Leave it to Sam Raimi to sidetrack the efficient but creatively flatlining Marvel money train of Avengers idolatry.
Granted, the director of the sparkling, soulful original “Spider-Man” trilogy spends the first two acts of “Doctor Strange in the Universe of Madness” performing fan service, stuffing the screen with talismans, gimmicks and characters just like every recent Russo & Co. Marvel outing.
There are more gimmicks/characters/magical agents in “Doctor Strange 2” that have no real impact on the plot’s outcome than you can count. It’s the whole “Is Indiana Jones necessary for finding/saving the Lost Ark?”” argument writ even larger.
The Multiverse idea gets further beaten to death — with more cool effects — and a few beloved characters are trotted out and treated like fodder, and not just Bruce Campbell and Raimi’s infamous Olds Delta 88, either.
There’s a character symbolically-named “America” so that others can fret over America’s fate, wonder if “America is lost” or “America’s isn’t lost after all.” A little on the nose, symbolism-wise.
But then Raimi does Raimi, and “Drag Me to Hell” becomes more than one of his most fun horror outings, it’s a guiding principle for this Multiverse’s third act. It’s scary, harrowing fun, with a body count and a shift in direction that may rattle the “play it safe” suits at the Mouse’s prized nameplate.
We’re still in a post-Thanos Earth, half-ruined and periodically assaulted by monstrous enemies of humanity. Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is still regarded as a hero, but one and all — himself included — wonder at what price.
He’s still not the Sorcerer Supreme, still not as respectful as his friend with that title (Benedict Wong) would like. And indignity of indignities, he’s got to keep it together at his best gal’s wedding. She is of the “It would have never worked” persuasion, and Rachel McAdams playing Christine Palmer makes that whole relationship credible and worth mourning.
But these “dreams” the good doctor is having, with a young person with powers whom he doesn’t know (Xochitl Gómez) seem to be heading towards another “sacrifice for the greater good” situation. And the girl named America isn’t keen on dying nobly by his hand.
When Stephen Strange finally meets her in his world, it turns out she’s a multiverse traveler being pursued by demons at the direction of — you guessed it — another disaffected Avenger whom the script expects us to believe has gone totally, and almost justifiably rogue.
Thus this is the movie where casting a terrific actress, Elizabeth Olsen, as Wanda The Scarlet Witch, pays dividends.
Because if there’s one great novelty in all the multiverse mayhem, it’s the sight of the petite Olsen staggering, like a wounded and enraged Igor or Hunchback of Notre Dame, in a violent and nerve tingling chase, where she’s the monster doing the chasing.
The third act, which one can’t go into any detail about for fear of “spoilers,” is the corker here — full of candles and dark spells and demons and dead people and dead people summoned back to help.
The preceding multiverses? Go see “Everything Everywhere All At Once” to get a more thrilling, amusing and scientifically intriguing take on that. For that matter, the last “Spider Man” movie was better, start to finish, than this.
But Raimi gives his actors lots of close-ups, and they deliver in spades, making this one of the better-acted Marvel movies. Regret, grief, pathos and fury all register and hit you right in the face at times.
The messaging starts with this grand, simple line — “Just because someone loses their way doesn’t mean they’re lost forever.” But it is centered mostly on one newcomer — America.
Her character is focus-grouped virtue signaling in the flesh — Hispanic, with Puerto Rican decor on her jacket and a rainbow-colored Puerto Rican flag pin denoting her two moms. The intolerant corners of the Islamic world — the Gulf States — are banning the movie over that. But that’s ok. When she’s old enough America will be driving a plug-in hybrid.
America is here to represent conscience and hope, and Gómez adequately embodies that as well as the script — which has her imprisoned or almost helplessly in jeopardy for much of the time — allows.
There was a stretch “in the Multiverses of Madness” that I wondered if corporate Marvel hadn’t muzzled the life, independence and fun out of Sam Raimi, as the film’s early and middle acts are just generic — big, dull action beats, limp, recycled Strange and Wong jokes, tedious “I’ve put the magic behind me” declarations that no one believes and “fan service.”
But as someone who’s hard on Marvel “content” in general, I found “Multiverse’s” third act bracing and eye-opening, reminding us what can happen when you put a filmmaker with style and a talent for something other than Make the Avengers/Wizarding World etc. Trains Run on Time “management” in charge.
This isn’t one of the best movies of this genre. But when at its best, “Madness” takes Marvel places it’s been entirely too timid to go before. And no, I’m NOT talking about this endlessly-flogged “multiverse” fantasy of physics and comic book movies.
Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, frightening images and some language.
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen, Benedict Wong, Rachel McAdams, Michael Stuhlbarg, Xochitl Gómez, Patrick Stewart, Bruce Campbell and Chiwitel Ejiofor.
Credits: Directed by Sam Raimi, Scripted by Michael Waldron. A Marvel Studios/Walt Disney release.
Running time: 2:06