Top Gun: Maverick – Review

How do you describe the success of a movie like Top Gun (1986).  The Tony Scott directed original is objectively not a very good movie.  The characters are one dimensional; the plot is razor thin and cliché; and the movie is rightfully view as nothing more than a fluff piece of Reagan era propaganda for the Air Force.  So, why nearly 40 years later is this movie a beloved classic for so many.  Despite all of it’s many flaws, there is one thing that Top Gun has that gives it appeal to so many; character.  It is a corny movie, but in the best possible way.  There is so much personality put into the story that even if it is poorly written and constructed, it still captures the imagination of it’s audience.  And a large part of that goes to the undeniable star factor that was and is Tom Cruise.  Cruise had been around for a while before, becoming a rising star in Hollywood through films like Taps (1981) and Risky Business (1983), but Top Gun is the movie that propelled him to super stardom.   His performance in the original movie is just magnetic in every possible way, and it elevates everything else about the film.  His co-stars, including Tom Skerritt, Kelly McGillis, Anthony Edwards and Val Kilmer also saw their careers boosted from the success of this movie, and the late 80’s wouldn’t be the same without the Hans Zimmer score and Kenny Loggins infused soundtrack that became omnipresent after the film’s premiere.  Since then, the movie has remained one of the key benchmarks of Tom Cruise’s stellar film career, and it’s a testament to his skills as an actor that he didn’t let this one movie role to overshadow everything else that he’s made.  Still, Tom Cruise is not above revisiting old roles, even after many years in the game.  The Mission: Impossible series is still going strong after over a quarter of a century, with two more set in the next couple years.  But, even more surprisingly, he’s now looking to return to the role that turned him into a star and revisit his story now, 35 years later.  After nearly half a lifetime away, Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell is coming back to the big screen.

The journey to get there though was not without it’s own complications.  The first trailer for the film premiered all the back in January 2020, aired during that year’s Super Bowl.  With an expected June release, Top Gun: Maverick was going to be one of the big tent-poles of the Summer season, and the marquee title of that year for Paramount Pictures.  But, like every blockbuster film of 2020, it had to be pulled off of the calendar because of the Covid-19 pandemic shutdown.  The movie by that point had been too costly to push to streaming, with both a production and marketing budget well above $200 million, so Paramount had to wait a year to plan for a theatrical release that they hoped would be more favorable to them post-pandemic.  Even though theaters did eventually reopen, the following summer still did not have ideal audience numbers to warrant the film’s release just yet, so Paramount decided to let the movie sit on the shelf for yet another year, likewise also pushing back the release of the next Mission: Impossible movie with it.  Though it was a very costly measure on Paramount’s part, it still might have been the best possible move to make.  Now in 2022, while it still hasn’t recovered 100% just yet, the movie theater industry is finally on the rebound and more importantly, the audiences who have been most reluctant to return to the theaters are now starting to finally return.  And what better way to bring older audiences back to the theaters than with a fresh piece of cinematic nostalgia.  Top Gun: Maverick certainly has a lot of weight to carry on it’s shoulders.  The original is an iconic film to those who were raised up on it, and the expectations are extremely high.  Not only that, but the world has changed quite a bit since the original movie.  Would audiences today still go for old fashioned Cold War patriotism?  Can the movie overcome the cheeseball elements that have been often ridiculed over the years, through parodies like the Charlie Seen spoof Hot Shots (1991) and a queer reading rant by Quentin Tarantino?  Well, now almost 2 years after when it was supposed to originally been released, we can finally judge for ourselves just well the Top Gun jets still burn.

