Disney’s Dark Hold — Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
A few months ago, I raged at Marvel’s Eternals as the worst film of 2021, and I continue to stand by it. It was overcrowded, utterly without plot, and filled to the brim with eyesore special effects. But the worst offense of all was that the so-called “surprise twist” was that the obvious bad guy served as a metaphor for Disney’s avarice with regards to the MCU as well as its other franchise properties, that we as an audience are little more than hamsters on a wheel in their eyes, existing only to perpetuate their profit machine. The MCU had officially grown too large, to the point that the product controlled the consumer rather than the other way around.
After that horrid exercise in corporate greed, I legitimately wondered if the MCU could recover. Thankfully, Spider-Man: No Way Home offered some hope with a largely light affair that gave us a lot of fan service but also had a slight tinge of something more profound in offering actual consequences for people’s actions for once. The film ended not with the standard Marvel post-credit scene, but with a full-length trailer for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. It was something of a bold choice, as only Captain America: The First Avenger pulled a similar stunt, using its credits scene to give a full trailer for The Avengers, which was the end of Phase One and the culmination of everything that had led up to that point.
So given all these factors, what would that mean for Doctor Strange 2? We ended the first movie with Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo leaving the sorcerer’s order, disillusioned with Strange and The Ancient One’s use of the Dark Dimension to break natural laws in order to solve problems. He even confronted Benjamin Bratt and took away his mystical healing, rendering him a paraplegic once more. Clearly he’s set up to be the antagonist of the next entry. Combine that with the epic degree of marketing for this movie within the previous MCU entry and the lesson that there could be real stakes and responsibility for what these superheroes do (apart from the laughable Sakovia Accords), and the pieces were in place for a truly great outing, one that would represent a massive course correction from the nadir that was Eternals. They even got Sam Raimi to helm the project, his first comic book movie since the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man trilogy, which for all its cheesier moments (Emo Peter’s dance number chief among them) still holds up to a decent degree some 20 years later.
Instead what we got was Disney doubling down on the worst parts of that money-grubbing disaster, resulting in a film that has almost no direction, no point, no logic, and which only avoids the basement of the MCU through what appears to be Raimi’s sheer force of will. The movie delivers nothing of what it promises, going out of its way to make sure the only true “madness” is in the hearts and minds of the audience members capable of thought.
The film starts out with a bit of potential, as a clearly alternate universe version of Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, still as charming and witty as ever, despite clearly inferior material this time out) races through an interdimensional gap with a young woman named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez from Netflix’s Baby-Sitters Club show). America (every time they mention her name it feels like someone’s trying to talk directly to the crowd, and it gets annoying fast) has the ability to jump between universes, but can’t control it (translation: it will work when the script needs it to), and with this version of Strange, they seek a tome called the Book of Vishanti, which will help them vanquish a pursuing demon possessed with dark magic. When this Strange is willing to sacrifice America for the sake of killing the demon, she escapes to our world.
Meanwhile, our Strange is doing what everyone wanted to see after the first movie, attending the wedding of Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams, given slightly more screen time and purpose this go-round), who fell in love with someone else during the Blip. Christine asks Stephen if he’s happy, which is supposed to be some kind of profound through line for the film, but it’s never paid off in any meaningful way other than a cheap moral at the end. However, the festivities are interrupted by the arrival of a different demon — a creature with its one giant eye as the obvious weak spot (sorry, guys, The Suicide Squad beat you to it) — that is attacking a city bus with America on it. Strange recognizes America from what he thought was a dream of the first scene, and together with new Sorcerer Supreme Wong (Benedict Wong), he saves the girl and starts looking for answers.
Okay, so far so good. It’s nothing all that special, and the visual effects in the early going don’t really live up to the wonderment that the first film pulled off, but I’m on board. There are good places this can go. Unfortunately, it’s downhill from here for a considerably long time.
America explains her situation, and adds in the idea that dreams are actually alternate versions of ourselves that we get to see as we sleep, which is how Strange was able to know her, and has no further exploration. After a few groaner jokes about running around in your underwear and a tossed off reference to No Way Home which serves as the extent of any lingering relevance of that hopeful film, she’s taken to Kamar-Taj for protection by Wong, shifting her from being a character with agency to little more than a damsel in distress for 98% of the remainder of the picture, while Strange sets out to find Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), who as the Scarlet Witch also deals in magic and could help them track down the demons.
