Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. M, 126 minutes, 4 stars
Just like there are Pepsi people and there are Coke people, in nerd world there are DC Comics people and there are Marvel Comics people.
Both have had their fair share of attention in cinemas over the past decade or two. There have been about a thousand reboots of Batman films for DC Comics fans, Robert Pattinson's version being the most recent and shall I say best? But Marvel certainly seems to have had a very long lucky streak in producing a series of films, and more recently television, that mine their decades of comic book lines for some brilliant long-form storytelling.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is the 28th film in a successful series that started with the 2008 film Iron Man, and continues narratively on from the recent Spider-Man: No Way Home.
The concept of the multiverse, an endless series of alternate universes, has been the narrative driver for a handful of recent Marvel titles, and also, completely unrelated, the brilliant Michelle Yeoh comedy Everything Everywhere All At Once also now playing in cinemas.
While Benedict Cumberbatch's neurosurgeon turned Asian martial arts practitioner and wizard Doctor Strange helped save the universe in a handful of recent Marvel films, he has lately been plot device and comic relief as three alternate universe version of Spider-Man (Tom Holland, Andrew Garfield, Toby Maguire) fought alternate universe versions of fan-favourite villains.
In this film, Strange is like a returned combat veteran, trying to adjust to some form of normal life post intergalactic conflict. He is padding aimlessly about his New York mansion, and he is even making an effort for the girl he left behind (Rachel McAdams as Dr Christine Palmer), dressing up to attend her wedding to another bloke.
But trouble comes looking for Strange when a giant octopus-like thing starts tearing New York apart, apparently trying to kill a teenage girl (Xochitl Gomez as America Chavez). Strange intervenes to save the girl, realising he has dreamed about this girl before. Like many of his friends, it turns out she has super powers - hers allow her to move back and forth across the multiple universes and a series of nefarious forces seem to be after the girl to take that power for themselves. To help keep the girl safe, Strange approaches another of his Avenger friends, Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen).
One of the better things about making the effort to see a Marvel film in the cinema is getting to enjoy the vocal overreactions of the Marvel nerds. The internet has been pregnant with rumours about which Hollywood stars might cameo in alternate-universe versions of known Marvel characters and at one point my screening audience absolutely screamed with excitement.
While the film is named for Cumberbatch's character, it belongs to Olsen. WandaVision was inspired television and this film continues her character's growth exponentially, demonstrating again the sensibility of Marvel harvesting independent cinema for actors like the stage-school trained Olsen with real heft to play these silly costumed superhero roles.
The cinema universe I connect with more than these Marvel films, from my teen years, is Sam Raimi's Evil Dead, and with Raimi behind the camera of this film, the two universes collide. The characters are all after an evil spell book called the Darkhold which is surely the Necronomicon from Raimi's Army of Darkness. To give fans the tantalising sense this might be real, Raimi's favourite actor Bruce Campbell has an extended comedic scene.
As always with his films, Raimi injects a real sense of tongue-in-cheek fun throughout. Some fans might in fact not cope when he has one character address their remarks directly to the camera.
This film has plenty going on, though Michael Waldron's screenplay attempts not to make it too much of a Jackson Pollock splatter painting.
But speaking of painting, in one of the universes Strange and Chavez travel through, they're made of drippy paint, one of the many points of experimentation and surrealism the filmmakers throw at us, and that do manage to make this film franchise still vaguely fresh after 28 episodes over 14 years.
I'm going to suggest a little background viewing for those folk who aren't immersive Marvel superfans to better understand some of the plot threads, particularly the two Marvel TV series, WandaVision and Loki, and a handful of episodes from the Marvel series, What If? All are available on Disney+.
And, as ever, stay through the credits for the usual Marvel contrivance of two post-credit scenes. In my session, I watched the poor usher sigh and scroll through his phone as the entire audience stayed all the way through the credits, when all he wanted to do was pick up everyone's popcorn and go home.
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