The movie brings it’s iconic characters up to the present day.  Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) now flies test missions for new experimental aircraft; often against the wishes of his superior, Rear Admiral Chester “Hammer” Cain (Ed Harris), who ends up grounding him after an unauthorized speed test.  For his subordination, Maverick is reassigned to be an instructor for an elite squad tasked with undertaking a near impossible mission.  Maverick arrives at his old home base in San Diego, where he meets an old flame, Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly), who now runs his old favorite bar.  He reports to his new commander, Admiral Beau “Cyclone” Simpson (Jon Hamm) who wonders why Maverick hasn’t risen above the rank of Captain in over 30 years.  Maverick meets with the new pilots who are now under his tutelage, including Lieutenants Natasha “Phoenix” Trace (Monica Barbaro), Jake “Hangman” Seresin (Glen Powell), Robert “Bob” Floyd (Lewis Pullman), Rueben “Payback” Fitch (Jay Ellis), and Mickey “Fanboy” Garcia (Danny Ramirez).  All of them are top of their class pilots, but this is a mission that requires far more off the books training, which is what Maverick is there to teach.  All of the recruits are unaware of Maverick’s history, but one in particular does carry some baggage related to Maverick’s past; Lt. Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick’s long departed co-pilot and best friend Lt. Nick “Goose” Bradshaw.  Maverick begins putting his students through the paces, pitting them in combat exercises that event the elites are unprepared for.  And sparks of conflict immediately start flying between Maverick and Rooster.  Rooster blames Maverick for holding his career back, as Maverick had made a promise to his mother that he would keep Rooster out of harm’s way.  Maverick is torn whether or not to hold onto his old promises, or to let the past go and allow Rooster to determine his own way in life, a choice that an old friend of Maverick’s, Admiral Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer) tries to convince him to do.  With the clock ticking, Maverick must have his team ready to take on a miracle of a mission, and that requires finding common ground and trust with Rooster, who he knows he’ll inevitably have to rely upon to save the world.

Regardless of the outcome of the movie in the long run, you’ve got to admire the fact that Tom Cruise is taking a chance in reviving this title at all after so many years.  The original Top Gun wasn’t something that demanded a sequel, and indeed it stood alone for 35 years.  So for Tom Cruise now to revisit it, there had to be a creative pull that demanded a revival.  Cruise is not one to lend his clout to unnecessary sequels.  The only reason why we’ve gotten so many Mission: Impossible movies is because Tom Cruise pushes the envelope with each new film, justifying each entry as an essential part of that series.  For Top Gun, the stakes are much more grounded than those of Mission: Impossible.  It’s essentially a movie about life on an Air Force base, and all the intermingling relationships found amongst crew and company.  For Top Gun: Maverick, Cruise managed to find the angle he needed to justify a sequel after so many years.  Here he asks the question, what happens when Maverick grows older and goes from hot shot to mentor.  He’s still the same Maverick, impulsive and often insubordinate, but he’s also got the baggage of his years in service to give him perspective on the right and wrong ways of using his skills in a new world order.  And in many ways, reconnecting Maverick with the demons of his past, namely the fate of Goose that still haunts him many years later, as he has to confront working with his son Rooster is a pathway into the story that I think very much appealed to Cruise.  In that sense, the movie does elevate well above the original Top Gun in terms of story, because there is actual exploration into Maverick’s character here.  He’s not just the star pilot here; he is a character that needs to go through a the arc of redemption in order to feel whole again.  I think a lot of people are going to really be moved by a lot of what Top Gun: Maverick brings to the table.  And it indeed takes a very dated piece of 80’s cheese, and makes it feel fresh and surprisingly deep in a lot of ways, improving very much on the story while at the same time not feeling too out of character.

At the same time, it does have the same faults as the original movie; just not to the same embarrassing extant.  Top Gun: Maverick is still pretty thin on story, and you can set your watch to the predictability of the plot points in the film.  At the same time, the movie does actually make up for the short-comings of the story by giving so much more weight to the action scenes themselves.  Cruise, who also works as the film’s producer alongside Jerry Bruckheimer who also returns behind the scenes here, wants to push the envelope with every movie he makes now; not just Mission: ImpossibleTop Gun: Maverick is the beneficiary of that raised bar, as this film takes things to a level that the original wouldn’t have been able to accomplish with even the best equipment at the time.  The late great Tony Scott managed to pull off the combat scenes of the original movie through well constructed editing.  He would take second unit footage of fighter planes in the air and intercut them with close-ups of his actors in the cock-pits, taken while they were all safely on the ground.  With the editing doing most of the work of creating tense, heart pounding action, you could believe that the actors were really in the air flying those planes.  In Top Gun: Maverick, there was no make-believe going on.  When you see Tom Cruise and his fellow actors in the cock-pits of these aircraft, there is no green screen trickery afoot.  His team found a way to have all the actors film their scenes aboard the planes in the actual sky.  Now that we have cameras small enough to produce IMAX quality picture in such a confined space, Cruise and his team can now put the camera POV inside real fighter planes and put the audience right in the middle of the action like never before.  Certainly, the actors didn’t actually fly the planes themselves, but the real pilots are hidden away so well that the effect of seeing the actors really up in the air helps to give this movie a level of authenticity that the original movie never had.  And that in turn helps to make the action sequences work so much more here than before.