Now, the trailer heavily implied that this film would be a team-up between Strange and Wanda. I was a bit apprehensive at first, not because I have anything particularly against Wanda, but because these crossovers become tedious after a while (Strange himself JUST DID ONE!), and we just want to have a standalone movie for once. Also, as her biggest character development came through the WandaVision streaming show and not the MCU movies, she feels like too small a player in this grand scheme. She’s like Captain Marvel, in that she’s so powerful she often has to be shunted to the side because she can obliterate almost any threat instantly with her magic, the scope of which is best defined as, “whatever’s convenient to the screenwriter at a given moment.” Pairing her with Strange only seems to double the chances that this will just be a bunch of random spell visuals doing God knows what. Finally, given the amount of focus she got in the trailer, I worried that this would be more of a Wanda movie than a Strange one, in which case, why not just give her a standalone outing of her own? The MCU’s late strategy in response to its history of underserving female characters seems to be to just cram more of them in rather than create good material for them to shine.
So yes, I’ll fully admit I had my doubts, but nothing could have prepared me for what her role actually is in this film. And if you think I’m spoiling things, I don’t care. I’m talking about something that happens not even 20 minutes into the film that essentially drives the entire plot, so it’s impossible to discuss it going forward without divulging this.
Wanda is the villain. This isn’t a team-up, it’s magic Civil War. She was the one sending the demons to track down America in the first place, so that she could steal her powers to jump to different universes, even though doing so would mean America’s death. Her motivation? Well, after a disgustingly sanctimonious grievance speech about her being the enemy when she breaks the rules while Stephen’s a hero, she reveals that she wants to go to a universe where the two sons she made up in her mind during WandaVision, Billy and Tommy (Julian Hilliard and Jett Klyne), are real. Because in her opinion, she’s a rightful mother to these two boys who never existed, and she’s willing to kill America, a complete innocent, and countless others to make it happen.
How many ways can this be a failure? Well, let’s count them off. One, there is no argument here. Strange analyzed millions of possibilities and chose the path with the best possible outcome when it came to Thanos, and sadly, Vision died. Wanda is outright saying genocide is on the table for this purpose. He did the most heroic thing he could do within the realm of possibility, you want to murder for your personal gain. That makes you an enemy.
Second, this is your main baddie in a movie you’re releasing on Mother’s Day weekend? With this as her justification? Talk about tone deaf! Three, Wanda was never a mother, because as is pointed out multiple times, the boys aren’t real, so she’s eager to end actual lives for — at best — hypothetical ones. Four, she’s more in mourning for two people who never existed than for the actual people in her life she lost, like Quicksilver and Vision, which is just fucked up. Five, I didn’t think it was possible to squander all of a character’s goodwill built up over several movies and a streaming show that quickly.
Sixth, this entire premise opens up a bunch of questions that are never answered, which is saying a lot in a film that overflows with exposition. How can the boys be real in another world? Are we implying that Vision — an android — could reproduce with human DNA and father children? Are we saying that in other universes Wanda had kids with someone else, even though they look exactly the same? Is Vision just a human in other universes, and if so, how would he have a connection to Wanda? Are the boys just mental projections in every universe, rendering the whole affair pointless? Or is there something to the magic that’s tricking her? She holds a tome called the Dark Hold, which uses forbidden sorcery to let her “Dream Walk” between dimensions and see these alternate worlds where she lives a happy domestic life with Billy and Tommy. Is this the book showing her what she wants as a means to corrupt her? That might be a half-decent explanation, but we get none. In a movie with enough exposition for the entirety of Phase Four, you couldn’t spare one line of dialogue to have this make any sense?
But the worst thing of all, is that this goes even further down the insult rabbit hole that Eternals did with its villain reveal. I’m sure a lot of Marvel fans also watch the various TV shows that have been a companion to the series canon for the last decade, whether they’re on ABC, Netflix, or Disney+. And if you have, good for you. I hope you enjoyed them. I, however, have not, and I’d wager I am far from fucking alone here. I only watch the films, mostly because I only have so much money and time to devote to anything, but also because I’m this weird sort of guy who thinks the Marvel CINEMATIC Universe should be contained within CINEMA! Words. Have. MEANING!
