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► Doctor Strange in The Multiverse of Madness comes to UK cinemas on May 5.
Scott Derrickson, director of Doctor Strange (2016), was shunted off development of this sequel, which bizarrely acts as if the mothballed Doctor Strange 2 teased at the end of the first film actually existed. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) synopsises a story we didn’t see in which former friend and patron Baron Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) became his arch-enemy.
The multiverse is full of phantom movies: alternate iterations of franchises are born and die (along with iconic characters) within a few minutes’ screen time. There’s a sop towards an ongoing arc involving Strange’s tendency to put work above relationships, but this is primarily a sequel to WandaVision, the Disney+ series which transformed Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda Maximoff, aka the Scarlet Witch, from a minor Avengers player into a complex protagonist who cuts across the hero-villain divide baked into superhero drama. Wanda points out that when Strange breaks the rules of magic, he is hailed as a hero, but when she does she becomes an outcast.
Michael Waldron’s script explores this thought, but also carries over a Marvel Comics convention – of: Dark Phoenix (Jean Grey) of the X-Men, though Wanda has trashed whole realities as well – that great power confers great responsibility on male characters but turns women into universe-threatening demon harpies. It’s down to Olsen, playing several versions of Wanda, that this vision of dark female empowerment – as a witch, rather than a sorcerer – isn’t a simple double standard.
Even while slaughtering hordes of magicians or battling guest stars/characters who probably lead the MCU in their ‘what if’ reality, Olsen radiates pain rather than power. A raw, emotional climax finds her playing against herself in an extrapolation of a theme tackled in Happy Death Day 2U: that you have a responsibility not to wreck the lives of alternate versions of yourself.
Raimi, whose Spider-Man films were greatly responsible for establishing Marvel’s presence in the cinema, is an inspired import. Bruce Campbell, star of Raimi’s Evil Dead films, has a slapstick cameo (of course), but it’s astonishing how much Evil Dead matter is brought into this brightly-coloured world.
Traditional superhero movies are about heroes and villains in conflict; Raimi’s horror movie universe is about people screwing up on a galactic scale. Cumberbatch’s Strange, in several iterations (including a stretch as a rotting zombie), spends as much time tripping over his cloak, bungling arcane spells and battling rebellious doppelgangers as Ash (Campbell) did in Evil Dead 2. This trip through the multiverse is so insanely inventive it often threatens to implode, but even its collapses are spectacular enough to enthrall.