It can be argued that the most important creative force now in Tom Cruise movies is Tom Cruise himself.  He is very much a hands-on producer and the reason he is able to take as many risks in his movies is because he has surrounded himself with a team who rise up to the challenge of matching his ambitions.  In his stable of collaborators, he’s managed to develop a good working relationship with Christopher McQuarrie, who has directed the last couple Mission: Impossible films (as well as a draft of the screenplay for this film too), as well as director Joseph Kosinski, who previously directed Cruise in the movie Oblivion (2013).  Kosinski sort of directs out of his wheelhouse in Top Gun: Maverick, changing up from the often muted color palette of his past films like Oblivion and Tron Legacy (2010), in favor of the Magic Hour glow in the style of Tony Scott.  Despite the shift, Kosinski’s handling of the assignment is still commendable.  Not only does he manage to get remarkable footage out of the real airborne photography, but he also managed to cobble it all together into coherent and well edited action sequences.  Honestly, the real appeal of this movie are the combat sequences, particularly the climatic one at the end, which will probably go down as one of the greatest dog fight scenes that has ever been committed to the film.  I’m sure the likes of Howard Hughes, John Ford, and Tony Scott would look at the air battles in this movie and be blown away themselves at how immersive they are.  More than any reason to revisit the story, this is probably why Tom Cruise wanted to make this movie.  He really wanted Maverick to be in a real airborne plane, and doing the kind of daredevil flying that could only have been hinted at before.  At the same time, the movie is respectful to the work of Tony Scott, and there is even a very nice memorial note at the end of the movie in his honor.  Cruise only pushes the envelope here now because technology has finally caught up to what he envisions this movie to be like, and give audiences the full experience.  More than anything else, this is why the movie must be seen, and seen on the biggest possible screen you can find.  When you see the actors doing barrel roles and knifes edge turns in mid-air, you can almost feel the G-Forces yourself because it’s that immersive.  It’s certainly enough to make you forget all the shortcomings the movie has in story, when the action is at this high a level.

At the same time, you also can’t dismiss the sheer magnetism of Tom Cruise in this movie.  He picks up this character 35 years later and doesn’t miss a single beat.  In many ways, given the extra decades of baggage given to this character, I think that Cruise has made Maverick an even better character in this movie now than he did in the original.  Like I said before, the original Top Gun is very light on character development, and Maverick is far less a standout character on the page than he is through Cruise’s performance.  Cruise has certainly improved as an actor over the years and his performance here is proof of that too.  It’s still a character of not much depth, but Cruise does his best to give some weight to him finally.  This is especially clear in a poignant moment when Maverick reconnects with Iceman in the movie.  Knowing the history of these characters, as well as Val Kilmer’s real life battle with cancer that has robbed him of his speech, the scene that they share is far more impactful alone than anything found in the original movie, and it remarkably moving enough to bring a tear to one’s eye.  Cruise naturally delivers in that moment, and it’s great to see Kilmer not left behind as well, also rising to the challenge.  Miles Teller is also very good in this movie, bringing the right amount of intensity to the role, and doing his best to invoke the memory of Anthony Edward’s performance of Goose, without turning it into an impression.  He also does a good job sharing the screen with Cruise, and their moments together are among the best in the movie.  The other new additions to the cast are more of a mixed bag.  I do like what Jennifer Connelly and Jon Hamm bring to their roles, with Hamm doing his best to be the one antagonistic person in the movie while at the same time remaining likable.  The other young pilots are fine, but the fact that they are written in a cliched way is kind of a negative in this movie.  Glen Powell’s Hangman for instance should just be called Iceman 2.0, because that’s essentially what he’s meant to be here in this movie and not much else.  At the same time, none of the performances are embarrassingly bad and character development is not what this movie hinges on anyway.  Still, even if you liked the corny soap opera plot elements of the original, there is still enough in this movie to satisfy, and in many ways, it serves it’s cast of characters much better than before.

