Two Stephens, a Mark and a Wanda: Spoileresque reviews of Marvel’s Moon Knight and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

Image from Variety (Dr Strange and the Strangeteers in an adventure that very much includes “evil” and the “dead.”)

When it comes to Marvel’s fourth phase in their cinematic universe, more than prior phases, your mileage varying seems to be the dominant thought process. The MCU in terms of attendance has hardly waned if the box office from last year’s Spider-Man and this month’s Dr. Strange has anything to say but in terms of quality it’s in the kindest terms a case by case basis.

Where Moon Knight stacks for me in the now six series’ strong Disneyplus lineup is not something I can easily gauge even after I give my thoughts on the latest and darkest chapter in this now 14 year venture. If that and this latest Master of the Mystic Arts misadventure is any indication, for an assembly line of superheroic struggle, it is at least an experimenting assembly line, wondering what can and will stick after the climatic events of 2019’s Avengers Endgame.

Before I get to the latest superhero adventure to successfully prop up the theatre business, I will get Moon Knight out of the way. Oscar Isaac, the world’s most attractive middle-aged Guatemalan has been both a make-up heavy supervillain in the ill-executed X-Men: Apocalypse and a dashing Rebel pilot in search of a character arc in the also ill-conceived Star Wars sequel trilogy. Now he gets to play a role offered by the House of Mouse that own both of the earlier roles: as a dissociative identity disorder suffering Jewish mercenary trapped in a pact with an Egyptian God of Vengeance. How’s that for novelty?

Moon Knight

Image from Forbes (This looks silly as a still image. The context makes it anything but.)

For the majority of Moon Knight’s six episode run, it does distinguish itself by distancing from the stuff that people have found some contempt through familiarity: super-powered fisticuffs, often in a third act. Like the first and third Disneyplus Marvel shows: Wandavision and Loki, much of its best moments don’t so much involve punching someone but talking to others and in this instance yourself.

Two men inhabit the body of a mysterious individual: Marc Spector, the base personality as we discover is a Jewish-raised private mercenary who has some truly startling demons to bear for something produced by Mickey Mouse and Stephen Grant, just the sweetest British accented gift shop owner you could imagine. There may or may not be a third personality lying within…who am I kidding, if you’re reading this, you already know there is one and he makes the future of this three-minded person in the MCU one I want to follow, to whatever end.

For the majority of Moon Knight, Marc and Steven fight each other over what to do not just with the life they are forced to have with one another, but with a common enemy: Harrow, Ethan Hawke finally convinced to be in the MCU by playing Jim Jones and David Koresh by way of Egyptian God worship rather than Christian.

Before Marc/Stephen/? became the avatar Moon Knight on behalf of that God of Vengeance Khonshu, Harrow took the lunar cowl. They had quite a falling out but Harrow never lost that hunger for justice.

The proceedings basically amount to Minority Report meets Gods of Egypt though in all fairness, if you’re gonna do Gods of Egypt better this is certainly one way. Ironically, despite running on a (high) TV budget, the CG is ultimately more convincing and coherent than the visual mess that was that Alex Proyas misfire.

In order to judge all the world’s sinners before they can commit their ills, Harrow needs another Egyptian God or in this case Goddess freed from imprisonment, which was contained of course by other Egyptian Gods. Ammit is that Goddess and you know she’s bad news when she appears half human/half crocodile. That being said and much to Moon Knight’s credit, Khonshu is not much better.

In spite of Harrow and Ammit being a threat that should be stopped, the show makes no bones about Khonshu being a problem in and of himself. Voiced wonderfully by F. Murray Abraham, his latest choice for mortal Avatar (yes, this does all sound familiar to Dr. Fate, doesn’t it?) is a mentally compromised man, whose three personalities are all distinctly different in ways that make Marc ultimately one of the saddest and most frightening figures thus seen in the MCU. As my thoughts on Doctor Strange 2 will entail, Marvel seems to now be in the habit of exploring characters that are sympathetic yet monstrous.

When it comes to the base personality of Marc, you will find him a flawed individual who through help from the kind Stephen and estranged wife Layla, yearns to be better and perhaps become a new player in the MCU’s lineup of heroes. Following Infinity War and Endgame, there are vacancies to fill.

Stephen’s truly moral and kind nature seems to support that idea and yet personality three, as revealed in what is possibly one of Marvel’s best and darkest stingers yet, takes that possibility and wonderfully balls it up and throws it in the bin. Oscar Isaac’s days as the underwritten Poe Dameron might be at an end, but he can’t help but be in a story that subverts expectations.

