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Most humans have the comfort of not knowing of too much,
Of doors we should not open and loose threads we ought not touch,
Of dogs we dare not waken and of lines we should not cross,
Lest brutal, futile knowledge should become our albatross.

The warning of “forbidden” has eroded over years,
Decided as the product of unreasonable fears.
For nothing is anathema, forbidden, or taboo,
And so we delve too deeply into things we can’t undo.

When doors not meant to open are instead extended wide,
And fears begin to slither in where had been only pride,
And darkness once attractive starts exacting its dread cost,
You’ll recognize what isn’t wise when certain lines are crossed.
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MPA rating: PG-13 (honestly, some of the violence leans toward R)

I never used to wait this long before reviewing Marvel blockbusters, but my mind hasn’t been in movie review mode lately. Still, it’s about time I got to it. Anyway, I’m an MCU fanboy, so anything they release I am likely to enjoy to varying levels. Even some that gave me initial mixed reactions like Thor: The Dark World or Eternals, I’ve grown to appreciate more with time and reflection. It’s rare then that time and reflection ends up lowering my opinion of a Marvel film, but such is the case with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. I still liked it overall, but there are elements I can’t help but view with disappointment.

This second Doctor Strange film marks a milestone for the MCU; it’s the first time that a Marvel film has continued a storyline from one of the Disney+ TV series, specifically WandaVision, released about a year before. I’ve decided to skip reviewing TV shows (for now) and won’t go into detail on WandaVision, but it essentially dealt with the messy grieving process of Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) after losing her beloved Vision (Paul Bettany) in Infinity War. It was the first time Wanda was referred to by her comics name of Scarlet Witch and introduced the potential children she might have had with Vision, as well as a cursed book called the Darkhold, all of which play a role in this film.

As for Stephen Strange himself (Benedict Cumberbatch), he has settled into the self-sacrificing superhero life of losing his own love Christine (Rachel McAdams) yet trying to convince himself he’s happy anyway. When a multiverse-hopping girl named America Chavez (a bit one-note but likable Xochitl Gomez) arrives in New York, chased by otherworldly creatures, Strange and Wong (Benedict Wong) take on the duty of protecting her across universes.

Between Loki and Spider-Man: No Way Home, the multiverse has already been cracked open for most viewers, but Doctor Strange in the MoM goes beyond variations of one character. Many would argue that it still doesn’t do enough with the concept to warrant a name like Multiverse of Madness, but my VC actually liked that the number of universes involved were limited, finding it easier to follow. The use of the multiverse is where my complaints begin (and the spoilers). One of the biggest set pieces of the film involves a multiversal team getting slaughtered mercilessly, which felt like a jarring contrast to the way that even villains were treated in No Way Home, a spectacle mistaking cruel for cool. It gave me concern that the multiverse could be used to just provide an endless supply of fan service cannon fodder because if one character dies, hey, there’s plenty of others out there for next time, right?

Beyond that, the film’s treatment of Wanda is also a mixed bag. While Olsen delivers an outstanding performance stepping into the rare role of a hero-turned-villain and showing just how powerful she is, it ends up undermining the emotional progress she seemed to experience in WandaVision (and totally ignoring the fact that Vision in some form is out there somewhere). Her motivations are sympathetic, but it was shocking just how far she goes, her behavior easily blamed on the corrupting power of the Darkhold but hard to forgive nonetheless. And then there’s Strange’s diving into the dark art of necromancy in the climax, which is both a gleeful reminder of director Sam Raimi’s horror specialty and also a problematic strategy that calls into question whether Strange can just walk away from any supposedly forbidden behavior without consequence. We’ll see if the sequels shed any light on that.

And speaking of sequels, it also felt like there should have been a different Doctor Strange 2 between the original and this one. Despite the brief presence of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo in a different universe, his setup as a villain in the first film’s after-credits scene was essentially dropped, waved away in a single line indicating he and Strange had already clashed before. Am I the only one who would have liked to see that?

So yes, I have mixed feelings about Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, right down to its abrupt ending, yet I can’t outright dislike it either. It still has all the ingredients for an entertaining Marvel adventure, mixed with the sometimes creepy, somewhat goofy, and more violent style of Sam Raimi, complete with a prime Bruce Campbell cameo. I liked the more human element of Strange’s character arc, and Olsen’s scenery-chewing wrath is both memorable and cleverly resolved by the end. It can’t be easy writing these Marvel films in a way that continues prior plotlines, delivers its own story, and sets up future possibilities, but they’ve been doing it splendidly for a decade now. While it has its good points, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is the first stumble for me.

Best line: (Wanda, with a good point) “You break the rules and become a hero. I do it, and I become the enemy. That doesn’t seem fair.”

Rank: List Runner-Up

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