as Scorsese would say. You may argue that these movies do have an obligation there because they are indeed expensive and will ultimately need to turn a profit because that’s the society we live in but it’s still damning of this artistic process that bolder ideas, that Raimi no doubt had, are axed on the cutting room floor in order to protect the company’s bottomline.
You may call that simply reality but I call it depressing. Even though this film is indeed entertaining, and several steps above the average of this franchise at the end of the day it does feel like greater potential was lost to the machine of Hollywood and Disney. Fans may think this movie should’ve been rated R for its violence (lol) but the sad thing is the actual rated R version of this movie is probably something we’ll never get to see because of that machine.
But for what it’s worth it was nice to get a glimpse of that potential in a film like “Multiverse of Madness.” Maybe if enough people recognize this potential it might encourage Hollywood to do something faaaar more daring with its largest, most dominant franchise. Maybe if enough fans finally get tired of the status quo and stop watching these films, we might get more films like “Everything. Everywhere. All at Once” instead of those themes and ideas limited to the lens of corporately-backed cape flicks. Maybe if fans started watching more films meant for adults instead of children we might actually get more movies made for adults instead of children.
I wouldn’t count on it though…
3.5 out of 5