As to what a Moon Knight season 2 would entail, I couldn’t tell you for certain and that is quite great. More so than the Disneyplus shows that suggest or will have a follow-up like Loki and Hawkeye, Moon Knight is the most diabolically intriguing and may suggest one of the more complex conflicts to offer the MCU in the coming years.

Moon Knight is flawed in ways that are more forgivable than earlier missteps seen in shows like Wandavision and Falcon and Winter Soldier. It’s not so much flaws but aspects that didn’t work as much for me as I would like. The final super-powered fight that, like Isaac’s time as Apocalypse, just so happens to also go down in Cairo, Egypt, is fine but unspectacular. It is saved by, of all things, an anti-climax with ominous implications. An earlier fight in London involving Stephen’s sillier version of the Moon Knight, Mr. Knight, is better choreographed and more engaging due to the circumstances.

Some of the moments involving Layla with Marc or Stephen’s presence weren’t as compelling and in spite of their very best efforts, like actually filming in Egypt, Moon Knight feels more like a television production than the earlier Disneyplus entries though with exceptional sequences here and there.

Most of this Moon Pie’s (Poe’s) inner goodness comes from the ever entertaining dynamic between Marc and Stephen. That alone makes a season two a worthwhile venture for Feige and the MCU. Especially when inevitably, they get to meet their mutual fiend. And from that, possibly other familiar faces in this universe.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

The critical and to some extent public reception to Stephen Strange’s second titular adventure after playing major supporting fiddle to Spidey and the Avenger’s most recent excursions has been positive yet more muted than I would have thought. Some complain that the weight of a nearly 30 film cinematic franchise including canonical television shows is part of the problem. Others think it’s yet another CGI spectacle-thon in a time where we are growing pretty weary of this almost unavoidable aspect to the genre. Perhaps part of The Batman’s success this Spring came from it eschewing much of those aspects for something more grounded and practical looking.

Could it be aspects distinct to the handling of this Dr. Strange installment? Some of the acting and writing has been given negative marks. Despite being shorter than the last two MCU films and nearly an hour less than the aforementioned bat-flick, pacing was also part of some naysayers’ complaints.

As for me, there are issues certainly, but none that I would call detrimental really. This is not another Eternals. If anything, I’m debating with myself whether The Multiverse of Madness is better than the first Doctor Strange. Part of me thinks yes, the other thinks maybe not.

There are two important things a story dealing with multiversal theory needs to have: Focus and actual consequence. Both are accomplished here. I was never lost in the weeds with Stephen while exploring the multiverse this go around. There was one moment admittedly where the focus did shift from Stephen to other players in the story around the mid-point during a sequence that elicited the most cheers and the most “oh shits” from the theatre audience.

Because it was tied into the story centering on our three key players: Doctor Strange, Wanda the Scarlet Witch and promising newcomer America Chavez, this detour into different characters was more than forgivable. It is definitely one of the most discussed parts of the film to be sure.

What is most reassuring about the end result of Sam Raimi’s contribution for the MCU is that in spite of the bridges it is expected to build into latter entries and all the Multiverse fun that can be had visually, it is at the end of the day a continuation of Benedict Cumberbatch’s excellent, distinct interpretation of the Marvel character as well as a grim yet appropriate conclusion to another’s, Wanda Maximoff. That alone may send off TMI waves to you, my readers, yet I did warn you at the beginning and the film opened to $185 million domestically this weekend, I feel at liberty to risk as much.

Despite the gap of time between Doctor Strange 1 in 2016 and Doctor Strange 2 in 2022, buffeted by his appearences inbetween, the film does not forget that Stephen has a personal story to continue in spite of his contributions to the wider narrative seeming to be more important up until now. I felt this way before I saw What If’s first season last year, but it occurred to me that Doctor Strange is a figure that can be easily imagined as a villain.

He has the name, he has the personality to an extent. He kinda resembles Vincent Price, a horror movie icon not without roles that were heroic or neutral, but come on, you think of him as a villain actor first. To younger audiences, he’s the guy who narrates Michael Jackson’s Thriller and ends it with a diabolical laugh. I don’t know if it was direct inspiration on creators Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s part, but the Sorcerer Supreme was born in Price’s 1960s’ heyday.

Doctor Strange 2 correctly guesses that me and others have suspected as much, especially with how his methods to win the day with figures like Dormammu and Thanos seem a little..devilish. Maybe it was true there was only a single way to defeat Thanos. Or as this movie’s dramatic conclusion suggests, maybe there was another.

People compare Tony Stark/Iron Man and Doctor Strange all the time and not just due to their preference in facial hair. These two heroes are known for their egos that both make them closer to the dark side than either would want to admit. Hell, they start off as dicks in their stories and it’s only through personal loss and revelation that they aspire to something that makes them likable.

