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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Peter Bradshaw

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness review – cheerful alt-reality sequel

Benedict Cumberbatch in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.
‘Played with sonorous conviction’ … Benedict Cumberbatch in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Photograph: Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios./AP

We are back in the bizarre rococo world – or actually now worlds – of Doctor Strange, Marvel’s mindbending surgeon-turned-superhero who is played with sonorous conviction by Benedict Cumberbatch. He strides unselfconsciously around in a velveteen outfit accessorised with a pointy cloak, jet-black goatee and low hairline of pin-sharp definition similar to the late James Lipton, presenter of TV’s Inside the Actors Studio. Sam Raimi takes over directing duties from the first film’s Scott Derrickson and brings to it essentially the same lite-scary/action aesthetic.

As ever, there is a pert tai chi discipline to the little circular sparkly shapes and mystical cosmic portholes that Dr Strange creates with swivelling hand-movements, and he flies through the air in the accepted style, not facing down flat with one fist out like Superman, but upright, right leg elegantly bent at the knee, arms extended backwards. Now Strange has to get his formidable head around the multiverse, a universe of infinite alternative possibilities and this idea, which other movies have treated with tiresome stoner-seriousness, is handled with cheerful humour and boisterously surreal melodrama.

Poor Dr Strange is nursing a broken heart; he is still poignantly carrying a torch for Dr Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), whose wedding to someone else he is attending as a silently lovelorn guest. But there is a ruckus outside: a huge single-eyed octopus thingy (very like one of the creatures that appeared in Pixar’s Monsters, Inc) is crashing around in the streets trying to kill a teen called America Chavez (likably played by Xochitl Gomez). Dr Strange realises that he has seen America in a dream – or was it an experience of alt-reality somewhere else in the multiverse? America has the ability to “dreamwalk” – to enter into other parallel universes – and it is an ability she can’t control and which has enraged this demon; Strange realises it is his destiny to protect her. But he makes the fateful decision to enlist the help of ex-Avenger Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), who is haunted with her own lonely visions of an alternative existence in which she has two children, and she longs for motherhood above everything else.

The result is a freaky adventure, which brings Dr Strange face-to-face with how his own life and death might have been viewed by the superhero community in another life, and by what conspiratorial means the Avengers might be promoting their interests in a post-Thanos world. Familiar supporting characters recur: Benedict Wong is back, entertainingly playing Sorcerer Supreme, and Chiwetel Ejiofor is Strange’s old enemy Mordo. The Ancient One (played in the first film by Tilda Swinton and the subject of a brief culture-war casting row) is absent.

Strange has to tackle two separate MacGuffins of equal importance and silliness: the “dark hold”, a corrupting power that enables the user to dreamwalk, and the protective force that is the Book of the Vishanti (the opposite of the dark hold). But the movie’s most entertaining scenes do not rely on these polar opposites, but on Strange and America whizzing through various multiverse realities, including one made entirely of poster paints. There is a funny scene in which they arrive in a version of New York where everything is decorated with plants and flowers (inspired by the High Line, perhaps), where you “go” on a red signal and where fast food is served in little balls. Oddly, despite the fact that lonely Wanda is vouchsafed agonising visions of a life with two adorable young sons, Dr Strange doesn’t get to see what it would look like living in marital bliss with Christine; the movie is, I think, missing a trick here.

The multiverse madness is treated with genial high-energy panache, though I have to say that this infinite profusion of realities does not actually feel all that different in practice from the shapeshifting, retconning world of all the other Avengers films. And infinite realities tend to reduce the dramatic impact of any one single reality, and reduces what there is at stake in a given situation. Nonetheless, it’s handled with lightness and fun.

  • Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is released on 5 May in Australia and the UK, and on 6 May in the US.

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