Tuesday, 28 June 2022

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

Although this is Sam Raimi's first pass at a Disney era Marvel character, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is the director's fourth adaptation of works that can be traced back to writer-illustrator Steve Ditko. As such, it's tempting to examine Multiverse within the context of Raimi's own web crawler trilogy - how then does this Doctor Strange episode measure up to the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man films? While there's less - but not zero - willingness to physically and mentally torture the film's leading man, Multiverse does improve on these previous works in one single instance: it combines the role of the leading lady and the villain into one super-character, subject to the extended attention you'd expect to be apportioned to the former while also acting with the ruthless determination of the latter. 

The first Raimi Spider-Man seemed to be positioning Kirsten Dunst's Mary Jane as a co-lead for that franchise, subordinate to Peter Parker's overarching journey but still able to eke out her own little corners of agony. That film's sequels were less inclined to follow that blueprint, discarding her perspective almost entirely in the theatrical version of Spider-Man 2 (an extended home video cut gives her a few underwritten asides) then transforming her into a prize to be haggled over in Spider-Man 3. A pivotal scene in the first Spider-Man has Parker inadvertently hear a screaming match between Mary Jane and a ranting father. He observes something private and embarrassing but doesn't then attempt to use this information against Mary Jane. Instead he commiserates, clumsily, before Mary Jane whisks herself away, smiling through tears.

Although designed - in the screenwriting sense - to allow the audience to see a gentle, non-judgmental side of Parker, how Dunst plays the scene keys us into the idea that Mary Jane has her own separate narrative arc, one distinct from, but complimentary to, Spider-Man's. Both characters are working class children trying to disconnect from their impoverished home environments and make something less mundane out of themselves. They both dream of a broad adulation; a kind of stardom that asks for little of themselves in return. Michael Waldron (the writer of Disney streaming series Loki and the "The Old Man and the Seat" episode of Rick and Morty)'s Multiverse screenplay does something similar with its two older leads. Benedict Cumberbatch's Doctor Strange and Elizabeth Olsen's Scarlet Witch are both creeping deeper into middle-age bereft of personal connection. Strange devoted his life to the pursuit of magic, missing out on a relationship with Rachel McAdams' Christine Palmer, while Wanda suffered through a pastiche of American sitcoms that gifted her a phantom family, then zapped them away from her. 

Disney streaming series WandaVision give us a bereaved sorceress who kidnapped an entire town before using them as tranquilised puppets as a way to work through the trauma she experienced battling the world conqueror Thanos. The show, a superhero-flavoured update on The Twilight Zone episode "It's a Good Life", toyed with genuine disquiet before, ultimately, resisting the urge to paint Wanda as an out-and-out monster. This aversion ended up undermining the strangeness of the piece, an effect exacerbated by a series finale that attempted to drum up enthusiasm for a television budgeted beam war. Multiverse demonstrates far less restraint, Scarlet Witch slaughters dozens of mystical innocents and superhero stand-ins. The film even goes as far as summoning up a team of vaguely fascist Avengers from an alternative reality for Wanda to (literally) pull limb from limb. Raimi consistently asserts himself in this cheery cruelty, working against Disney's well-established formula - that demands an irreverent stance on permanence - by burning tossed-off redshirt characters into the audience's memory by giving them deaths so alarming that their passing lingers like radiation. 

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