Not quite horror, not quite magic, welcome to Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Meh-ness

I still remember the elation, the buzz I felt after leaving the theater after watching Avengers: Endgame. It wasn’t just the conclusion. Nor the cheers of the crowd at times that have become memes on TikTok. But also marveled (sorry) at how the film referenced the decade of films that preceded it, managing to weave all of those tangents into a satisfying whole.

I have been chasing this top ever since.

And so, it seems, the wizards of content creation at Marvel Studios.

While Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is packed with moments of cosmic calamity, what’s most evident is the effort to pull all the threads together and spark events that could define the next decade in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

So, while I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers, let me say this: this is not a movie for newbies. It refers to the events of Infinity War, WandaVision and a few lesser-known Marvel shows. So if you haven’t done your homework, go watch the movie with someone who does.

We start briskly in the middle of a battle, Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange – with his Grandfather Munster hairstyle – fight a nameless beast. As Strange cast protective and defensive spells, the mystical combat just didn’t seem all that spectacular. I was wondering, is it me? Has the pandemic robbed me of my ability to enjoy otherworldly action?

But I had none of those scruples a few months ago when I let myself be carried away by the charms of Spider-Man: No Coming Home, another adventure filled with alternate universes and surprising characters.

While it’s clear that director Jon Watts had a plan for Peter Parker all along, the problem here is Doctor Strange himself – a powerful character inhabited by a wonderful actor mightily trying to make a meal out of an underdeveloped arch.

It’s no easy task playing a witch with the power to convincingly warp reality, but Elizabeth Olsen delivers a grounded performance pulsating with real pain and rage. (Jay Maidment)

While the first strange doctor the film was not perfect, the bones were there. Stephen Strange was a selfish ass of a surgeon who needed to learn a little humility before he could become the master of the mystical arts. Cumberbatch and his clam chowder accent was fun, as was the mentor/student relationship between him and Tilda Swinton as an Elder.

But now that Thanos is in ashes, the good Doctor is battling a case of the blues. It’s not the state of the multiverse that makes him moody, but rather the marriage of his former love, Christine (played by Canadian Rachel McAdams).

But before Strange gets too dejected, a young woman named America Chavez arrives – with her power to open star-shaped portals to parallel worlds. Soon, Strange is hopscotching the realms to stop a malevolent presence from stealing Chavez’s power and scrambling the universe.

Xochitl Gomez, right, is a new entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, appearing as America Chavez, a girl who has the ability to travel between worlds. (Jay Maidment)

While the specter of the very fabric of reality cracking has become commonplace for Marvel fans, the addition of director Sam Raimi adds a new flavor to the concept. Known for his string of Spider-Man films in the mid-2000s, Raimi has firmly established himself as a director with a signature style in titles like evil Dead and army of darkness. Filled with guts, violence and sight gags, a Raimi movie meant a bloody good time

Much has been made of the Doctor Strange sequel as the MCU’s first horror movie, but that’s just the veneer of horror. Filled with dark shadows, blood spatter and undead, it’s Disney’s Haunted Mansion horror – a fun ride without real moments of terror.

Benedict Wong, as Wong’s character, spends much of the film playing second fiddle to Doctor Strange, though thanks to the events of “The Blip” he is now the Sorcerer Supreme. (Marvel Studios)

While a few of the kills might shock a 10-year-old, the gleeful excesses that mark many Raimi films are handcuffed by the family-friendly PG rating. Still, there are some fun moments, like the obligatory Bruce Campbell cameo and a bizarre but fun musical note battle that sounds like something out of Disney. Fancy.

The actor who gets the most out of the horror approach isn’t Cumberbatch but Elizabeth Olsen. Whether dripping with blood or simmering with rage, Olsen bases her performance as the Scarlet Witch on a mother’s anguish. Her eyes glow red, but they radiate the trauma of what she’s lost. The challenge with a movie filled with these mind-bending concepts is that the character’s story has to be grounded in something real. For the Scarlet Witch, that’s what she lost – the life she feels robbed of.

All Strange has is an old flame that got away.

America Chavez, Wong, and Doctor Strange must save the multiverse from (yet another) potential collapse. (Marvel Studios)

And the rest of the cast has even less work to do. Wong, now the true Sorcerer Supreme, still plays second fiddle to Strange and exists primarily as an exposition delivery device. Then there is the highly anticipated arrival of America Chávezthe teen in the denim jacket who becomes the literal MacGuffin much of the story revolves around. In the comics, America is a lesbian superhero with character; here she is reduced to a damsel in distress being dragged from place to place. While queer fans have applauded the LGBTQ character’s inclusion, once again Marvel is doing the bare minimum, reconnect Chavez as a young teenager with two moms but still finding herself.

Luckily for us, around the middle, Strange shakes off his magical boredom and regains his mojo. Spells are cast, enemies are fought, and yes, some new additions hinted at in the trailers will bring cheers of recognition. In the end, there are pieces in place that could dictate radical new directions for the MCU.

As for Strange himself? He remains a tertiary character, ideal for adding mystical punch but remains a secondary player in his own story.