Let’s be clear from the outset – Marvel makes really great, utterly immersive films for the most part.
It helps, of course, that they have compelling characters and fantastical premises; but then so does D.C. and they have yet to consistently turn their characters into movies that enthrall and help audiences escape into other realms and times.
Marvel mostly have their escapist awesomeness down pat, but while their films are always worth watching, not all of them stand out in your mind after the credits have finished rolling; Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, however, most definitely does by dint of the fact that it is fantastically, brilliantly imaginative, possessed (quite literally as it turns out) of a raw, aching humanity that underpins a mad romp through the multiverse which, unsurprisingly seems to be the flavour of the cinematic month (Marvel’s latest blockbuster is currently sharing space in cinemas with Everything Everywhere Al At Once which is its own stunningly original approach to the idea of infinite realities sitting cheek-by-jowl with our own).
We have it must be said been around the multiverse a great many times in the recent past but there’s something startlingly new and different about the way in which Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness approaches the idea that we have doppelgängers in other realities, some reasonably similar, some most certainly not, but all of them carrying with the tantalising possibility of new and very different lives.
Or simply the beguiling prospect of reclaiming an old, lost and very much mourned one.
Either way, the idea that you can peel back the layers between worlds, or open a metaphysical door of sorts is an immensely appealing one, and as such, it becomes a fast-moving but still wholly emotionally resonant driver for a narrative which is endlessly pedal to the metal but still capable of ruminative, deeply affecting moments that grant its action-oriented storyline real weight and poignancy.
Wasting no time at all in a film that runs for a reasonably economical 126 minutes – most modern blockbusters seem happy to race way beyond that and not always to good effect – Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness opens with a breathtakingly intense scene in which a man-bunned Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is in full flight in a mystical place between space and time with a young woman, later revealed to be multiverse-jumper America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), from a whirling angry whorl of flames demon whose intent on stopping its fragment-hopping human prey from getting to a mystical glowing book atop one of many floating fragments of building.
Things do not quite end up as planned and Strange wakes in his bed, convinced he has had the multiverse mother of all dreams, one which he quickly leaves behind to attend the wedding of his lost love, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) whom he regretfully priotised below saving the New York Sanctum in the finale of 2016’s Doctor Strange film.
Standing in stark contrast to the ferocious intensity of the opening scene, the wedding is a chance for some close for both Christine and Stephen to find some sort of closure while highlighting that Strange will never get over letting Christine go.
This is important because it is one of the two big authentically human underpinnings of a film which draws much of its emotional impact, something superhero films don’t always have in spades, from the fact while Strange has an impressive ability to move worlds and shape realities as a sorcerer of great power – he is however not the Sorcerer Supreme, that honour falling to Wong (Benedict Wong) who presides over Kamar-Taj, the home of the Masters of the Mystic Arts – his personal life is closed off and manifestly broken.
He, and his amusingly personality-rich sentient cloak can reshape anything they touch, but it cannot heal his heart or make his relationships with people as rich and warm as he’d like them to be.
Much of the emotional richness of the film comes from the way in which Strange, in contrast to his counterparts across various realities, is able to find some peace with Christine (not his Christine but close enough), build a bond with America that alters both their lives, and deal with some severe lingering issues that Wanda Maximoff aka the Scarlet Witch has from her experiences in WandaVision (to give any more away about Wanda would be to venture far too deep into spoiler territory but suffice to say that she is not fully healed after the loss of her family and this causes big problems for Strange and the multiverse as a whole).
Emotional impact aside, and it is considerable in a way you may be used to from superhero films, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a blisteringly clever story that makes the absolute most of its wild and out-there premise.
At one point, Strange and Chavez, who is struggling to come to terms with her power and needs some serious mentoring stat, are sent tumbling through reality after reality, all of which are quickly but fulsomely realised as we see Earths in which everyone is made of paint, or rendered as 2D cartoons or where you walk on red lights, not greens or where New York City is verdantly dressed up in plants that bring its urban landscape richly and lushly alive.
It’s a short but well executed sequence that underscores not only how varied realities can be but also how little understanding Chavez or Strange have of the endless possibilities of the multiverse.
One thing it also does is give us an idea of its gargantuan scale, so vast in fact that Wanda observes at one point that for every problem, somewhere there is an answer, a prescient observation that comes loaded with some very dark and troubling future intent, and which underscores how great the task is for Strange to save the multiverse where good and evil, protagonist and antagonist aren’t often in the same reality.
Realities, by the way, that, thanks to director Sam Raimi, and masterful screenwriter Michael Waldron, are scored heavily with distinctly unsettling but thrilling horror elements which work brilliantly in a story where up is down, hope is despair and death is not always the end of things.
These dark, often occultic elements find a natural home in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness which even in the 2016 predecessor hinted that the world, or worlds, that Strange inhabit have the potential to become scarily different to the flesh and blood reality we all know and occasionally love.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness runs with these elements and host of other gobsmackingly immersive narrative ticks and blindingly good leaps of imagination, all of which land exactly as intended, yielding a film that makes the absolute most of its premise, while keeping some very broken humanity at its beating core, giving us not simply one of the most brazenly good and emotionally impactful films of the year but of the entire Marvel canon, confirming the current phase of films as likely the best of an already impressive bunch of superheroic movies.