It’s a shame for Doctor Strange 2 (aka Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, directed by Sam Raimi) that it’s opening while Everything Everywhere All At Once is still in theaters. Perhaps never before have we had such a stark illustration of the difference between what happens when a filmmaker-driven movie plays with an idea vs. what happens when a massive IP-driven corporate entity-produced franchise movie plays with that same idea.
The idea, in both cases, is the multiverse; the idea that the universe consists not just of our present, visible reality, but infinite, slightly distinct realities running in parallel. What might happen when a character or characters travel between those parallel dimensions through a plot conceit? (Shoutout to Sliders for doing this concept all the way back in the mid-90s, right down to a “green light means stop” gag that Doctor Strange 2 steals).
Released within weeks of each other (depending on where in the world you live) Doctor Strange 2 and Everything Everywhere are playing with that same idea, such that it’s almost impossible not to compare the two. And it’s a comparison that at every level isn’t especially kind to Doctor Strange 2. It’s not for lack of talent or ambition that Doctor Strange 2 comes up short, it’s more that its basic structure prevents it from being able to have fun with the subject matter in the same way. It’s a bit like watching two daredevils shred the same waves, only one is riding a jetski and the other is driving an oil tanker.
While Everything Everywhere can bank off lips and attempt wild moves (even a few that aren’t entirely successful, like the hot dog fingers) Doctor Strange 2 has to carry along with it millions of tons of crude IP, the decomposed fossils of 27 other movies and however many TV shows currently make up the “MCU” — which is so meticulously planned and outlined that Wikipedia can tell you that Doctor Strange 2 is part of “Phase 4.” When the commercial imperative is to try to maintain as much IP as possible, things like story and conflict tend to take a backseat (at least until the time that Disney can “own” a plot).
Doctor Strange begins (boldly, I can acknowledge) with a massive setpiece set in some CGI purgatory (think Dalí meets Escher meets a 90s screensaver) where Doctor Strange, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, is using his vaguely-defined powers of telekinesis (mind bullets! hand bullets! force fields!) to try to protect a teen girl in a denim jacket from a massive squid-like creature with a giant eyeball. They jump from floating platform to floating platform like Super Mario Bros, trying to reach some kind of magical glowing book. The squid wants the girl’s powers, and to keep the evil squid from getting them, Doctor Strange tries to suck her powers out of her body to use them himself, which is apparently another superpower he has (so strange!).
“But that will kill me!” she screams.
“I know, but in the larger calculus of the multiverse, this sacrifice will be…” and so forth.
Doctor Strange wakes up in a cold sweat. He later learns that the girl in the denim jacket is America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a teen who pointedly has two lesbian moms (“mis madres!”) — I say pointedly because there’s little else we ever learn about her — and can travel between dimensions. The opening scene Strange thought was a dream was actually another him from a different dimension, which is what dreams actually are.
It seems that Wanda, aka The Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), whose kids are apparently dead (maybe this happened in Wandavision? I’ve only seen the 27 other MCU films but not the MCU television shows so I’m unclear on whether I missed something here), has been sending squid demons (which is a power I guess she has) after America Chavez. The Scarlet Witch wants to steal America Chavez’s dimension-swapping powers (stealing powers being a power I guess The Scarlet Witch has) in order to get to a different dimension where Wanda’s kids are still alive. At which point I guess she will kill the Wanda of that reality and assume her life and live happily ever after with her two young boys. Which is, uh, bad, I guess.
Aside from all that window dressing, the main conflicts of Doctor Strange 2 are whether the hero, Doctor Strange is an asshole (he must grapple with the fact that Bizarro Strange was willing to kill a teen girl) and whether he’ll get the girl — in the form of a fellow doctor, Christine Palmer, played by Rachel McAdams. In the main universe, she was Strange’s on-again-off-again lady friend, who apparently moved on during the five years Strange spent turned to dust by Thanos (I’m so tired).
Both motives and methods exist as only the vaguest sketches in Doctor Strange 2. The beauty of Everything Everywhere, and it wasn’t exactly reinventing the wheel by doing so (though it did so deftly), was to ground the metaphor of the multiverse in one, recognizable human relationship — one first generation immigrant’s fraught relationship with her struggling mother. Both movies have a same sex romance angle and POC heroines, but only in Everything Everywhere does it not feel like a corporate-mandated diversity initiative, because it isn’t.
Doctor Strange 2 lacks any human scale, or really even any human frame; no sense of “who is telling me this and why.” So it ends up being mostly just metaphors piled on metaphors, conceits designed to justify other conceits, leaving the audience nothing to hold onto beyond the general idea of “scale.” And it is, to be fair, impressively “large,” and especially loud, though that could’ve just been the IMAX screen I saw it on.
Who is America Chavez? Who does she care about and what does she want? There aren’t any human-level answers to any of these questions, only plot conceits (She’s a girl who can jump universes! She wants to get back to her moms!) mixed with totems of progress that might look good in a press release (Lesbian moms! A feisty Latina heroine!).
No one involved in these movies seems empowered to make artistic choices based on inspiration or personal preference (too big and too important is the IP, with too many people involved), so all that’s left is to achieve self-created benchmarks of “representation” — increasingly the only form of artistic criticism that holds any sway anymore. And even those benchmarks are getting hopelessly watered down with qualifiers (we already had gay superheroes in Eternals, not to mention straight ones having face-to-face missionary sex).
To put it bluntly, when no one is empowered to make artistic decisions, you get shit art. It’s an oil tanker adrift, hoping some current of the zeitgeist will push it somewhere interesting. Which is especially a bummer coming from great artists like Sam Raimi, who happens to be one of my favorite directors. He made my all-time favorite superhero movie. Hell, I even liked Oz, The Great And Powerful.
In Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness, Raimi seems to only be granted occasional cubes of autonomy, within which to shoot charmingly out-there set pieces with a characteristically bombastic score, and periodically remind us that he’s the guy who made Drag Me To Hell and Army Of Darkness. Yet the connections are more literal than spiritual, more a branding device than a reflection of personality. This Malibu Stacy has a Sam Raimi! Increasingly, Marvel characters are the Apes and the directors are just the Slurp Juice.
I hope Doctor Strange 2 makes however much money it takes for Sam Raimi to be allowed to make more Sam Raimi movies. This one feels uninspired and uninspiring, almost from the first minutes. The only level on which it seems capable of relating to us is on the level of recognition, and while I vaguely enjoy the sensation of remembering Drag Me To Hell, I must’ve missed whatever Wandavision or Moon Knight episode that would’ve make me care about Doctor Strange or Wanda or America Chavez.
‘Everything Everywhere All At Once’ is playing select theaters nationwide. ‘Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness’ hits theaters everywhere Friday May 6th. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. More reviews here.