Category Archives: Fantasy

Movie Review: “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness”

I may be alone in this opinion, but I’ve always thought that Scott Derrickson’s “Doctor Strange” was one of the strongest entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That film juxtaposed mind-bending, “Inception”-influenced visuals with an unusually reflective story about the deflation of an arrogant surgeon’s God complex. And since then, Strange has taken on a sort of supervisory or parental role in the Marvel storytelling canon, without any solo film appearances since 2016

“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness”—a sequel which marks director Sam Raimi’s return to the superhero genre he helped pioneer—is not, strictly speaking, a good movie. In fact, it’s something of a mess, relying heavily on the assumption that its viewers have internalized not merely every prior MCU film, but also the Disney+ TV spinoffs (if you haven’t seen at least “WandaVision,” you’ll be hopelessly lost). But there’s still enough raw creativity on display that, foibles aside, this is the most I’ve enjoyed a Marvel movie since “Endgame.”

This time around, Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) finds himself fighting to protect the dimension-hopping America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) from monsters and malefactors seeking to steal her power. That includes Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen, vamping it up), who will stop at nothing to find an alternate reality where she can be reunited with her children (last seen in “WandaVision”). Her mother-love is so intense that she’s turned to the Darkhold, a book of sorcerous incantations that—while inevitably corruptive to the user—allows a person to possess their own doppelgänger in another universe.

A series of bruising confrontations with the Witch sends Strange and America hurtling across dimensions and timelines, where Strange glimpses “the roads not taken” in his own life. But this isn’t a film that has much time for meditative reflection: far more pressing are battles between the Darkhold-wielding Wanda and a veritable gallery of “alternate” versions of MCU heroes (longtime fans will be delighted by the number and range of cameos here). It all culminates in a CGI-drenched showdown that—if expected by this point—is at least visually inventive.

Hemingway, this is not. But despite the familiar story beats, “Multiverse of Madness” has enough of a bite that it’s worth a watch, mostly because of themes that it teases without developing.

Strange’s perspective on the cosmos, as someone with an eye on the vast range of metaphysical possibilities both realized and unrealized, is unique among the Avengers and their allies. His moral reasoning is accordingly carried out against a far larger backdrop than anyone else’s, so much so that he can almost be said to be an incarnation of “effective altruism” (the utilitarian philosophy of humanitarian aid that seeks to maximize the lifesaving impact of every dollar given. Close personal friend is in danger? If saving them would mean a less “effective” use of resources in the aggregate, tough luck. What matters most is the greater good).

A crucial danger latent in such thinking, of course, is the implicit assumption of omniscience: how sure can we ever be that actions taken in the name of the “greater good” actually redound to that end? Wouldn’t such a perfect decider need to be a kind of god? And indeed, that is precisely Strange’s ever-present moral temptation—to act in the service of what he takes to be a “higher” morality, uncluttered by such things as human attachments. (One of the cleverest little allusions to this sense of divine self-importance shows up early one, as Strange flirtatiously changes water into wine at a wedding. I can only imagine how many people missed the reference.) If “Multiverse of Madness” is any indication, Strange’s inflated ego is going to lead to severe consequences down the line.

Another interesting angle—hinted at, though never explored—is the notion of moral meaningfulness within a multiverse. This Marvel cosmos doesn’t quite seem to be a David Lewis-esque “domain in which all possible worlds are actual”—the existence of interdimensional entities and a “space between” dimensions would seem to rule that out—so it would seem that those universes which exist do so for a particular reason, and that individual souls have a kind of transworld identity of essence that allows them to be possessed from afar. The Marvel world, in short, is clearly operating under a distinct set of metaphysical constraints that are beginning to come into focus, albeit obliquely. And it is those constraints that provide the necessary conditions for any characters’ actions to genuinely matter.

Raimi, of course, is more interested in showing off cool zombies and the souls of the damned than in the possibilities of modal quantification within the MCU (don’t bring the small children, for what it’s worth; this one gets pretty grim). But I’ll maintain nonetheless that the Doctor Strange character has more storytelling possibilities—and more thought-provoking ones—than anything in the, say, Ant-Man playbook. 

In any event, “Multiverse of Madness” may be uneven, but it’s never, ever boring. A little more nuance would’ve been nice, but I have to say: those ghouls and telekinetic battles are still pretty cool. I’ll be back for more.

