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Review: Doctor Strange and the Scarlet Witch take on the 'Multiverse of Madness'

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Believe it or not, we've gone more than a month without the release of a Marvel movie. "Morbius" opened the 1 of April, and "Thor: Love And Thunder" isn't coming out until July. But there is a bit of fan service opening this weekend. Here's critic Bob Mondello on "Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness."

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Shortly after the opening credits, Doctor Stephen Strange is at a wedding, wearing a brave face as his beloved Christine marries someone else. Then, somewhat to his relief, I suspect, bravery of a more conventional Marvel sort is needed out in the streets of Lower Manhattan. A one-eyed octopus that could have escaped from Pixar's "Monsters, Inc." - except that it's the size of a small apartment building - seems intent on eating a bus. Strange quickly realizes it's actually trying to eat a teenaged girl on the bus and puts a stop to that with much flexing of wrists and assistance from Sorcerer Supreme Wong.

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XOCHITL GOMEZ: (As America Chavez) Look out.

MONDELLO: The girl, once rescued, strikes Strange as familiar. Wasn't she in his dream the night before? Not a dream, she tells him - another universe in which he was a somewhat less reliable Doctor Strange.

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BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH: (As Stephen Strange) Things just got out of hand.

MONDELLO: A multiverse traveler who's being chased by a demon, the girl's name is America Chavez, which means people will spend the rest of the movie saying things like, we have to save America, and is America OK? - but never mind. The film has bigger fish to fry - that octopus, for instance. So Strange, figuring he needs an ally, turns to an old pal...

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CUMBERBATCH: (As Stephen Strange) Wanda.

MONDELLO: ...Who's also known as the Scarlet Witch.

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ELIZABETH OLSEN: (As Wanda Maximoff) I knew sooner or later, you would show up.

CUMBERBATCH: (As Stephen Strange) I need your help.

OLSEN: (As Wanda Maximoff) With what?

CUMBERBATCH: (As Stephen Strange) What do you know about the multiverse?

MONDELLO: Now, I know a little something about the multiverse and how it gives you alternate versions of yourself, having caught last month's crazily inventive "Everything Everywhere All At Once." That was not, strictly speaking, good preparation for Marvel's multiverse, partly because it's thought through, where Marvel's works hard at seeming random and also because Marvel's is governed by different and extremely complicated rules in addition to the more prosaic ones that have always bugged Wanda.

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OLSEN: (As Wanda Maximoff) You break the rules and become the hero. I do it, I become the enemy. That doesn't seem fair.

MONDELLO: Be that as it may, she does get to act while the others are busy soaring past a block-iverse (ph) and a paint-iverse (ph) on their way to a flower-bedecked New York-iverse (ph). There are even end credits for a splinter unit, which makes sense after you've seen Wanda wreak havoc in a hall of mirrors. Whatever can be done with performers gesticulating in front of screens has definitely been done.

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CUMBERBATCH: (As Stephen Strange) You OK?

MONDELLO: Director Sam Raimi, who cut his teeth on the "Evil Dead" franchise before he went family-friendly with the first three "Spider-Man" films, will get his horror freak on by film's end. Corpses and wispy black smoke wraiths will go toe-to-rotting-toe with the lightning bolt-tossing superhero types, but only after the filmmaker has dispensed with a full hour or so of explaining things.

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CUMBERBATCH: (As Stephen Strange) Multiverse is a concept about which we know frighteningly little.

MONDELLO: And that goes double for intricacies in the darkhold and the Book of Vishanti and variations between sorcery and witchcraft. I'll let you wade through those for yourself. And what about the good doctor?

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CUMBERBATCH: (As Stephen Strange) I never meant for any of this to happen.

MONDELLO: Well, by comparison with the unrestrained love that audiences have for, say, Spider-Man, Dr. Strange-love, if you'll pardon that expression, seems limited. Not that Benedict Cumberbatch isn't hard-working - he brings a lot more intensity than you'd think possible to moving his fingers an inch or two as digital sparks fly. But his scripts have so far felt sort of second-tier in the Marvel canon. And the script for "Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness," which is absolutely the most entertaining multiverse movie to come out so far in May, is no exception. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANNY ELFMAN'S "MAIN TITLES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.
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