This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Andrew Black’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
No Peter Hooten? Really? Oh, come on, Marvel Studios. It's not like you couldn't afford to throw him a couple million dollars for two minutes of screentime. I'm so, so very disappointed in you guys.
That nitpick aside...
This is exactly what it should be. A dive into the truly bizarre area of the comics, that delicious pulp gift that keeps on giving. I mean, it is a Doctor Strange movie. Hallucinatory illustrations, unapologetically mad concepts, trippy eye-candy booms of color, dead-seriously delivered campy nonsense exposition and gibberish-named relics are as essential to the character's iconography as his magic powers and smashed hands. And not only does Sam Raimi homage all these aspects very well, but he also goes a step further. He nods to the origin of the character itself, by making almost each frame look like a comic book panel. Closes on eyes and mouth for the most dramatic lines, characters popping out of the screen with their highlighted colors, and a visual overloading of chaotic sceneries that push the boundaries of imagination with their visual inventiveness. It's Sin City and Road to Perdition levels of stylistic indulgence, just delicious stuff for any comic book fan.
From the other technical standpoints, it's also one of the best Marvel movies by far. The sound design is used to perfection, both to create an immersion into the magic world - that note fight was just as amazing to hear as it was to see - and to add to the body horror shock value. The visual effects are absolutely fantastic, from the wacky creatures like Gargantos and Rintrah to the vast CGI worlds. The costumes and makeup are absurdly overdesigned, and it's amazing how much that adds to the chaotic nature of the premise.
The performances were all really fun as well. Cumberbatch is oozing charisma with his perfectly-timed quips. However, what impresses most about this go at the character is how he made each and every version feel significantly different from each other. He twists and turns his face, changes the tone of his voice, and even moves differently. Xochitl Gomez really puts some nice dramatic touches to her quirky America Chavez. Rachel McAdams lends a very good and adequate bittersweet tone to each word Dr. Palmer sats. And Benedict Wong really gets to show off his awesome comedic prowess, and his sparkling chemistry with Cumberbatch. All very fun, very good, none of them is the best one, though. But we'll get to that.
Storytelling-wise? As expected of a movie of this scale, of this concept, that is this overstuffed, it's on the verge of falling apart. It bears the massive weight of having to properly introduce and explain the mechanics of the device that will be the driving factor, the looming vague threat of the next twenty or so films. And in that, it's so easy to forget that you're writing a film with characters that you have to develop, and people have to care about, not an article or exposée to tease what's coming next. It also bears the weight of its own promise of cheap nostalgia pops, even more so with its especially rabid fanbase that demands to see their favorite IPs being introduced to the continuity.
That said, this does a surprisingly great job holding itself together.
There are some instances of incoherences, beaten tropes and Deus Ex Machinas that are so darn nearly unforgivable. And they would be, if it wasn't so fresh in its depictions of its characters. It played it simple and efficiently with the journeys, because it knew they'd end up being overshadowed, but in the end, (almost) everything feels really earned. Doctor Strange must confront his own arrogance, one of his key traits, and using the resource of alternative versions of himself and loved ones to depict his fears, desires and frustrations, he is able to make peace with himself. Wong gets to be his own character more, with his own agenda and interests, and his friendship with the Doctor is more fleshed out. Christine Palmer gets a sort of closure with her former lover as well. That gave it some actual resonance instead of falling into the dry encyclopedia entry about the Multiverse it so easily could've ended up being.
Oh, and since fresh presentations of characters is the topic... Hell hath no fury like the Scarlet Witch. She was always a rather unstable character, and she was put through a hell of a lot, so I of expecteded her to be a soft anti-hero, maybe secondary redeemable villain, even. I was not ready for her being the second coming of Norman Stansfield. She is unlike anything the MCU has ever presented in terms of antagonists, because none of them had a fraction of the cruelty that Wanda has in this film. Her journey so far doesn't justify, but certainly creates the setting for this absolute breakdown - her ceasing of "being resonable" - which makes it a lot more engaging. Her dialogue isn't as elaborate and resonant as Thanos's, nor is it charismatic like Loki's. It's gutural, savage, vengeful, straight to the point, delivered in the scary serenity of someone who knows they can back their words up, and is out to play for blood. Then you add Sam Raimi's terrific expertise of body-horror to the mix, and you get the single most horrifying kills in the franchise by a mile. They're so unecessarily gross and barbaric, like, legitemately stomach-twirling. Something that could've jumped right out of the pages of the Ultimatum series. I particularly enjoyed the way he shows just glimpses of this brute comic book ultrastylized violence, leaving enough for the imagination to fill in all the nasty gruesome details instead of just showing it. What a twist for such a beloved character, and I'm here for it.
And props to Elizabeth Olsen for making the menacing lines work so well with firm voice tones, and for also perfectly capturing the emptiness and rage in her expressions. And her physicality was absolutely essential in making the two Wandas feel significantly different from one another. Honestly, this is easily one of the best turns in the MCU's history, second only to Josh Brolin in Infinity War. She felt like a bona-fide threat to the heroes throughout. Heck, I was unironically afraid of her! She was truly fantastic.
Oh, and speaking of "fantastic"...
I especially love the fact that Marvel gave the fans so much service, only to wreck all their hopes and dreams by feeding them to their big baddie in a quick, one-sided squash. That's how you establish your antagonist as pure evil. "You wanted Patrick Stewart back as Professor X? We got that covered! You wanted Captain Carter in live action? You get Captain Carter in live action! You wanted John Krasinski as Reed Richards? Well, heeere's Johnny! You wanted Black Bolt from that Inhumans movie we don't talk about? Not... Not sure why anyone'd want that, but we got him too!". And hurrah goes the crowd, so thankful that their big corporate overlord is listening to them, filling the theatre rooms with roars of appreciation and cheerleaders dancing in the background. "And now watch them all immediately eat shit in the most horrible ways we could think of!" God, the shock on people's faces - including my own - when Wanda quite literally ripped them apart. Not since Infinity War have I had so much fun seeing a Marvel film in theatres.
So, overall, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a very balanced and extremely enjoyable mess. It features a heavy load of exposition and teasing, often too much, overloading with information to, as always, make Marvel's loyal audience more excited for the next chapter. But it still stands on its own as a simple and efficient story about an arrogant control-freak learning to deal with his own fear of loss. Also boasting what is easily the franchise's scariest antagonist, the best possible usage of nostalgia-baits, a pitch-perfect aesthetic, masterful technical features, impressive craftsmanship, very good performances and some horrifying gore, Doctor Strange's second outing is hands down one of the MCU's - or should we now call it MCM? - best.
Feels like I'm forgetting something. Oh, yeah! It has the best end credits scene since Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Now, yes...