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'Dr. Strange' is a horror film that happens to star superheroes

This “Dr. Strange” epic is also one of the best examples yet of how the Marvel empire Kevin Feige created manages to keep succeeding.
It's getting weird.
It's getting weird.Marvel

The 28th big-screen film in the ongoing interconnected Marvel-verse, and the 34th title released overall, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” sounds like a 1950s science fiction movie — a self-aware cult favorite. Unfortunately, since the arrogant and pompous title character doesn’t do well in stand-alones, Marvel has made this a “crossover movie” involving other major characters. Also unfortunately, and unlike the team theme of “The Avengers” films, this is more an intersection of several storylines than a cooperative effort.

“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” sounds like a 1950s science fiction movie — a self-aware cult favorite.

What it is, in order, is a direct sequel to Disney+ “WandaVision” series, a continuation of the multiverse introduced in “Loki,” a complement to the alternate takes on characters introduced in “What If…,” and allegedly a follow-up to “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” with cameos tying together the last two decades of disparate Marvel films into a single narrative. It’s also an origin story for a brand new out-and-proud LGBTQ+ teenage Latinx superhero, America Chavez.

Oh, and it’s a zombie movie.

In fact, to call it a superhero movie at all would be a misnomer. It is a horror film that happens to star superhero characters. There is no saving the world, there’s barely any superpowers. Other than Chavez, it’s all witchcraft and wizardry, minus Hogwarts.

Understandably, this does not always work. The film’s early going is especially strained; you want the characters (and director) to just take a breath. Let those emotional moments hit! But the show must go on — and quickly — to avoid what could easily have been a 3.5-hour runtime.  

The pandemic also takes its toll, though in more subtle ways. In the original pre-2020 release plan, the film would have hit theaters less than a week after the “WandaVision” finale aired, and her story suffers from this extended and unplanned separation. Also, as originally conceived, this would have been the lead-in to “Loki” and “What If…” building up to “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” Despite added dialogue reflecting the changes, there were times when reversing the release order weakened the overall end product, leaving it burdened with extra narratives.

And yet, the film is utterly entertaining. Despite the pell-mell pacing of the first hour, once the film settles down into the zombie movie it wants to be, things start to click. Parents should be warned — this is the scariest and bloodiest Marvel film to date. (Marvel’s films are noticeably bloodless, considering the sheer amount of CGI fighting that usually takes place in the third act.) There are genuine jump scares, an actual sense that the bad guys might take this one, several fan favorites die in variously creative ways, and director Sam Raimi even found a way to fit his muse, Bruce Campbell, into the proceedings. It’s not quite “Marvel’s Evil Dead,” but it’s as close as it can get.

Like it or hate it — the Marvel Cinematic Universe remains the force to be reckoned with in Hollywood.

This also means that like it or hate it — the Marvel Cinematic Universe remains the force to be reckoned with in Hollywood. The pre-sales for tickets this weekend were massive; estimates suggest the film alone could bring in $150-$200 million domestically over opening weekend. That’s a sales number the domestic box office has barely been able to hit with all releases combined this year, and one that will dwarf even other superhero hits like “The Batman.” It will be the first time a film in this pandemic hit box office managed to get close to that number since the last bright spot for theaters, Marvel’s previous release, “Spider-Man: No Way Home.”

Indeed, since theaters reopened en masse in 2021, there’s been one common factor in every box office swell — a Marvel film release. The company’s ability to defeat the pandemic box office blues has been remarkable. Like it or not, the MCU has invented a playbook for success in a badly fractured entertainment industry where the flood of content has overwhelmed the consumer. This is a brand people now trust to entertain them no matter who the film stars, what characters it features, or what genre it actually is.

That ability to be entertaining even when the film doesn’t manage to fire on all cylinders is part of the Marvel brand identity. This is the Maytag of movie-going.

Once upon a time, critics stared at the Marvel wave of popularity and wondered when this superhero bubble would burst. But that perspective fails to understand what Marvel has actually built. This “Dr. Strange” epic is one of the best examples yet of how the empire Kevin Feige created manages to keep succeeding over and over and over again. Perhaps its rivals should take notes.