Marvel’s new superhero film experiments with the macabre, even though the ambition is to churn out a summer blockbuster and little else
The new adventure of Doctor Strange comes across as sombre and spectacular at the same time, a mix that makes for strange movie madness indeed. It’s the film that happens when Marvel extravaganza gets a twist of vintage Sam Raimi horror. MCU’s most bizarre effort yet is a celebration of chaos, busy enough to keep hardcore fans happy and yet frenzied in a way it could leave the uninitiated confused.
Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Stephen Strange accidentally altered the course of life within the fictional realm of Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) with his spell to rejig reality for Peter Parker in Spider-Man: No Way Home. No other comicbook character in recent times — except perhaps the mega villain Thanos who wiped out half the planet — has so massively opened up the scope to explore ‘What If’ options with a single stroke of action.
For Marvel, the commercial lure of this cinematic turn of events was all too evident. The studio bosses were never really going to let go of the momentous incident as a one-off occurrence meant to trigger the union of three Spider-Mans plus their villains in one film. So, if Spider-Man: No Way Home initiated multiverse madness on the big screen, the Doctor Strange sequel tries taking it to the next level with ghoulish chills and greater complexity.
In Marvel’s parallel universes of superheroes, almost every new film nowadays follows up every other recent release. The challenge for director Sam Raimi, therefore, was not just to continue the brilliant 2016 original, Doctor Strange, but also maintain the tempo of Avengers: Endgame and Spider-Man: No Way Home, since all that happens in the new Doctor Strange film bears direct or indirect connection with these films. As universes started crossing over, we have also seen how affiliated shows featuring Loki and Wanda Maximoff were affected. Without giving away spoilers, the multiverse as a concept facilitates exciting cameos, and smart cross-referencing continues a larger Marvel storyline that is unfolding right now across associated film franchises and shows.
The possibilities that such plot permutations might throw up could have been infinite, but that clearly isn’t the priority here. The ambition is to churn out the latest summer blockbuster and little else. To that effect, if comicbook cinema is meant to celebrate fantasy, the idea behind this film was always to entertain with a larger-than-life absurdity that leaves you mesmerised.
Raimi and Waldron were clearly having fun imagining the weird adventures that the multiverse throws open for Strange. The outcome, however, is often over the top. There is a subtext of human emotions, too, with love, loss and lament being at play as Strange realises his past folly: Had it not been for his pomposity, he’d have never lost Christine in the first place.
The narrative utilises the multiverse to dissect notions of good and evil, since the various versions of the same characters across universes are morally and psychologically different from one another. The triumph of characterisation has to be Olsen’s Wanda Maximoff. The actress aces as the sorceress once again after last year’s series, WandaVision. Here, she is effective while bringing alive the essence of a character that is at the same time a terrifying antihero and a tragic superhero.
Cumberbatch looks charming as ever, goatee and white sidelocks stylishly in place. Apart from the multiverse advantage that lets him play out shades of good, bad and the ugly, Stephen Strange gets a dash of mush thanks to his subplot involving Christine. The actor juggles well all these aspects of his role and more, and the film keeps us invested in Doctor Strange’s character till the very end — don’t miss the post-credit surprise.
This, though, was always Sam Raimi’s film more than the stars in the cast. The filmmaker maintains a tight grip on a narrative that could have easily spiralled out of control, amping the horror quotient gradually even as he lets his audience soak in the superhero vibes. Fans would love the signature Raimi jump scares, although this time he is more eager to craft a commercial blockbuster. At a time comicbook cinema faces the threat of overkill, the Hollywood ace has given Marvel fantasy a fresh spin with trademark irreverence in storytelling.
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