Disney has just laid waste to that. By creating a scenario where Wanda not only becomes the bad guy, but does so in a way that requires you to have seen WandaVision to understand it, the company has just stated in no uncertain terms that if you don’t pay extra to watch the streamers, then fuck you. There is one brief line in the film that establishes Wanda creating the boys with her mind as a fantasy. That’s it. Otherwise, you have no chance of making heads or tails of any of what follows if you’re not aware of the show. I have friends and roommates who watched it, so I’ve seen clips here and there, and I’ve heard them talk about it, so I’ve asked questions occasionally just out of curiosity, so I probably knew more going in than someone else who hasn’t it, but that honestly didn’t help put together any pieces. My earlier questions about Vision’s ability to actually sire children are ones I asked my roommates last night after I got home from seeing this movie, because I wanted to at least try to make sense of this, but even they informed me that there’s no such scenario. They could be wrong, but I have no reason to doubt them.
In an attempt to subvert expectations by editing an alliance into the trailer, the producers of this movie tried to hide a surprise, but what they ended up doing is neglecting to tell the audience that they had required homework, which is negligent at best and craven at worst. Because the core issue here is again the idea that Disney isn’t selling a commodity, but attempting to turn their audience into that commodity for their own unending greed.
There have been references and Easter Eggs to the shows before. I recall reading somewhere that the opening battle in Age of Ultron is set in motion by something that occurred in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. I didn’t watch the show, so I have no way to confirm or deny this, but I buy it. Still, I didn’t necessarily need to know that, because it’s a kick-ass action scene to open a blockbuster movie. You already have my attention. Even the ultra-lame post-credits scene from Black Widow that was just a thinly-veiled request to go watch the Hawkeye show at least made things optional. These tidbits are rewards to the attentive and committed viewer, inessential to the overall proceedings. They can enhance the experience, certainly, but even with the massive team-ups and crossovers, the story in each movie is still relatively self-contained (save for extended continuity in direct sequels), and there’s no prerequisite to have outside information.
This, however, is the exact opposite. Rather than give a treat to their most loyal fans, Disney is instead actively punishing those who didn’t pony up the dough for Disney+. I can’t think of any other instance where something like this has happened. A series of movies is made, which then spins off some TV shows, and in later movies, if you didn’t pay extra money to watch the TV shows, you are now excluded from vital context and plot details. You are left in the dark while others get to understand what’s going on. Disney is essentially now trying to enslave us to their content, or at minimum hold us financially hostage. For all intents and purposes, they put a paywall in one of their movies, which is just disgusting beyond measure. And to do it in such manipulative fashion is so infuriating. I actually gave Disney a tiny shred of credit yesterday in the May edition of TFINYW, with Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers getting the “Redemption Reel” honors because it looked like for once the House of Mouse was willing to try something new and not just go for the most cynical cash grab imaginable. Then this happened. To make the inciting incident of your film entirely reliant on an unrelated TV show, one that you have to pay extra to see, and without giving the audience any advance warning, is bullshit of the highest order! There is no circle of Hell too good for whoever thought this up.
Okay, rant over, back to the story. With Wanda now fully villainized and bent on mass murder so she can cuddle imaginary boys (why not just meet someone else and fuck them to make actual children?), America’s uncontrolled power launches her and Strange into another universe, where Strange is dead and Mordo is the Sorcerer Supreme. Yup, that’s all three promises for this movie now gone. Instead of being the main antagonist of the film like we’ve been anticipating for the last SIX YEARS, we instead get an alternate Mordo who works for the Illuminati (in one of the film’s dumber moments, Strange hears the name and responds, “Illumi-WHAT-ti?” as if a learned man such as him has never even heard the word before; it’s one thing if he doesn’t know the organization, but he’s clearly heard the word if he’s ever read a book or looked at a social media post from a Q-Anon dipshit). The Illuminati is filled with other alternate Marvel heroes, played by Lashana Lynch, Anson Mount, Hayley Atwell, and John Krasinski. I won’t reveal their characters, but in another bit of forced homework, if you watched What if…?, then you can probably figure them out. Also, Patrick Stewart is here as Charles Xavier (he’s teased in the trailer, so that’s not a spoiler), which I’m sure is the first of many shoehorned efforts to bring the Fox-based Marvel characters into the fold after Disney bought them out. As they debate Strange’s value to the multiverse, Mordo is reduced from rival to temporary obstacle. Once they’ve served their plot purpose (little more than an audience applause break and one action scene), it’s an all-out chase and fight to defeat Wanda and save America, through the use of alternate Stranges and Christines, because sure, why not?
