Making a Better Movie with Multiverse of Madness

Are you familiar with multiverse theory?

It’s the idea that outside the bounds of our own universe there exists an infinite number of alternate worlds. Every event, every decision, every point in the course of genetics, evolution, and our own behavior is manipulated to their last possible permutations.

Out there in the multiverse is a reality where Hitler won the war, where I ate better as a kid and now live as a strapping 6’2″–

–and there would even be a world where Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness didn’t make all the many mistakes that it did.

I try not to write too much on Marvel movies (save for here, here, here, here and here). With 25+ of MCU films behind us, an ever-expanding number of “new” stories falling into an almost Aristotelian state of formula, it just gets harder and harder to say anything unique about these films.

But when Sam Raimi was announced to direct this sequel to the eponymous 2016 film, I got excited–now there’s a unique filmmaker. I’m talking the snap zooms, the Dutch angles, the sweet practicals, and the balls necessary to put this scene into certifiable children’s movie Spider-Man 2.

Nearly everything that Sam Raimi touches in this film flares with his distinct vision. His coordination with cinematographer John Mathieson brings about all the aforementioned technical trademarks and a few others here left unsaid to give viewers what very well may be the most visually bold MCU movie released yet–and that’s consistent through it’s reasonable 126-minute runtime.

There is a lot to like about Multiverse. The costumes are great, the sets are fun, and Danny Elfman’s score is just one of the zaniest compositions ever put together, sounding off almost like a with-rock punchline to what we see on the screen.

Unfortunately, none of these things can compensate for the film’s awful, worst-reality script. It’s expository, poorly plotted, riddled with plot devices, and the dialogue is placeholder. But worst of all is that the story is just downright uncompelling.

It didn’t have to be this way. Had a few key decisions been thought through, I’m sure Multiverse’s screenplay could have been just as strong as its other elements. I want to take a moment and identify what I believe to be the film’s shortcomings, and what I would have liked to have been done differently.

Let’s get into it. Obvious spoilers ahead:

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness follows the super-sorcerer Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) on his journey to save young America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) from the clutches of the turned Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen). America possesses the ability to travel between the worlds of the multiverse, a power that Wanda seeks in order to grant herself a life with children. Strange and America flee to an alternate Earth protected by a group of heroes known as The Illuminati, whose ranks include fan-favorite characters like Reed Richards (John Krasinski) and Professor X (reprised by Patrick Stewart).

The film opens in chase. America and an alternate version of Strange flee from the minions of some yet-unknown villain. With defeat imminent, this doppel-Strange performs a ritual spell that would kill America, but keep her power out of the hands of evil. This Strange dies before he can finish the job, and America flees to the universe of the familiar MCU Strange.

With much the same break-neck pace that the film fades in on, so too does the relationship between America and our hero Strange. Young Chavez displays the usual, trope-ish distrust–is this Strange, are all Stranges, just the same? But any sort of conflict in their relationship is resolved by the end of the first act. Chavez has nowhere to go (or grow) for more than an hour after that; she is reduced to a talking MacGuffin.

Suspecting that magic is at play in the plot against America, Strange turns to his fellow Avenger and magic-wielder Wanda Maximoff for help but, in yet another lightning-speed leap of the story, Wanda lets slip that she is the one after Chavez. There’s no time for the twist to build, nothing to enjoy since it hasn’t really settled in.

There is a very poor sense of stake at work here. This movie is dealing with an entire multiverse. That’s a very grand thing, something that speaks to the fate and nature of existence itself. But our driving conflict to this story is a very intimate, very personal thing for one character. It’s incongruous with the larger concept, and in the end feels unengaging.

Screenwriter Michael Waldron also fails to make Multiverse the smartest script it possibly could be in one key aspect: Wanda possesses an ancient tome of evil magic known as the Darkhold. This spell book allows Wanda to possess alternate versions of herself across the universe. The big question being: if she could do this the whole time, why not do that in the first place? Why go to the trouble of tracking down America?

The film certainly never makes it seem like Wanda is aware or even cares about the consequences of abusing this magic, known as “dream walking.” In the ultimate doomsday reveal, wanton use of the Darkhold can lead to events known as “incursions”: the collisions of entire universes against each other.

Now those are stakes. If there was anything I wish this movie spent rushing its first hour into it, it would be that–just so that maybe it could spend the second half developing its characters a little bit more.

Character is a major problem in Multiverse. Wrapping up all the thoughts on Wanda that I have, I’ll just punctuate it with this: she just simply is not a well-paired villain for Strange.

The best villains are those with personal connections to our heroes. They can either be once dear friends or mentors, or paralleled personalities whose motivations are some mirrored inversion of the good guy’s. One need only look back on director Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy for the exemplars.