It is always hard to make a sequel to a movie so many years after the original, especially after a few decades.  It probably helps that Tom Cruise gave this project over to a director who had experience breathing new life into an old property, which Joseph Kosinski managed to do with Tron Legacy a decade ago.  Both Cruise and Kosinski managed to go above and beyond with their Top Gun sequel because this movie is very much an improvement in every way to the original movie.  The combat sequence in the film’s climax alone is worth the price of admission, and will probably be one of the greatest things that you will see on a big screen this year, without question.  It’s still not a perfect movie.  I could still predict every plot point that was going to happen because it’s a movie that still falls back on cliché likes it’s predecessor, and the same can be said about the characters in the movie as well.  But, there was certainly a lot more heart put into the making of this movie this time around.  Tony Scott did the best he could with what he had available to him back in the late 80’s, and this movie in many ways is an attempt to bring the style of Scott up to the level of filmmaking that we see today, and perhaps fully realize what he wanted to do but couldn’t.  It’s a movie that is respectful to the past, and more importantly, is respectful to the fans who have kept a special place in their heart for the original movie, as corny as it was.  Those who especially enjoyed the shirtless volleyball scene from the original will be happy to know that it too is given a homage here.  And while the Top Gun brand is certainly not my own cup of tea, I do appreciate filmmaking that pushes the envelope, and Top Gun: Maverick is really a true wonder on that front.  I can’t wait to go through the making-of documentaries that I’m sure will be on this movie’s home video release, just to see how they were able to pull off this kind of production.  It certainly makes me even more anxious to see the next Mission: Impossible movie, because every movie that Tom Cruise makes seems to be made as a challenge to outdo the last.  For now, whether Cruise revisits Maverick or not, Top Gun: Maverick is an excellent exercise in filmmaking and proof once again that Cruise is a movie star without peer.  Thanks for taking us into the “Danger Zone” once again.

Rating: 8.5/10

Evolution of Character – Hamlet

If you look at the great breadth of legendary characters to have come from the writings of William Shakespeare, probably the most famous of them all would be the Danish prince himself; Hamlet.  Written in the latter half of Shakespeare’s career and first performed on stage circa 1600, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is widely viewed as one of the Bard’s seminal works.  Over the many centuries since it was written, it could also be said that it is the most widely staged of Shakespeare’s plays, with only Romeo and Juliet being anywhere near the same category.  And the impact that this play has had on the history of theater is immeasurable.  The lines, such as “To be or not to be”, “The lady doth protest too much”, or “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” are so omnipresent in our society that anyone who hasn’t seen the play itself will still know instantly where it comes from.  Apart from being endlessly quoted, there are elements of it’s themes, plot points, and characters that have slipped into many different parts of the culture at large.  How many theater troops out there have a prop skull in their collection?  How many stories of revenge have we seen in movies involving a son going after their uncle for the death or crime committed against their father?  Hamlet is perhaps the reason why Shakespeare has endured throughout the years.  Sure he has many other plays that are still beloved to this day, but there is something about Hamlet that throughout the years has kept it relevant to audiences across the generations.  It probably has to do with the character himself, a young man filled with rage who will go to great lengths to avenge the memory of his father, but in carrying out his plot, he only ends up destroying many more lives as a result, including his own.  It’s a universal tragedy that transcends it’s time in place, because we ourselves come to identify so much with the tragic hero at the heart of the story, and recognize from it the ways that unchecked anger can also endanger ourselves in the process.  It’s a tragedy that resonates, because it’s a tragedy that we so often see repeated time and time again.