The problem with this isn’t that it’s confusing, it’s that it’s boring, rudderless, and massively overstuffed with exposition rather than action. For about 100 of the film’s 125 minutes, stuff is just thrown at the screen in an attempt to make the viewer think that sensory overload equals depth, and to justify the upcharge for 3D (not worth it). They even put a bunch jump scares into the mix, I guess because Raimi is so good at horror, to the point that I was caught off guard and had to institute my Jump Fail rule without being ready for it. I think I counted seven, which would reduce the film’s maximum grade to a B+.
But surely this is an F, given all the shit I’ve complained about, right? Well, not quite. There are still some fun moments to be had, including those first few minutes when this looked like an actual superhero movie. We even get a truly eye-popping scene with Wanda trapped in the Mirror Dimension, a hint of the potential that was left unrealized.
And to his credit, Sam Raimi eventually looks to have found his way. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Raimi admits that the project was on such tight deadlines and behind schedule when he took the reins that they didn’t even have an ending until midway through shooting. When you see the film, that statement makes a lot of sense. The screenplay, written by Michael Waldron, the Executive Producer of Loki (more homework!), meanders all over the place in way that implies a lack of focus rather than plot-based controlled chaos. But once the script was finally done, whether Waldron did it himself or Raimi realized he had to take story matters into his own hands, it becomes clear that the proceedings are elevating.
For about the last 20 minutes of the movie, things almost get back on track. Dialogue gets crisper, the action flows more smoothly, even the effects feel better rendered. Raimi’s signature touches — Bruce Campbells’ cameo, moving cameras, and even a bit of blood and gore that pushes the boundaries of a PG-13 rating — come to the fore, and we are reminded why Doctor Strange is one of the best characters in the MCU and why his possibilities are endless. There’s real creativity behind the climactic fight scenes, including literal musical combat and a final showdown that only someone as expert at campy terror as Raimi could pull off.
Does this make the movie good? Not even close. It does, however, save it from the bottom of the proverbial barrel. But given what else we have available to us right now, I’m amazed at how big of a missed opportunity this was. When the most positive takeaway I have from a big budget blockbuster starring one of my favorite actors and characters is that I wish you could get edible pizza balls (like meatballs, only pizza) from a street vendor, you’re just not cutting it. And it’s especially egregious when a film like Everything Everywhere All At Once is out there showing the world with a much more modest budget, cast, and creative team what a true “Multiverse of Madness” would look like. I’m not saying the plot turns here can’t be entertaining, but they absolutely pale in comparison to what the Daniels did just last month. I know that this movie will gross more in its first full day of release than the other will in its entire theatrical run, but I’ll bet anything that someone who watches both movies will come out of Doctor Strange feeling like they got ripped off when weighing the two.
I have a LOT of problems with this movie, none bigger than the giant middle finger Disney just extended to those of us who want a life outside this franchise. It’s crass, nihilistic, and outright insulting to tell an audience you’ve built for nearly 15 years that they’re basically no longer welcome if they’re not willing to buy ALL of your crap. As far as production quality goes, this movie barely rises above the ranks of Thor: The Dark World or Iron Man 3, but because of this slap in the face, I will rate it lower. It’s not as bad as Eternals, because Sam Raimi was able to push this monster over the line in a way that has the possibility of being enjoyable to some, but it’s clear now that Disney has chosen their path. I’m still looking forward to Thor: Love and Thunder and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, because just like with Doctor Strange, I really enjoy the characters. But beyond that, I’m basically checked out. I have been told just how transactional my relationship to these films is, and I don’t like it. And as Kevin Feige and his goons prepare for a retreat to map out the next decade of this property, I find myself completely unable to care anymore. I’ll still probably watch the movies for the sake of this blog and informing you, my beloved readers, about what’s worth your time and money, but unless we get a MAJOR turnaround, and fast, I’m all but officially done with the MCU.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Are you experiencing franchise fatigue with the MCU yet? Should you have to watch an unrelated TV show to be able to understand a movie? Let me know!
Originally published at http://actuallypaid.com on May 7, 2022.