Yes, Wanda was once Strange’s teammate, but I don’t think they ever once said a word to each other before the events of this film. There just isn’t enough for this dynamic to really hurt.

Stephen’s former mystical art ally Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) returns for the sequel, though it’s not the Mordo we once knew–and who was guaranteed to be a villain for next time. No, instead the 2016 film’s cliffhanger ending is swept under the rug, even though the old Mordo’s villainous turn works perfectly with Strange’s scantily-addressed character arc.

Doctor Strange displays hubris. He was always pushing buttons and breaking rules in his first film, and it was his risky decision of handing over the Time Stone to Thanos that eventually lead to the Blip, upending the lives of trillions across the universe–all to stop one, single warlord.

Hell, for these reasons Michael Stuhlbarg’s bit character Nicodermus West would have made for a better villain than Wanda–but his grief and grudge against Strange gets only two minutes on screen. It could have carried the entire film.

But worst of all for Multiverse is that our hero simply doesn’t change. Good stories involve transformation. They are about moral teachings imparted onto the characters along their journeys. They learn, and the audience learns with them. But Stephen begins this movie with a chip on his shoulder, failing to reconcile his guilt over his role in the Blip, and burgeoningly accepting his life away from love interest Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams).

How does it end? With a life away from Christine, burgeoningly accepted, and with absolutely no deeper introspection into his great, genocidal gambit. We are right back where we started, and we are not the better for it (in spite of a sly smile and a wicked third eye at the end).

So, what would I have done differently? For starters, something has got to be done with America. Either really milk that wariness of Strange well into the second or even third act, or scrap her entirely. I’m in favor of the former for most reasons, but if we really must keep Wanda on as the villain, then expediting the Darkhold-incursion plotline really does just render Chavez’ character as pointless.

Raising the stakes sooner likely would have gotten us to the Illuminati quicker as well. It would have been nice to have seen a bit more of these characters, especially since them being so under-written means that they’re also a little under-acted in this film. I do appreciate how much build-up and anticipation was put into their appearance, though, only for it all to be snubbed by their gruesome demise. It’s a darkly comic effect, but I also wouldn’t have minded their deaths having more dramatic impact. It works both ways.

But God, something has got to be done about Stephen. Make me care, give me turmoil, show me something other than the most thread-thin motivations. If we have to do the unrequited love thing, then make it big.

I can’t help but think back on Strange’s scene with West in the church pews. Regarding his handing over the Time Stone to Thanos, West asks if there really was no other option. Strange pauses, before answering that it was the only way. My thought being…

What if it wasn’t?

What if actually there had been two possible futures wherein Thanos was defeated? One would be the one that we’ve already seen, and the other very well would like much like it–accept that somehow this one would result in Christine’s Palmer’s unstoppable, unavoidable death?

Now that’s good character.

Look, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is highly enjoyable. I loved a lot of what I saw–but we as audiences should never settle for “just good enough.” We are talking about films with the biggest mass appeal in history. They shape entire cultures. It is our responsibility to demand better, to have art that is both edifying and entertaining.

We have to strive for more. We don’t have another, better world to count on. Thanks for reading.

Word Salad on PTA, Licorice Pizza, and Secretly Unhappy Endings

The three main stars of Licorice Pizza: Cooper Hoffman, Alana Haim, and running. Lots of running.

Last week I went to the theater and saw Licorice Pizza with some friends. After our viewing we all gathered in the lobby, where we caught up on our personal lives and bantered about the film.

One friend asked me:

“So, what do you think the title meant?”

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Ranking the MCU: The Top 5 Films

Hello and welcome back for the fifth and final article in my series “Ranking the MCU.

In retrospect, I realize I should have added the words “so far” to that title, because with the release of Eternals just this weekend, and several more MCU films coming round the way, this series will in no way prove comprehensive over time. Marvel is the machine that keeps on going. It’s been quite a ride so far folks, but this is where I’m stopping.

… For now.

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Ranking the MCU: #10-#6

Hello and welcome back to my rankings of the 25 feature films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). We are cracking into the top 10 today, so if you haven’t already I strongly recommend that you check out my other articles here, here, and here.

Remember that this list represents my opinion, which is in no way authoritative (though, I’d like to think I know a little bit about what I am talking about), and this numerical order is really just a convenient formality. On some days I may feel more strongly about some of these films than others, and what I think makes them better or worse than their peers ebbs and flows. I just want to talk about these movies as an educational experience, for any hopeful storytellers out there with blockbuster aspirations themselves.

