Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness Is A Wild & Scary Summer Ride

Kicking off the yearly cinematic entries of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) for 2022 is Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, the long-awaited sequel to 2016’s Doctor Strange. While the first film introduced the supernatural and trippy side of the MCU, the sequel runs wild and amps up the horror elements of the MCU and introduces fantastic new characters and concepts. As with Spider-Man: No Way Home, this film deals with the mind-bending nature of the multiverse and fleshes it out more.

The sequel to Doctor Strange is directed by horror auteur, Sam Raimi, who returns to the world of film adaptations of Marvel Comics superheroes while embracing his horror film background. He replaced the original director and it turned out Marvel Studios made an inspired choice with Raimi, who has the skills and the superhero and horror background to create a splendid fusion of both genres for the MCU.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness brings back the sorcerer, Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), after the events of Spider-Man: No Way Home. He is attending the wedding of his former lover, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) when a nearby attack in the streets of New York City attracts his attention. A giant, cyclopean cephalopod is after a teenage girl named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) and after Strange and fellow sorcerer Wong (Benedict Wong) rescue her, she reveals she is from another universe. America Chavez has the uncontrollable ability to travel through different universes and is on the run from someone who wants to kill her and take her power. The film also features Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), who is in grieving after the events of WandaVision. Soon enough her and Strange’s paths cross as he embarks on a mission to protect Chavez. This leads him through the multiverse itself as he struggles to find a way to defeat Gomez’s pursuer and confront his own flaws.

This film works on so many levels that cannot be appreciated immediately by some. It relies heavily on the history of the MCU and has references to Marvel Comics that will delight fans and alienate some non-fans. It walks a fine line between servicing fans with many references and Easter eggs while not going overboard. Despite what the title implies or what over-speculation has led some to believe, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness manages to restrain itself while being an effective and fast-paced thriller with many blood-curdling moments. Sam Raimi revels in his horror roots and delivers his best film in years. Unlike some MCU films that lack identity, Raimi is able to inject his own distinctive and bombastic directorial vision in the film. What he presents may alarm some expecting a family-friendly ride, but it is so well done. A lot of the imagery is downright squeamish and disturbing, but Raimi does not go too over the top. Needless to say the special effects are excellent and many of the images look like dreams which came to cinematic life.

A criticism with The Batman was that it was a bit too indulgent and went on too long. With Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, it is the opposite. Its main problem is that it could have used a few extra minutes to allow it to breath and let many emotional moments sink in. It’s very fast paced, but tetters on the brink of losing control as the film jumps from one plot point to another. Raimi has said that his original cut of the film was about a half hour longer but Marvel Studios made him cut the film to fit a two-hour run time. Hopefully this footage will turn up later on to let us judge them. But the film still holds itself together thanks to the terrifc talent both behind and in front of the camera.

Benedict Cumberbatch once again turns in a fine performance as a self-deluding, arrogant hero who has to admit some hard truths about himself in order to succeed. The other actors have ample amount of screen time to leave an impression, including Xochitl Gomez. As the newest superhero of the MCU, Gomez’s America Chavez is full of heart and spunk, but is never obnoxious or overbearing. Plus, she has an engaging sub plot as she struggles to deal with her past and grow.

Elizabeth Olsen delivers an excellent performance as Wanda as we feel her pain and can certainly empathize with her situation over having lost her children during WandaVision. Then there many new characters who have small but significant appearances in the film. As mentioned earlier, beware of over speculating about who appears and dampen expectations. In the end, this works for the film and keeps it from having the same failed fate of Iron Man 2 or Avengers: Age of Ultron where those films tried to cram in too much to set up other films. Even though Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness has many characters and moving parts, the core of the film is still on Strange. More importantly, the film does not hesitate to shine a light on his character flaws, which are not admirable.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is another strong win for the MCU and Marvel Studios, which leaves one begging for a followup. Thankfully, the end title card promises that Doctor Strange will return. Let’s hope it does not take six more years for a third Doctor Strange film.

José Soto

Mephisto Confirmed! When Speculation Runs Amok

An interesting development over the enjoyment of recent offerings from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and other films and TV shows is the over-the-top speculation about future properties.

Mephisto confirmed! Mutants confirmed! Reed Richards confirmed! Hexagons! There are hexagons everywhere!These were just some of the wild speculations in the internet following trailer or episode releases. This was expressly true for WandaVision where YouTubers and bloggers ran every frame of film looking for Easter eggs and potential clues of upcoming shows and characters. This is also happening now with The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, Godzilla vs. Kong and Zack Snyder’s Justice League. What is baffling with the last property is that it is futile to speculate since there are not any plans to continue Snyder’s vision of the DC Universe. But that is another story.

