Cumberbatch’s universe, beyond Doctor Strange

( PG-13 ) ( Monitor Movie Guide )
Marvel Studios/AP
Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Stephen Strange in a scene from "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness."

Back in 2016, writing about “Doctor Strange” for the Monitor, I lamented, “Do we really need to see a great actor like Benedict Cumberbatch, not to mention Chiwetel Ejiofor and Tilda Swinton, entombed in yet another superhero franchise?”

Well, here we are six years later, with Sam Raimi’s “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.” Do I still feel the same way about great actors in franchise flicks? Surprisingly, no. But before I get to that, a quick assessment of the sequel.

As Marvel Cinematic Universe movies go, it’s a lot gloppier and gorier and confusing than most. Despite his sorcerer bona fides and voluminous cape, Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange isn’t strange enough, and trying to parse the convolutions of the Marvel multiverse is more exhausting than engaging. 

Why We Wrote This

For Benedict Cumberbatch, acting is all about versatility. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is the most recent beneficiary.

Chief villain here is Elizabeth Olsen’s “Scarlet Witch,” whose dual incarnation as Wanda Maximoff, suburban mom, figures in the Disney+ series “WandaVision.” Scarlet/Wanda wants to reclaim her two lost sons somewhere out there in the multiverse, and the only way to do so is by hijacking the powers of America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a teenager with the uncontrolled ability to shift between colliding worlds. Doctor Strange takes it upon himself to be her protector, and so the battle lines are drawn.

Quick thought: Could this recent movie craze for other universes – witness also “Everything Everywhere All at Once” and “Spider-Man: No Way Home” – have something to do with wanting to ditch our own?

I could go on, but to return to my initial point: Is Cumberbatch wasting his talents doing these Marvel movies? What price paycheck?

Again, my answer would be no, and here’s why. Imagine how much poorer these movies would be without the likes of Cumberbatch in them? Or Swinton and Ejiofor in the first “Doctor Strange.” (Ejiofor is also in the sequel.) Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man is the full-blown creation of a true actor. The performances of Heath Ledger in “The Dark Knight” (2008) or Joaquin Phoenix in “Joker” (2019) went way beyond those films’ comic-based confines. The cast of “Black Panther” (2018), starting with the late Chadwick Boseman and Michael B. Jordan, seemed deeply invested in the passion of the project. 

In the X-Men movies, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan impart a touch of class to the grand-scale hokum, as did Alec Guinness going back to “Star Wars” (1977). I loved Max von Sydow as the deliciously depraved Ming the Merciless in “Flash Gordon” (1980). Jane Fonda was radiantly unfettered in the saucy comic strip romp “Barbarella” (1968).

Now, obviously an actor of Cumberbatch’s gifts should be playing more than Doctor Strange. But, of course, he does – all the time, both on screen and on stage. I saw him play Hamlet in the British National Theater production in 2015 and was mesmerized by his lyrical, quicksilver line readings. His Sherlock Holmes, for television beginning in 2010, was a worthy addition to a stellar roster of predecessors in the role, from Basil Rathbone to Nicol Williamson. He gave Holmes’ bristly assurance an undertone of frailty. As the massively dysfunctional addict in the 2018 miniseries “Patrick Melrose,” he was frighteningly present in every moment of every scene. The force of his compulsions made the screen tremble. 

Cumberbatch’s specialty is playing marginalized, often tortured eccentrics. He understands their inner demons, which is why these people stand out as human beings, not specimens. Early in his career, he played Stephen Hawking and Vincent Van Gogh on TV. He was a creditable Julian Assange, the flamboyant founder of WikiLeaks, in “The Fifth Estate” (2013). In “The Imitation Game” (2014) as Alan Turing – the great British mathematician and closet homosexual who helped break Germany’s World War II Enigma code – he presents us with a man whose spiky intellect could not fully comprehend or embrace his own divided self. In some ways, the same dynamic is at work playing a closeted cowboy in the otherwise overrated “The Power of the Dog” (2021). Perhaps his best movie performance to date came last year in “The Electrical Life of Louis Wain,” as the real-life painter of cats whose towering oddities he made infinitely touching.

So don’t begrudge this actor his magic cape and levitations. There’s plenty more Cumberbatch to choose from.

Peter Rainer is the Monitor’s film critic. “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” is in theaters. The film is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, frightening images, and some language.

Editor’s note: The penultimate line of the review has been updated.

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