With all that in mind, let’s get on with entries 10 through six:

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Ranking the MCU: The Middle Five

Hello, happy hump day, and welcome back to my ranking, from worst to best, of the feature films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). There have so far been 25 of these pictures released to the public, and I have been writing on each of them in chunks of five. You can read about my thoughts on the bottom 10 films here and here.

Today on Wednesday, this most middling of days, I’ll be writing on those films of the MCU that aren’t so terrible, but don’t quite make it into the top 10 either.

Just a quick reminder before I begin: these rankings represent my opinion, which as comic-lover and aspiring filmmaker is as informed as it can be, but it is by no means authoritative. Secondly, organizing these films in numerical order is really just a formality for convenience’s sake. On some days I may feel more strongly about one film over another. I may like it less, or like it more. Time will tell. What I am describing to you here are my emotional responses to these movies, what I value in film. Should any of you reading this want to be storytellers yourself, especially in the realm of film, then you may find this project of mine somewhat educational. There’s value in that.

With all that out of the way, let’s get on with the list:

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Dune (2021) Review: The Story Must Flow

Timothée Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson as Paul Atreides and the Lady Jessica. Photo: Warner Bros.

2021’s Dune is the second feature-length film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 science fiction classic of the same name. It takes place far into a space-faring future, where at the behest of the Padishah Emperor, the royal house Atreides assumes control of the planet Arrakis. Arrakis is home to “the spice,” the substance that makes spaceflight possible. It is therefore the most coveted thing in the universe, and for that reason watching over Arrakis will mean only danger for House Atreides.

Directed by Denis Villeneuve and featuring an ensemble cast of stars, Dune has so much working for it. Everyone involved in this project is giving their absolute best for what they’ve been given to work with–but as it turns out, what they’ve been given to work with isn’t much. That’s not a comment on the source material’s deep backstory, but rather on the truncated cut of this film. American audiences have seen three-hour-plus movies in the past. Dune could have benefited from being one itself.

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Ranking the MCU: #20-#16

Hello and welcome back to my ranking of the feature-length films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), which make 25 with the recent release of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. You can see my thoughts on what I consider to be the bottom fifth here.

Just a reminder of two things I went over in the original post: this list represents my opinion. In no way would I consider myself an objective authority, but I do think I know a thing or two about storytelling and filmmaking. Whatever I lament or commend these movies for, I hope readers can learn from it, should they choose to be storytellers themselves someday. The second is that the numerical order of this list is really just a formality; in no way were these films quantitatively judged against each other. On some days I may feel more strongly about a film than another, for good or bad. Films are emotional experiences, and what I am relating to you here are my emotions as reaction.

With that in mind, let’s get on with the next chunk of the list:

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Ranking the MCU: The 5 Worst Films

Just over 13 years ago in the spring of 2008, Iron Man was released into theaters. It would be the foundational work in a mega-media franchise that we now know today as the “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” or MCU for short. This multi-movie project, under the calculated direction of producer Kevin Feige, would be unlike anything the world had ever seen before. It would tell the story of a fictional world across a multitude of films, intertwining the separate stories of several different characters, and how their own journeys would wind and weave together into one shared, epic saga.

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Too many saints in Newark: Reviewing the Sopranos movie

From left: Paulie Walnuts (Billy Magnussen), Johnny Soprano (Jon Bernthal), “Junior” Soprano (Corey Stoll), Silvio Dante (John Magaro), “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti (Ray Liotta), and Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola) watch as downtown Newark burns. This one frame encapsulates the crammed nature of the film’s story. Photo: Warner Bros.

The Sopranos changed American media forever, launching us into a Golden Age of Television that no one’s really sure we’ve left in the 22 years since the show first premiered in 1999. It redefined what compelling, relatable and sympathetic characters could look like and the sort of personal issues they could share with audiences on screen. It is well worthy of the title of the greatest television series of all time.

With The Many Saints of Newark, showrunner David Chase brings his opus back to life, this time on the big screen while collaborating with returning cohorts director Alan Taylor and co-writer Lawrence Konner. The result is a film filled with fan fodder, but one that is ultimately unnecessary and inert. Spoilers below:

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The Green Knight: An old tale, retold for modern times

Early in their studies, fledgling archaeologists are often confronted by this classic dilemma: in a world of finite resources and where time’s arrow only marches forward, what use is there in preserving the past?

Answers to the quandary vary, but the most common would be something like this: to learn more about who we are presently, and who we may very well become. In this similar vein, A24’sThe Green Knight resurfaces an artifact of yore, appropriating its characters and devices for moral lessons more relevant to today. It’s an overall satisfying reimagining, rife with apt performances and impressive production, though it can at times fall victim to the “arthouse powerhouse” studio’s worst instincts.

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