In spite of his incontrovertible success in saving not just Earth and eventually the whole universe, there is a side to Stephen Strange that remains disquieting and that was not by accident. This entry is all about Stephen discovering that if anything he might be the exception to the multiversal rule that Doctor Strange is not a good guy and that exception has no guarantee of lasting.

Strange’s internal arc is contrasted with one that has already been both hero and villain, like her comic counterpart: poor Wanda Maximoff. In spite of the excuses her history would bring up, overtime Wanda’s behavior turns it into no excuse at all.

What Wanda does in the Multiverse of Madness is downright horrifying (again, spoileresque review). I go from maintaining my sympathies at the start from feeling that no matter how sad, what she does can’t go unpunished. Most felt the same at the conclusion of her titular Disneyplus series. She hadn’t truly atoned on behalf of the people of Westview and the catharsis she had by accepting both Vision’s passing and that their children together weren’t truly real was seemingly short-lasting or not genuine. If you were like me miffed by Wandavision’s conclusion, congratulations, you were supposed to. Not the same contrived takeaway as the next Disneyplus show to come after, Falcon and Winter Soldier.

Though some have expressed disappointment in the direction Wanda takes here, it’s not as if it was out of nowhere, it was actually a carefully maintained fall to darkness that was established as early as her mid-credits appearence in Captain American: Winter Soldier eight years ago. Lest we forget, she and her brother Pietro began their arcs submitting themselves to illegal experiments for a terrorist organization: Hydra. Their excuse is revenge for losing their parents on behalf of Tony Stark’s weapons. Seeing the man who indirectly slaughtered them being held up as a hero would rub me the wrong way too and yet, Hydra. You know, a fascist organization that was borne out of Nazi Germany.

We think at first Wanda is on the road to redemption early in her story arc through turning on Ultron once they realize innocent people will be hurt (extinction does that). They didn’t recognize that when working with Hydra but you know, blinded by vengeance. Hawkeye’s little speech in the middle of Age of Ultron’s climax to convince her to get up, get out there and help is the first step in really being a hero, if the earlier heroics in Seoul weren’t enough.

But just because someone starts down the path of redemption and heroism does not mean they will be set down that path. Would be disheartening if the villainous path was absolute too. I hope that down the road, Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye gets to learn Wanda’s fate here. It was bad enough when Clint had to deal with Natasha’s death and his actions as Ronin but then this happens. Poor guy. At least he has a one eyed dog, a young protégé to carry on his mantle and a loving family.

Much like how Wanda’s first fall to darkness came from tragedy, new tragedies are inflicted on her almost as soon as she becomes an Avenger. She loses her brother, accidentally kills innocents on a mission in Lagos, is forced to turn on Vision and half the Avengers for a while, loses Vision and gets to see that happen twice and then the government prevents her from really saying goodbye to him. This all culminates in her accidentally taking control of a full town in New Jersey through her no longer latent Scarlet Witch mystical abilities. But once she learns how it happened, she keeps on doing it.

I am reminded of another figure owned by Disney that has a fall from grace, starting as a sad kid turned brave hero who then becomes a frightful monster who may or may not earn redemption through a sacrificial death. Who could that be?

Image from Den of Geek (Heroes becoming villains are best denoted by the color Red.)

So, yeah, it might be best for those with the free time and care to look back on Wanda’s history and realize that what she does in Doctor Strange’s second outing is not as inappropriate as you might think. To be honest, it is rather bold and dare I say it, refreshing, that not every MCU hero is going to stay a hero forever. That’s not how life works out.

Stephen’s dilemma is not only to protect newcomer America from Wanda for her own ends but to cheat the probability proven by the universe that he is also doomed to fall. Much like how it took lots of teaching and practice to become the badass wizard he is, he must also learn from himself and know that there are some things he cannot have in spite of his power.

Seems awfully deep for a film that has had above average marks this go around. So why is there some disdain? It can’t just be Wanda’s depiction or superhero fatigue. I have some further guesses and whether they’re an actual problem I will chalk up to personal preference.

This is directed by Sam Raimi, the man you might be most immediately familiar with for his Spider-Man trilogy that continues to enjoy much love from people in my age range and beyond. The opening fight against a Lovecraftian monster in which Strange meets America for the first time I think was deliberately set-up to recall some of the action set-pieces from Raimi’s time with Spidey. With help from Danny Elfman as composer, it particularly reminded me of the first fight Spider-Man had with Doctor Octopus in Spider-Man 2, with poor Aunt May stuck in the middle.

That was me referencing Raimi’s time in the superhero genre. Now, due to Doctor Strange’s predilection with supernatural subject matter to say the very least, this gives Raimi the strongest opportunity he’s had to reference the trilogy that made him big before Spider-Man: Evil Dead. And trust me, it’s more than just a Bruce Campbell cameo, which itself makes cute reference to one of Evil Dead 2’s most famous sequences.

