DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS: Alternative Medicine for the Tortured Soul

Originally Published on KungFuMagazine.com [May 6, 2022]

by Patrick Lugo

These days it’s strange to discuss doctors, whether it’s the First Lady’s title or the gender of the BBC’s latest incarnation, to name two. In a world where up is down and duckspeak is the goodthink, taking a strange journey into a Multiverse of Madness might make for a great break; assuming you’re going to theaters. In 2016, before Covid was a thing, we covered DOCTOR STRANGE here at KungFuMagazine.com and had a great time doing so. Coming back for its sequel makes for a welcome retreat from the current timeline, regardless of any particular alignments, as well as a sort of homecoming for the lifelong geeks of any universe.

Marvel’s Multiverse

In 2019, Jade Halley Bartlett was hired as screenwriter for Scott Derrickson’s sequel. When announced, it was described as “the next step in the evolution of the MCU” reputedly set to crack the Marvel Multiverse wide open. But this was before Marvel audiences were even fully introduced to the concept. The whole world saw AVENGERS ENDGAME (2019) where timelines wereexplored, and the initial ideas were presented. But it was the Disney+ series LOKI and WHAT IF, along with SONY’s own SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE (2018) that showed audiences what that Multiverse could mean – something put into direct practice in SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME (2022).

Despite initial claims about it,Marvel has wanted to assure viewers the sequel would not be a horror film early on, though it would be Marvel’s scariest film yet. Feige compared it more to films like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984 – the first movie to require a PG-13 rating), Gremlins (1984), and Poltergeist (1982). Doctor Strange would serve as a guide into a “much creepier side” of the MCU and explore the “mind-bending frightening side” of the Multiverse. Derrickson was considered good at being “legitimately scary” due to his background with horror films.

Plot twist – by January 2020, creative differences found Derrickson leaving the director’s seat. Separately, all parties said they were thankful for the collaboration and Derrickson would remain an executive producer. The schism may have been caused by RICK & MORTY and LOKI writer Michael Waldron’s rewrites to script. Derrickson said leaving the film was a difficult decision, but he did not want to compromise on a film he wanted to make. Perhaps that was a more traditional sequel rather than the latest chapter of the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Multiverse(?)

To put it in comics terms, Derrickson did not want his Doctor Strange series included in the summer cross-over event. Ironically the Doctor Strange comic was a perennially underselling title regardless of its often-excellent quality. It’s a comic book title that’s been canceled and relaunched many times. But, if you remember reading any of that comic’s iterations, there’s something hidden in this movie for you.

Sam The Man

Jumping into the director’s seat is Sam Raimi who deserves some kind of title for being one of those directors that kept the comic book spirit alive while the majority of audiences were dubious of their potential. Long before he brought the original Spider-Man to the screen in 2002, Sam Raimi made his bones with the independent horror/camp classic THE EVIL DEAD (1981). Since then he gave B-movie action some legitimacy with his subsequent slapstick/horror offerings. He also officiated the marriage of Hong Kong action to Greek mythology with the iconic XENA:  WARRIOR PRINCESS series (1995 – 2001 and then some). Added to that is DARKMAN (1990) starring Liam Neeson, Raimi’s attempt at an actual super-hero movie featuring an original character of his own.

Raimi was reluctant to direct another Marvel superhero movie. The mix of critical reaction and producer interference in SPIDER-MAN 3 (2007) would make that hesitance understandable. Just look at the title of his following film, DRAG ME TO HELL (2008) as an indication. We should be glad he accepted the challenge of getting the film into production “right away.” Besides, if there’s anyone who’s clearly familiar with Doctor Strange weirdness, it’s Raimi.

It shows. Rami gets right to the action from the very start, not spending a second for sappiness or schmaltziness until the movie is a few universes in. Instead, he plunges audiences into eye-popping spectacle and high stakes before pausing to catch viewers up on the where and when this movie fits into greater continuity. Unsurprisingly its wonderfully Halloween-ish movie, dark and hilarious possessed with a prankster’s spirit. Still, it makes sense that this movie was released in the spring considering the number of Easter eggs to be found. We’re not just talking those based in the MCU but also drawn from nearly every decade of Doctor Strange comics published, as well as a few key storylines from various Avengers comics, circa 1979 & 1985.

But DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS is not just and epic feast for comic geeks. It’s also a carnival ride of “genre” Easter eggs. There are blink-and-you’ll-miss-it call backs everywhere, but special care is lavished on callouts to genre classic like RogerCorman‘s THE RAVEN (1963) among others (hint: not all of them are visual). To go into detail would enter spoiler territory, but Raimi’s created magic trick in this movie is a deft bit of franchise slight-of-hand: an astute viewer will notice that he crosses-over his own EVIL DEAD Raimi-verse with Disney’s MCU. Finally, we know who’s behind the POV of his signature camera shot; you know the one.

Finally, the Fight Scenes

KungFuMagazine readers will be delighted to know that the film’s fight coordinator is a mainstay in epic action scenes, one Liang Yang. He provided the wushu spear moves and barrel rolls as stunt double to Pedro Pascal’s Oberyn Martell in GAME OF THRONES (Season 4 Episode 8: ‘The Mountain And The Viper’ 2014). More popularly he was Stormtrooper FN-2199 in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) – you remember the one – he had the Galactic Tonfa (a.k.a. Z6 Riot Control Baton). But if you want to see what the man looks like, you can see him take on Henry Cavill and Tom Cruise in that brutal bathroom brawl in Mission: Impossible Fallout (2018). Assisting him is Johnny Gao, martial artist and Alumni of the 87Eleven stunt crew which brought us ATOMIC BLONDE (2017), DRACULA UNTOLD (2014), JOHN WICK (2014), JOHN WICK 2 (2017), MAN OF TAI CHI (2013), THE WOLVERINE (2013) and more. Gao’s work for Marvel also extends to utility stunts for BLACK PANTHER (2018).

Together, their team do some good work. Under Raimi’s guidance, there’s some remedying of the whitewashing associations that came with the first film. One might think that a movie about Earth’s Sorcerer Supreme would make little effort when it comes to fisticuffs, but when we talk Sam Raimi and genre homages, there are few that carry his level of geek-cred. All that to say that Raimi probably saw Jackie Chan do a similar trick with close-quarter combat and handcuffs in PROJECT A PART 2 (1987). Showing up swinging, fresh from his victory in SHANG CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS (2021) it’s Wong – Benedict Wong – who is really becoming the heart of the MCU’s current Phase 4. And as a final bonus (for those of us who are counting) we can now firmly include the magical glowing Whip Chain, alongside the Rope Dart, and Iron Rings on the MCU’s magical weapon rack, plus Kamar-Taj is defended by Kwandao now. Go Chinese Martial Arms!

P.S. Be sure to stay for those credits.

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