“You break the rules and become a hero. I do it and I become the enemy. That doesn’t seem fair.”
Like Tony Stark, Stephen Strange seems to be caught in a repeating loop of identical character development — recognising his hubris and learning humility — only to forget it all by the next outing. In Multiverse of Madness this lesson comes from discovering the destruction his counterparts have inadvertently unleashed on multiple realities. The MCU has demonstrated both its ability to produce all manner genre films and the limitations of doing so within a shared universe; this is perhaps most true of Multiverse of Madness, which allows Sam Raimi to indulge his penchant for horror but is unable fully to commit to this darker tone. At its best, a fun, fan-service middle act sequence becomes Final Destination for alternate reality superheroes. At its worst, it is a clash of tonally indistinct and wildly fluctuating horror elements that seem unable to identify their target audience. Wanda is misused, shoehorned into the role of weakly-motivated single-minded villain, with much character development (or deconstruction) occurring off-screen after the events of the WandaVision miniseries, primarily for a sleight of hand reveal. Doctor Strange‘s primary strength was its kaleidoscopic mirror universe visual effects that felt genuinely novel. Whilst Multiverse of Madness manages this to a lesser extent with its universe-hopping, its creativity never reaches the exuberant freedom of the recently released Everything Everywhere All At Once. There is a sufficiently enjoyable adventure underneath it all, but it’s disappointing from the director behind the still-excellent human stories of Spider-man 2.
“I’m sorry it has to be you. But Greville, it has to be you.”
A cold war spy thriller that itself feels like a throwback to the likes of Le Carré, The Courier succeeds because it trusts the slow burn tension of its script to hold the audience’s attention without the need for superfluous action. Cumberbatch is excellent as the businessman Greville Wynne, recruited by MI6 to help infiltrate the Soviet nuclear programme, his superficial salesman’s charm developing into a genuine and more relatable affection for GRU defector Oleg Penkovsky. Much of the tension arises from the fact Wynne is not some suave superspy but an amateur who knows he is woefully out of his depth. The Courier unfolds against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis and trusts the audience to be sufficiently aware of its importance whilst the film’s focus is more personal — its overarching theme is the personal cost of conflicting loyalties. It is peppered with thoughtful visual choices like the two trips to the ballet — in the first, during Greville’s first, nerve-wracking introduction to Moscow, we never see the stage but only see Greville and Penkovsky’s faces in the darkened theatre; in the second, we see Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake performed to symbolise Penkovsky’s contemplation of his imminent abandonment of his homeland.
“Bronco Henry told me that a man was made by patience and the odds against him.”
The Power of the Dog is a wonderful slow-burn character-driven Western from writer/director Jane Campion. Phil Burbank is an unusual role for Bennedict Cumberbatch, a man seemingly focused more on the corporeal than the intellectual. He is initially introduced as a misogynistic rancher whose acts of dispassionate and deliberate cruelty are unsettling to watch without the need for physical violence, though we discover that he was not always the brutish cowboy and that this is an intentionally cultivated persona. The film’s inciting incident is his brother’s marriage (of which Phil plainly disapproves) but Campion has structured the film obtusely so that, whilst we know some sort of confrontation is inevitable, the narrative direction is never clear to the audience. This proves an effective way to force the viewer simply to appreciate the character development in the moment, rather than pre-empting the arc. There are clear parallels to There Will Be Blood, particularly in the patriarchal friction between powerfully overbearing men who carved out the frontier and subtler educated people who would ultimately succeed them. Campion’s immersive approach is not entirely without fault, with The Power of the Dog oddly sidelining some characters midway through the film, whilst its abrupt conclusion is simultaneously clever and somewhat dissatisfying.
Where Avengers: Endgame was the result of a decade of carefully curated MCU crossovers, No Way Home uses a freak multiverse fracture to draw ad hoc from the past twenty years of Sony’s Spider-Man movies, delivering perhaps the ultimate in cinematic fan service for those who grew up during that period. Its strength is the resulting character interaction between characters who would never normally have met, drawing on the parallels and differences between the lives of the various Peter Parkers we have seen. The script uses this for emotional payoff and even to provide some unexpected closure years later. In-jokes abound based on the earlier films and even Internet memes that grew out of them. In all of this, the film can be joyfully playful in a similar way to Into The Spider-verse. No Way Home does place certain expectations on its audience’s knowledge, which leaves it unburdened by the need to explain its position in the MCU or to provide fresh introductions for its rogues’ gallery of villains, whose backstories instead become throwaway gags. The weak link is the action which continues the franchise’s trend for CG-heavy fights and wanton property destruction; even J. Jonah Jameson seems incredulous as he criticises the damage to yet another landmark. The most interesting choreography is a sequence combining Spider-Man’s acrobatics with Doctor Strange’s portals, which shows more creativity in a few minutes than the entire climactic battle.
“This universe is finite, its resources, finite. If life is left unchecked, life will cease to exist. It needs correcting.”
With ten years spent building up characters, this is an event movie unlike any to date. Much like the first Avengers movie, I came away impressed firstly that it did not buckle under its own weight. In particular, the introduction of the Guardians of the Galaxy to the rest of the MCU cast works expertly, aided by James Gunn apparently writing their dialogue. Despite threadbare development to date, Thanos becomes a villain with whom one can sympathise, convinced his actions are necessary even as certain acts pain him. Although the number of fight sequences is exhausting, there is sufficient creativity and some memorable tag team moments. Infinity War stands up to a second viewing but whether its stature lasts will depend on how satisfactorily certain choices are explained by the final instalment next year. In assuming a working knowledge of the majority of the heroes, their backstories and their interpersonal relationships, Infinity War does not really work as a standalone film but it mounts a compelling argument that, for monolithic franchises, this may no longer be an appropriate test.