To be honest, you could come close to calling Doctor Strange 2 not just Evil Dead 4 but how to do an Evil Dead movie in a PG-13 format. Not every part of this movie is like the Evil Dead series, don’t get me wrong. Plenty of moments where it’s, well, Doctor Strange or a Marvel movie. But when the knowing person spots the Evil Dead stuff, it’s hard to ignore and it comes close at times to distracting from what we were originally here for. Certain camera angles or camera techniques that Evil Dead became renowned for are present in The Multiverse of Madness. My favorite is where, as Strange, Wong, America and a fellow sorcerer are waiting for Wanda to breach the room, the camera suddenly jerks into an askew shot of the doors, very much referencing the paranoia of Campbell’s Ash Williams inside the cabin.

Other moments might be nods to Evil Dead like camera angles in relation to Wanda and her selfish multiversal search for “her” children from Wandavision, a shot of two different Wandas looking at each other in a mirror and one very spoiler heavy section where a bunch of souls are streaming and circling around a character while shouting different things in high strung voices. I was waiting to hear one of them scream “DEAD BY DAWN”, but I suppose Raimi does indeed have some restraint.

Again, to the unoriented with Evil Dead, these will fly over their heads and just think it quirks of this particular Doctor Strange entry. Thankfully, Raimi knows to include some magical, mystical fun in relation to Doctor Strange and not his earlier body of work including a brilliant section involving classical music and the very soundtrack of the film. I will say this much: I can deal with more of the MCU, assembly line or not, so long as some imagination is along for the ride. It certainly is here.

Before I forget, I should mention that oft brought up newcomer America Chavez, played by Xochitl Gomez. It doesn’t hurt that the character’s powers from the comics is very much integral to the plot of this movie. Hell, without America, there wouldn’t be a movie, probably. There are times when America’s presence can feel like she is just here for the mcguffiny nature of her multiverse-traversing power and then there are moments where no, she actually is her own character, one with motivations that go beyond survival, let alone from evading a fallen Avenger.

As I’m sure conservative/right-leaning sources will bring up, she has two moms instead of ‘ahem’ the correct pairing don’t you know? America herself is one of the most upfront LGBTQ characters in Marvel comics nowadays and the presentation of that aspect to her is deliberately in your face with a “What’s it to you?” attitude that naysayers will just blow off as “woke” or worse.

Aside from her wearing a gay pride pin on her jacket, there’s no indication that this America is also gay though I can’t possibly imagine why she wouldn’t be. It could be just a badge in support of her parents or a subtle bit of coding that doesn’t distract from the conflict she’s facing here and now. Of course I’m quite comfortable with who America is and it doesn’t hurt that Gomez’s performance makes her a quite likeable character, one whom I’m more than happy to see the further adventures of which is basically a given at this point.

I’m expecting America to be a companion of Strange in later installments, mirroring and contrasting with the heated dynamic between the Doctor and Peter Parker from earlier. Give the film further credit, like Moon Knight, it successfully lays out crumbs to care for future MCU outings. It’s honestly a crumb more tasty than the sudden and kinda lamely executed one that occurs with the mid-credits scene.

Speaking of gripes like the mid credits scene, despite the shorter than usual runtime of 2 hours and six minutes, the pacing can make the film seem longer than it is. I’m never bored in spite of that but to say that it can seem as if the plot is a little too busy and by extension has effect on the pacing I would in turn say not untrue. It does all wrap up very well though again the mid credits scene does open up implications on the release schedule of the MCU that is not optimal unless of course Feige is hiding something which is probably the case.

Doctor Strange 2, for its uncomfortable character arcs and implications for the MCU, might result in a movie that does not have the same commercial staying power than the ludicrously successful Spider-Man: No Way Home. Of course, the reasons for that film’s results was something greater than just it being another MCU Spider-Man. We all know the answer there. Because we are approaching 30 movies with the fourth Thor this July making 29, it is very hard to know where to rank The Multiverse of Madness, much like how one would rank all of Bond’s films.

It succeeds at being the proper next step in Doctor Strange’s story, a somber last step for another’s and a hopeful first step for yet another. Maybe it’s better to just match it up with the MCU’s entries for just the year of 2022. How will it compare to Moon Knight, Ms. Marvel, She-Hulk, Thor: Love and Thunder, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and anything else that might be in waiting? That’s a thought process more worth your time and for what’s it’s worth, this assembly line we are getting more cranky about does bother to make you think at all.

Originally posted 2022-05-13 00:58:30.

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