Sure, the speculation is certainly fun and adds to enjoyment of the TV show or film we are watching, but this has gone overboard to the point that it detracts from enjoying the film or TV show. Case in point, is the finale of WandaVision, which left many viewers feeling disappointed that their many theories and speculations did not pan out. It did not help that prior to the streaming of the last episode actors teased that there would be a surprise cameo that would be on the level of who appeared in the season finale of The Mandalorian. Well, no one showed up. All the specualtion about the demon Mephisto responsible for the show’s machinations did not hold up. The actors in the commericals during WandaVision were not Wanda’s parents. Reed Richards was not the engineer friend of Monica Rambeau. The few things that bore fruit were that the magical book the Darkhold did appear (and helped prove that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was not part of the MCU continuity), the white Vision was introduced, Monica Rambeau developed her superpowers and Wanda’s next door neighbor turned out to be the witch Agatha Harkness. While these revelations thrilled comic book collectors and speculators it disappointed some fans and those who spent a lot of money on Silver Surfer #3, which featured Mephisto’s first appearance.

Even though the final episode of WandaVision featured spectacular showdowns between Wanda and Agatha, and between the two Visions, many complained that the episode did not live up to their expectations. Never mind that a few of the speculations and rumors turned out to be accurate.

With The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, many viewers are convinced that mutants will appear since the locale Madripoor was featured in an episode. For those that do not know, Madripoor is a fictional country in the Marvel Comics where Wolverine lived for some time under the alias of Patch. Not only did no mutants appear but neither did Wolverine. Of course, this was to expected. A huge character like Wolverine would not make his MCU debut in a TV show. Just look at how Spider-Man was introduced into the MCU. He was prominently shown in the trailers for Captain America: Civil War, he did not pop up in some TV show.

The Falcon and The Winter Soldier also had its version of the cameo controversy when it was revealed that the fifth episode “Truth” would have a surprise cameo by a well-known, award-winning actor who would portray a major character never-before-seen in the MCU. Many viewers already knew better and tampered their expectations, with doubts such a person would appear. However, in “Truth” that person did appear and while it was a genuine surprise it still left many disappointed. No, it was not Wolverine or Mephisto but Countess Valentina Allegra de Fontaine, a spy in the Marvel Comics who worked for S.H.I.E.L.D. and was romantically involved with Nick Fury. She was played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who certainly fits the bill of being a well-known, award-winning actor. But this was not good enough except for comic book speculators who jacked up the prices of their copies of Strange Tales #159, which was where she was introduced. Still, these complainers could not enjoy the cameo appearance for what it was, which is a shame since it was one of the highlights of “Truth”, one of the series’ best episodes.

Now, that the trailer for the upcoming MCU film Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is out, watch out for a fresh batch of speculations and rumors. Surely, somebody will spot hexagons or clues of mutants or even Mephisto himself. Here is the trailer to see for yourself.

It is always fun to speculate, theorize and go over episodes and films with a fine-tooth comb because it adds to the enjoyment. But it’s important to no go overboard because this will usually lead to disappointment. Sometimes, it is best to dampen expectations, avoid spoilers altogether and watch these films or TV shows with a fresh mind to enrich the viewing experience.

Top Ten Films & TV Shows Of 2020

2020 has certainly been a strange and troubling year with the COVID-19 pandemic disrupting the entertainment industry.

As the film studios and theaters suffered greatly from the mass closures for public safety, the television arm of the entertainment industry saw a boon since they had literal captive audiences eager for any new content.

Films

Even though many films scheduled for 2020 were postponed for the year, there were many other films that either had limited theatrical releases or managed to come out in the early months of the year before COVID-19 created the lockdowns. Hopefully as the now-availalbe vaccines are administered throughout the population, 2021 will see more of a return to normalcy as theaters will be able to safely re-open.

Please note many films that were released solely digitally or through streaming platforms were not considered for this list; a film had to have some kind of theatrical release even if it debuted in few theaters at the same time they were released digitally. Here are the ten best theatrical films of 2020.

10. Onward

Pixar’s other animated cinematic offering for 2020 was an uplifting and fun adventure that took place in a world where mythical and magical beings and creatures exist today. In the film, two elf brothers set out on a road trip across the country to temporarily resurrect their deceased father. As with most Pixar films, the characters and their emotions took center stage as the two realized their brotherly love for one another. 

9. The New Mutants

The sole Marvel film of 2020 turned out to be the coda of the Fox X-Men films, which was a surprise given it has been delayed so many times. Fortunately, The New Mutants turned out to be a decent superhero film about teenagers coming to grips with their superpowers and life as the film was tinged with chilling horror elements.

alone at the midnight sky

8. The Midnight Sky

George Clooney directed and starred in this introspective sci-fi film based on a book by Lily Brooks-Dalton. Clooney played a lone scientist in an arctic outpost who tries to warn the crew of a returning spacecraft not to come to Earth because it has undergone an extinction-level event. The film was a quiet and captivating character study of the scientist and the spacecraft crew as they struggled to survive in their hostile environments.

