Director Sam Raimi won over many of our hearts with his delightfully droll “Evil Dead” movies of the 1980s. He gained more respect with his adaptations of the “Spider-Man” movies, starting in 2002.
With “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” he loses a lot of the goodwill that he has earned. Despite his skill at adapting comics to the big screen, he has come up with something of a dud, a mishmash of characters designed to appeal to anyone in thrall of the Marvel universe but to no one else.
Oh, the Disney studio certainly tried. It’s rather obvious that many of the characters are deliberately Asian, so that the film will play well in China. And yes, there are the requisite Black and Hispanic characters, to appeal to those important markets. But in this latest Doctor Strange film, they seem like they are there to boost the box office appeal, not to elucidate the story.
And in an odd twist, given the recent “don’t-say-gay” controversy over DisneyWorld in Florida, one of the central characters in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” has two mothers. Probably out of concerns for the Chinese market, that angle is only briefly mentioned, then ignored. It’s also easily edited out, so the Chinese censors don’t face too much of a problem. Such are the ways of moviemaking and marketing.
But back to the movie itself. … It’s hard to talk about it much without being accused of spoilers, so the plot summary will be somewhat oblique, other than telling you who are the good guys and who are the bad.
Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is good. So is a newcomer, America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez). The movie opens with them battling a demon (bad) as they try to get to the coveted Book of Vishanti. They run and jump onto wild-looking digital platforms while dodging the demon’s attempts to kill them.
Then Doctor Strange wakes up. It was just a dream. So the relieved doctor decides to go to the wedding of his former girlfriend, Christine Palmer (Rachel MaAdams), only to look out a window in downtown Manhattan and see a giant-sized orange octopus with a cyclops eye trying to capture America, the young woman from his dream. (It turns out that America is the daughter of lesbians who have disappeared in another universe. Yeah, you heard that right. But don’t talk about it too much. Not good for business, you know.)
Doctor Strange decides to leave the wedding party and help America. It’s apparent that his dream has become reality. And once safe from the octopus (bad), America tells Strange that she never dreams, but that dreams are really a reflection of an alternate universe, and that she has seen a different version of Strange in various universes that she has traveled. It turns out that she can move among lots of universes, and that’s why she’s valuable to those who can’t.
Got that? Well, that’s the basic plot. Except that Doctor Strange seeks the help of an old friend, Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), who turns out to be the bad gal who has been trying to capture America. It seems she wants the power to enter another universe because she has dreamed of having a happy family in another universe, and she wants to protect that family. So she’s gone bad. Oops for Doctor Strange. Oops for America. Oops for the screenplay — because at this point we start traveling through multiple universes as Doctor Strange and America are pursued by Wanda, who turns into the dreaded Scarlet Witch. Don’t ask.
Cumberbatch is a fine actor, but the material in his new movie is not worthy of his presence. It’s interesting to think that he might watch “Doctor Strange and the Madness of the Multiverse” and have second thoughts about his choices. Then again, you gotta pay the bills.
“Doctor Strange and the Madness of the Multiverse” opens at multiple theaters in Austin and elsewhere on May 6.