If "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness" could live up to its own hype it would be magic indeed.    Well, almost....

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
Director: Sam Raimi
Writer: Michael Waldron
Score: Danny Elfman PG-13
Running length: 2hrs 6 minutes
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen, Chiwetal Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, Xochitl Gomez

 *no real spoilers are contained in this review - certain scenes are referenced that do not affect storylines in a significant way. The last couple of lines do contain clues about a couple of cameos*

“Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” is about as convoluted as the title is unwieldly - which is not to say it’s a bad film. To the contrary, DSITMOM (which I’ll reduce the title to, for the sake of brevity) is an engaging, entertaining, energetic leap into different possible universes full of heroes, villains, heroes that become villains, heroes that are variations of heroes... well, you get the idea - there’s a lot to follow here, so don’t leave your seat for a bathroom break if you can help it. 

Disclaimer: I’m a long-time Marvel fan. First, a fan and collector of the great classic comics - then more recently, a fan of the decade of wonderful films that culminated with the still-powerful “Endgame.” The MCU has almost miraculously brought to the movie screen all of the magic of those great early Marvel comics, with the humor, personal problems, cosmic scope, gritty street sense and real-life locations that set them apart from the Distinguished Competition. The aforementioned “Endgame” seemed to be the crest of the wave, but great films continued and there was wave number two, cresting with the stunning “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” which delivered on all counts. If Doctor Strange could similarly live up to its own hype it would be magic indeed. Well, almost.... 

So why did I walk away from DSITMOM feeling like the aftermath of the stereotypical Chinese take-out: satisfied but feeling slightly empty? Certainly, the acting - especially by Benedict Cumberbatch and Elizabeth Olsen - was wonderful and the directing by Sam Raimi was crisp and skillful, delivering the action of a super hero film and the shock and suspense of a horror film (this has often been referred to as Marvel’s first horror film). For me, it boiled down to a few basic problems. 

When you begin to entertain the idea of many different levels of reality you also introduce the idea of expendable characters. You’ve got to play that game very carefully or you lose the humanity of the players, which has always been a hallmark of MCU films. Stephen Strange is a very human, very flawed character, which is a big part of his appeal. “Are you happy?” is the question he’s asked several times throughout the film and maybe we’re not quite sure - but that’s okay, because it’s a fundamental question of life. But are you, the viewer happy with Strange’s journey? Certainly, we saw the story arc of Tony Stark end up in a fulfilling, if tragic, place, but Stephan still seems to be in the middle of his journey without having made a great deal of progress. 

The second problem is that we’re asked to care about new characters that we have never been introduced to. America Chavez is literally there in the opening scene of the film but we know nothing about her and have no real emotional connection to the character to make us care about her. The performance by Xochitl Gomez was fine but she was, to the casual filmgoer at least, an unknown quantity in distress. Eventually we’re introduced to a whole team of characters (the Illuminati) that contain some familiar faces as well as some very welcome new faces - but once again, they’re suddenly a part of the story with little or no hints as to why

The third problem I had was some of the choices made by Raimi and the scriptwriters. Why did they pretty much leave out the Astral Plane aspect of Dr. Strange which was used to such excellent effect in the first film? A lot of the exotic dimension hopping would have been more effective if the good doctor was fighting in the astral plane while his physical body was in danger in the solid world. It would have added to the tension and would have made odd sequences like the ‘musical note battle’ easier to accept. Raimi might want to be more careful about sequences involving music (“Spider-Man 3” *cough-cough*). 

Maybe a more underlying issue is the scope of the story. We’re talking multiple universes here. Despite his role in the epic “Engame” film, Dr. Strange works best in the dark, funky environs of his Greenwich Village sanctum sanctorum - a master of the mystic arts, battling unseen forces one universe at a time. The adventure is simply too BIG for a character who works best alone. Yes, he was pivotal to “Endgame” and “Spiderman No Way Home,” but he was a ‘guest’ character or part of a team in those films. This is a Dr. Strange film but feels more like a superhero action movie. 

It sounds like a lot of criticism, but the truth is, DSITMOM is a fun, intriguing film, but without the gravitas of its recent predecessors. Danny Elfman’s score is typically wonderful. Some of the CGI is a little wonky - but maybe big-eye octopus monsters will never not look wonky. What it all boils down to for me is that the winning MCU formula of balancing action and heart tipped more to the action side of the scale, and that’s too bad. Stephen Strange is a character straddling the line of the scientific world and the unseen world and it’s to be tread carefully - not wearing sneakers. I suppose these flaws stand out in contrast to a really strong performance by Elizabeth Olson as The Scarlet Witch who, pretty much the villain of the piece, almost steals the movie. Cumberbatch as always, is great as is the entire supporting cast - especially Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, and Rachel McAdams. For me, Xochitl Gomez has potential but didn’t have a fair chance to show real acting chops.

Oh, and the cameos....? Well I’m not talking. But they were eXcellent and pretty fantastic, mister. But I’m not talking...

- Bert Saraco