7. Underwater

Director William Eubanks is perhaps the most underrated director of sci-fi films today and his latest film continued to demonstrate this. Underwater may be filled with the usual tropes of a crew in an underwater research station being hunted by unknown, Lovecraftian creatures, but it was well crafted, claustrophobic and had the right amount of jump scares and unexpected character studies which elevated this film. 

6. Greenland

Gerard Butler starred in a surprisingly effective disaster film that smartly focused on a single family when cometary fragments crashed into the Earth. By staying with the family as they tried to make their way to safety, Greenland was able to directly show how the catastrophic event affected the family as they grappled with fear, uncertainty and confusion. 

5. Sonic the Hedgehog

Who would have thought that 2020 would have given us a winning film based on a popular video game character? It is more remarkable given the negative reaction to the first trailer which led to Sonic being radically re-designed more to fans’ liking. The effort paid off as Sonic the Hedgehog was a fun and endearing road trip/buddy film that delighted many viewers and not just fans. The road trip/buddy aspect of the film may be familiar but it worked as Sonic, the cartoonish alien, experiences life on Earth for the first time. 

4. #Alive

This South Korean film took a tired zombie/survival trope and reinvigorated it. In the film a young adult gamer is trapped in his apartment during a zombie apocalypse and as he undergoes bouts of loneliness and struggles to keep his sanity, he learns about survival and finding one’s inner strength. This character study made the film very engaging as we found ourselves rooting for the young gamer.

 

3. Color Out of Space

Nicolas Cage was in rare form in this macabre adaptation of the H.P. Lovecraft short story. This horror/sci-fi yarn was quite unsettling in its first half which told the story of a crashed meteor’s unearthly physical effect in a nearby farm. By the second half, Color Out of Space metamorphized into a vivid and disturbing body-horror ordeal that was literally mind bending and shattering as the meteor’s alien influence transformed all life surrounding it, including the hapless farmer and his family. 

love and monsters dog

2. Love and Monsters

This exciting and more light-hearted post-apocalyptic film was a actually a coming-of-age story about a young man who learned to believe in himself as he set out across the ruined landscape of the U.S. to find his supposed true love. Sometimes it is compared to Zombieland, though that is not entirely accurate. In truth, Love and Monsters focused less on laughs and more on its endearing characters and imaginative, giant mutated animals that the film’s hero and his companion dog had to face during his difficult journey.

1. Soul

Two big films were released on streaming platforms (and had very limited theatrical releases), even though one of them (Wonder Woman 1984) had much more buzz and attention, Soul was not only the better of the two films but the best film of the year. The underlying themes may go over the heads of the younger viewers, though they and everyone else will be delighted by the film’s plot of Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), as a struggling musician who dies and refuses to go to heaven. From there, he sets off on a spiritual and metaphysical quest to return to life filled with solid characters and relationships. 

Not only is Soul perfectly animated and chock full of visual delights, but like the best of Pixar, it examines the larger questions in life and its script is unexpected. At its heart, Soul is about…life and what one makes of it. However, it also forces the viewer to contemplate and appreciate the simpler and most relevant aspects of life, and in this tumultous year, this may be the most important message of all. 

Honorable Mentions:

Bill & Ted Face the Music, Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), The Invisible Man, Peninsula, Possessor, Vivarium

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Streaming Wars & The Decline Of Cinemas

As we all know the current COVID-19 pandemic has severely disrupted our society in so many ways. In this case, with our entertainment viewing options. Given the infectious nature of the coronavirus most movie theaters have shut down in response for the safety of the audience and their employees. Most films scheduled to be released this year either had limited releases (like Tenet) or were re-scheduled for next year and beyond (such as The Eternals) or wound up available for viewing in the safety of our homes (namely Mulan) through streaming services or video on demand (VOD).

One ray of hope is that a few vaccines will be available starting in a few weeks, which should hopefully end the pandemic in 2021 and we can resume our formerly normal lives. Or will it, at least when it comes to cinemas?

The movie theater industry has always been insecure over its propects of survival whenever a new type of medium came into being. Back in the 1950s, film studios were convinced films were doomed because of the mass introduction of television. Later the same fears arose with the rise of home video and cable networks and streaming services. Then the industry had to compete with other forms of entertainment like video games. Yet, throughout all of the competition, cinemas survived. But now many fear it appears as if they will finally close because of the pandemic.

Of course, the pandemic will not last forever, but it exposed the drawbacks of the movie-going experience which is more socially based than most of us realized. Also, film studios have found ready audiences with home media which has grown with the rise of the streaming apps like Netflix, Disney+ and HBO Max.