One thing that has been interesting over the years is seeing how every generation finds a new spin to take on the tragedy.  Hamlet is a surprisingly malleable story to many different interpretations, without losing it’s core identity.  I think it’s interesting that some people may not realize that they are watching a version of Hamlet right away, but only come to realize it later.  One example of this is Disney’s The Lion King (1994).  Often dubbed “Hamlet in Africa”, the plot of The Lion King does owe a lot of inspiration to Hamlet.  An exiled prince returns to take his kingdom back from his uncle, who usurped the throne after murdering his brother.  Rings a bell doesn’t it, though Disney refrained from doing an exact translation; their movie has a happy ending after all.  More recently, director Robert Eggers put out his Viking epic The Northman (2022), which supposedly is based on the ancient saga that was the original inspiration for Shakespeare’s play.  Like so many have done over the years, Shakespeare also took this well known story from ancient texts and provided his own spin on the age old story, reflecting it’s events within his own time.  It’s just neat to see the story come full circle with a new movie now re-contextualizing the original narrative for today, in a world now that is so familiar with Shakespeare’s play.  Still, to this day, the play is a highly regarded piece, and in particular, the role of Hamlet is one that’s coveted by some of the most talented actors working today.  Stage productions in the past have included such legends as John Gielgud and Christopher Plummer, and Ian McKellan while more recent versions have been staged with the likes of Jude Law, David Tennant, and Benedict Cumberbatch.  Certainly watching Hamlet is an opportunity not to pass up, but the character has also left his mark on the silver screen as well.  It’s interesting to look at how many different actors and directors have taken their own crack at the play and the central role, and see how varied all of them are.  Below are some of the more noteworthy screen portrayals of the Danish prince, including some performances that could be seen as among the finest ever committed to celluloid.  So, let’s see how to be or not to be all of these cinematic Hamlets have been over the years.


Of course, it helps to start out by spotlighting a man whose name in the annals of film history is synonymous with that of Shakespeare.  Laurence Olivier of course became a popular movie star in Hollywood with roles in hit movies like Wuthering Heights (1939) and Rebecca (1940).  But when Europe was plunged into war in the 1940’s, Olivier returned home to England to help boost the morale of his fellow countrymen in the best way he knew how; through the work of Shakespeare.  He took the tricks of the trade he learned from Hollywood and made a big screen adaptation of Henry V (1944) that was not only critically praised, even by Shakespeare purists, but was also a great booster of patriotic pride for the war plagued Britains, which helped them to feel more determined in the fight against the Axis powers.  After the war, Olivier now found himself an accomplished film director on top of being a respected performer, and he naturally looked for more plays to adapt to the big screen.  It’s only natural that he would choose Hamlet as his next piece.  But what he proved with his adaptation of Hamlet was that he was not afraid of changing his cinematic style either.  Where Henry V was a vibrant, Technicolor wonder, Hamlet was a stark, black and white melodrama, more befitting it’s tone.  Still, Olivier still lavished the film with incredible spectacle and he poured all his refined talent into the role too.  Sure, Olivier by that point was a little old for the role (Hamlet is described as being in his early 20’s and Olivier was pushing 40 at the time).  But still, Olivier gives it his all, and he was rewarded for it.  Olivier won the only Oscar for Best Actor of his career for playing Hamlet, and the film itself would go on to win Best Picture; the only adaption of Shakespeare to date that has done so.  That in itself is quite the achievement and befitting for someone with a legacy like Laurence Olivier’s.  Not only that, but he would set the bar high for all the Hamlet’s that would follow after him.  Olivier would go on to adapt many more films based on the works of Shakespeare, but there is no doubt that among the roles that he will be most remembered for, Hamlet will be among the best.