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Posted by on May 9, 2022 in Fantasy


Movie Review: “The Green Knight”

As a longtime appreciator of Arthurian lore, I’ve contemplated more than once the challenges facing anyone who would try their hand at adaptation. An artist or filmmaker must attempt to hold together not one, but two, dialectical pairs: the tension between paganism and Christianity, and the transition from the Roman to the medieval age. Failure to strike the proper aesthetic balance inevitably leads to an unsatisfying result. (Just think of Guy Ritchie’s catastrophic “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.”)

David Lowery’s eerie, slow-burning “The Green Knight” delivers on this unified vision. No doubt this take on the classic tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight won’t be to all viewers’ taste, but those willing to fall under Lowery’s spell will find themselves drawn into a mesmerizing world that—to its tremendous credit—never attempts to demythologize or seriously subvert its subject matter.

Readers familiar with the original poem—perhaps most memorably translated by J.R.R. Tolkien—will find all the standard story beats present here. Young Sir Gawain (Dev Patel), while feasting with the Knights of the Round Table on Christmas Day, is abruptly confronted by an inhuman Green Knight, who challenges him to a game: deliver a single blow, and then travel to the Green Knight’s abode a year leader to be repaid in kind, as a gesture of reciprocity. The arrogant Gawain promptly beheads the stranger, only to learn too late that the Knight cannot be so defeated. Laughing all the while, the mighty creature departs, reminding Gawain before leaving that he must present himself the next Christmas to receive the same stroke delivered back to him. Gawain’s days, in short, are numbered.

Honor prevails: Gawain leaves the arms of his lover Essel (Alicia Vikander) and sets out on a quest across England’s fog-shrouded moors, confronting bandits and saints and giants in the process. At the end of his journey lies the Green Chapel where his fate will be decided—along with an enigmatic husband and wife who seem strangely familiar.

(Mild spoilers for the movie ahead, though these don’t really count if you’ve read the poem.)

Lowery’s last film, the sad little metaphysical romantic drama “A Ghost Story” (sorry for the four adjectives, but they’re all apposite) concluded with an extended flash-forward, drawing on the motif of the “eternal return” to demonstrate that, after an infinite span of time, all events inevitably repeat themselves. Here, Lowery uses a similar technique to express a fundamentally different theme: the possibility of alternative futures, rather than of cosmic repetition. In the instants before the Green Knight’s axe descends on his neck, Lowery’s Gawain imagines all those those things that would happen if he simply fled the chapel and returned home: succeeding Arthur on the throne, consolidating power by pushing aside his loved ones, and finally witnessing the fall of Camelot in a storm of blood and fire. And Gawain, crucially, rejects that path, remaining resolute as the Green Knight towers over him. To live dishonorably is, in short, no proper life at all.

And then the movie ends, moments after the Green Knight rumbles “off with your head.”

Those familiar with the poem know what happens next: the Green Knight turns out to be the lord of the nearby manor, who devised the whole experiment as a test of Gawain’s moral mettle. But Lowery leaves the matter unresolved, ambiguous—a kind of Pascal’s Wager for the knights’ code of chivalry. Gawain’s choice is vindicated not because of its good outcome, but because of its intrinsic virtue.

This is not a stylistic choice that many—even most—viewers will understand or appreciate. (Almost everyone in my theater was completely dumbfounded by this conclusion, and I heard a lot of grumbling on the way out.) And yet it brings to the surface an essential truth of life: all of us, at least on the level of the immanent, must make moral decisions against a backdrop of profound uncertainty. We do not know in advance what the decisions we make will lead to, or whether we ourselves will survive the process—but part of being a moral agent as such is the need to make such choices nevertheless. The narrative structure of medieval romance leads the reader of the poem to presume that all things will ultimately work out, and thereby to impute that awareness to the story’s characters—but “here below” in the real world, and so too in Lowery’s adaptation, the future is experienced as clouded and doubtful.

In so framing Gawain’s tale, Lowery manages to make this old tale “relevant” in a genuinely existential way, tapping into eternal truths rather than drenching his story in biting irony or sociological critique. It is this element, I think, that will make “The Green Knight” endure for years to come, when many other Arthur adaptations are long forgotten. There is a reason this particular legend has persisted over the centuries, through countless social upheavals and ideological revolutions, and Lowery’s film successfully channels that ethos.

Those unwilling to sink deeply into this film’s lush tapestry won’t find much to like here (this is not a film, for instance, that can be watched with one eye on one’s phone)—but more patient viewers will find themselves richly rewarded.

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Posted by on August 3, 2021 in Fantasy

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