The studios have realized what was important to their bottom line was not necessarily new content but a vast library that will keep streaming subscribers. It may not make sense but it is true. Look at Disney+, they have existed for just over a year and the only premium original content they debuted was The Mandalorian. Yet, the service has over 73 million subscribers who enjoy their library of Star Wars films and specials, Pixar films, Disney classics and Marvel-related films and TV shows. Technically the service does not have to introduce new content to keep their subscribers although this concept may be tested if Disney+ fails to deliver on its many promised premium Star Wars and Marvel shows.

Meanwhile, Netfilx has an exhaustive library of content but much of it is licensed and the service is losing many of them. This is why Netflix has cranked out so many original films and TV shows like Stranger Things, The Umbrella Academy and at one time Marvel-based shows like Daredevil and Luke Cage.

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Supernatural Carries On In The End

Supernatural aired its very last episode “Carry On” a couple of nights ago, which brought an end to the long-running horror/fantasy series about two brothers, Sam and Dean Winchester (Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles), and their adventures in hunting supernatural forces. As a series finale it left me feeling unsure about how I felt about it. But the more I think about it the more I feel that its penultimate episode “Inherit the Earth” would have been a better finale.

*Major Spoilers will follow*

“Carry On” was a fine episode and basically served as a coda to the lives of the Winchester Brothers. Some may think the very last episode should have been some kind of epic throw down against the forces of evil but Supernatural ended the way it began with a monster-of-the-week episode. In this case, a nest of vampires. Honestly this was the least interesting element of the episode. What followed after the vampires were killed was more important. OK, final warning on spoilers ahead.

Dean died after the vampires were killed after being impaled on a metal rod sticking out of post. It was a bit of a surprise and kind of underwhelming as far as deaths go. That is because the two brothers (and their allies and enemies) have been killed before multiple times in the show and then resurrected. It was hard to believe this was it. Or that the show creators felt this was best to finally kill Dean off in a sort of mundane manner. Yet others may feel it was appropriate that the great Dean Winchester not die in some epic battle but during a humdrum mission. I disagree, and find it surprising that Sam would not try to find a way to resurrect his brother.

winchester heaven

The scenes that followed with Sam Winchester mourning his brother with only Dean’s recently adopted dog for company was heartbreaking. However, by this point I was wondering if the show ran out of money because of the lack of guest stars. Sure, we got to see Bobby Singer (Jim Beaver) in heaven with Dean, but none of the other mainstays like Castiel (Misha Collins) or Jack (Alexander Culvert) showed up. I read that this episode was filmed after the show’s shutdown ended (thanks again COVID-19) and the showrunners did not want to risk bringing in many people unless necessary. Still, the lack of mourners/guest appearances robbed the impact of Dean’s sudden passing.

As Dean explored heaven (basically shown as the empty backwoods and roads of middle America), scenes were intercut showing Sam moving on with his life as the song by Kansas, “Carry On Wayward Son”, the show’s unofficial theme song, played. He fathered a son he named after his brother; we don’t see who the child’s mother was, presumably it was his girlfriend Eileen (Shoshannah Stern), but we never got a good look; and Sam grew old and died with his adult son at his side. Cue to tears as Sam and Dean Winchester were finally reunited in heaven. The end.

As I mentioned earlier “Carry On” was fine by itself but the nitpicks kept nibbling me. It was great to see at least Sam being able to live out a normal life past hunting monsters, but it was sad that Dean was not allowed this destiny and God knows he deserved it since he was the more spiriturally troubled of the two. His death while being a Hunter was appropriate, but it should not have felt so mundane.

The previous episode “Inherit the Earth” could have and probably should have served as the series finale for Supernatural. The Winchesters had their final confrontation with Chuck/God (Rob Benedict), after he wiped out all forms of higher life on Earth. In their confrontation, the brothers were outmatched by Chuck, but he was defeated by Jack the Nephilim, who absorbed his powers. Afterwards, Jack became the new God and restored the universe in a cosmic reset before he vanished to become one with reality.

“Inherit the Earth” concluded with a great montage showing all the characters the Winchesters met during Supernatural’s run as the two drove off in Dean’s car while Jackson Browne’s “Running on Empty” played. To me this was how Supernatural should have ended. A bit open ended as Sam and Dean Winchester ride off into the open road looking for their next adventure now that they and the world were finally free of Chuck’s control.

If it matters that much to any fan, it’s best to stop watching Supernatural with its penultimate episode and just imagine Sam and Dean Winchester lived happily ever after hunting ghouls, evil ghosts, demons and whatever supernatural force came their way. If not then consider “Carry On” to be an acceptable, if sad, coda or epilogue to their lives and the show itself.

José Soto