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 Northman”

One of the most uncanny aspects of the “Assassin’s Creed” series of history-themed video games, at least in recent years, is how profoundly familiar they make the past. Characters—from Viking princes to Athenian philosophers—routinely come off as modern men and women playing dress-up, displaying a smug contempt for traditional religiosity and a (historically anomalous) commitment to gender parity. And what gets lost in translation is the genuine strangeness of historical civilizations long gone, the possibility of glimpsing an altogether alien way of “Being-in-the-world” that possesses its own distinctive rationality.

Robert Eggers’s brutal, brilliant film “The Northman” does not suffer from this vice. It is the most thoroughgoing vision of pagan civilization I’ve ever seen onscreen, a glimpse back in time to the glories and horrors of an uncompromising social order.

Based on the old folktale that inspired Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” “The Northman” follows Scandinavian prince Amleth (a musclebound Alexander Skarsgård) and his quest for revenge against his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang), who murdered Amleth’s father and stole his queen (a delightfully venomous Nicole Kidman). Along the way Amleth falls in with the beautiful Slavic sorceress Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), who helps him lay the groundwork for his vengeance, and finds himself visited in visions by witches and gods and Valkyries. It’s a familiar story—everyone knows from the start where this tale is going to end up—but in Eggers’s capable hands, it becomes something writhing and incandescent and alive.

Eggers’s previous films—“The Witch” and “The Lighthouse”—were both characterized by their totalizing commitment to worldbuilding: “The Witch” depicted the metaphysically “enchanted” world of Puritan New England in unsettling detail, while “The Lighthouse” stressed the eeriness and danger of the sea. Altogether absent was any sense of ironic detachment or modern self-awareness. And this is precisely the element that makes “The Northman” so cinematically compelling: its utter unwillingness to “break worldview” and sand off the rough edges of its pagan sensibility.

Even if they don’t go as far as the “Assassin’s Creed” titles in modernizing their characters, most historical dramas (past and present) have a strong tendency to retroactively “Christianize” stories set in classical times. By this, I mean that they tend to feature heroes that exemplify what even today’s secular age still considers to be virtues: self-examination, compassion for the weak, and so on. And of course, the theme of escaping fate through free will is all over modern cinema of all genres.

None of this anachronism leaks into “The Northman”: Amleth is a kind of “hero” within the context of his culture, but he is not one whose morality maps onto ours. While he doesn’t participate directly, he is comfortable standing idly by while conquered villagers are burned to death in a flaming longhouse, and he is willing to kill women and children who happen to attack him. He seems to have virtually no inner life worth reflecting on, and he experiences every moment of life as structured by the unavoidable hand of fate.

Is this jarring? Of course it is. But this is also history in its unadulterated form, a history that exposes the contingency of the civic values we so often take for granted. It doesn’t sit easy because it shouldn’t sit easy. Indeed, I came away from “The Northman” struck anew by the radicalism of the Christian claim that every human life has intrinsic value: it’s one thing to read about the savagery of societies lacking such a principle, but quite another to see it depicted onscreen.

And of course, in the midst of this darkness “The Northman” is also a grimly exhilarating experience, from its blood-soaked battlefields and bouts with undead warriors in hidden tombs to its final showstopping duel. In less capable hands, some of the film’s most memorable moments—like Amleth and his fellow warriors howling like wolves to pump themselves up into a berserker rage before battle—might’ve come off as pure camp, but with Eggers behind the camera, they’re electrifying. When “The Northman” kicks into high gear, it feels like a testosterone shot straight to the chest.

There’s a lot more I could say, particularly about the amazing cinematography that suffuses this film—from stormy seas to lava-spewing craters—but words really don’t do it justice. This is a movie that demands to be experienced on the biggest screen possible, with the loudest sound system. Perhaps “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse” didn’t strike your fancy (maybe they were too weird, or too slow-burning) but “The Northman” is far zippier and far more accessible. 

At the end of the day, “The Northman” is quite simply the best swords-and-sandals flick since “Gladiator.” Highly recommended.

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Posted by on April 24, 2022 in Historical

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