Of course, the impact of the works of Shakespeare is not just limited to Western culture.  Honestly some of the most interesting adaptations of the Bard’s plays have been from other parts of the world, especially in places where the same themes found in those plays resonate on a whole different level.  One noteworthy international filmmaker who was very fond of the works of Shakespeare was Japanese autuer Akira Kurosawa.  Over the course of his legendary career, he adapted a number of Shakespeare’s plays and re-contextualized them into his own nation’s cultural history.  His movie Throne of Blood (1957) is an unmistakable re-telling of the Tragedy of Macbeth, and his late career masterpiece Ran (1986) is a definite adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear, both set against the backdrop of feudal Japan.  Of course, Hamlet was also a source of inspiration for Kurosawa, but unlike the other two, he chose to adapt the well know tragedy to a modern day setting.  Set in contemporary post-war Japan, The Bad Sleep Well takes the well known plot points of Hamlet, but reimagines it into the cutthroat world of corporate politics, with the Hamlet stand-in taking on a corrupt industrialist that was responsible for driving his father to suicide.  Kurosawa’s favorite leading man Toshiro Mifune brings his incredible natural intensity to the role, and it’s a perfect match for the character.  Hamlet’s character is defined by impulse and fury, and Mifune does all of that brilliantly.  Though the movie doesn’t use the same text as Hamlet’s play (not even in translation), the story itself is still vividly translated into it’s new setting and time period.  Kurosawa wasn’t the first to reimagine the story for a modern setting, but he demonstrated how well the story can be adapted to pretty much any time and place while still maintaining it’s core elements.  With Mifune’s intense performance and an excellent vision of how to update the story, The Bad Sleep Well really shows how universal the story of Hamlet is across the world, and it provided a look into how Shakespeare’s global appeal would influence so much of the different artforms throughout the decades that followed.


Since the days of Laurence Olivier, the landscape of British cinema changed very dramatically.  As the stately dramas of the past began to fall out of style, a new breed of filmmakers cropped up and began to take the artform in more experimental territory.  This was an era known as the British New Wave, and one of the noteworthy filmmakers to emerge from this field of new talent was Tony Richardson.  In 1963, Richardson rose to prominence with his fourth-wall breaking period comedy Tom Jones (1963), which won him both the Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture.   After a few more Avant Garde films that shook up the traditional standards of British filmmaking, Richardson decided to tackle Shakespeare as well, but in his own way.  Gone was the opulence of Olivier’s big screen classic, and instead the filmmaker utilized a style that felt more like versions one would see on the stage.  The sets are sparse, suggesting grandeur, but through minimalist set design.  It feels very reminiscent of a recent Shakespeare adaptation, The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021) from Joel Coen, which likewise stripped it’s images down to stark impressionism.  Apart from that, the film feels very much like a traditional staging of the play, albeit in an abridged version.  What does strike the film as odd is that the role of Hamlet is filled by Nichol Williamson, who again feels a bit old for the part.  Now, there has been a history of actors playing Hamlet that were much older than Williamson when he did (he was 33 at the time), but maybe it’s the beard that he’s wearing that makes him look and feel much older, which only becomes more distracting by the fact that a younger actor is playing his uncle Claudius (a then 30 year old Anthony Hopkins).  Apart from that, his performance is perfectly suitable, and fits well within the vision that Tony Richardson is trying to display in this movie.  This may be a movie version that either is too much of a departure stylistically, or one that actually feels closer to the roots of the play for some audiences.  In any case, it does reinforce how well Hamlet is able to remain relevant across many different generations of storytellers.


For a long time, some of the most noteworthy adaptations of Shakespeare’s Hamlet have been made outside of the Hollywood system.  But, Hollywood would also tackle the famous play from time to time.  This lavish Warner Brothers production from Italian filmmaker Franco Zeffirelli (who also brought Romeo and Juliet to the big screen in 1968) brings Hamlet back to it’s pre-Renaissance roots in a very medieval setting.  It also has a blockbuster cast, including Mel Gibson in the title role.  Regardless of what one thinks of Mel Gibson today, his casting as the Danish prince does make sense.  He was a big movie star at the time and was still youthful looking enough to believably take on the role.  He also had a strong history of giving intense performances in his movies, with this movie in particular seeming to be a warm-up for what he would eventually do in his award winning Braveheart (1995).  At the same time, you can also clearly tell that Mel is a movie star with not a whole lot of experience with Shakespeare.  He plays the role of Hamlet much in the way that he would also play William Wallace; very cinematically.  But, it becomes distracting when the text of the play is also being used, and Gibson’s grasp of the iambic pentameter isn’t as refined as some of his co-stars like Glenn Close or Ian Holm, who have more stage experience with Shakespeare.  Even still, the performance is serviceable enough, because this isn’t a stage set version of Hamlet; it’s a lavish Hollywood spectacle, to which his performance is arguably more naturally attuned with.  At the same time, it’s not at all surprising that Gibson hasn’t revisited Shakespeare since.  Obviously he’s got a lot of other issues to deal with, and Shakespeare clearly is not his style.  But, compared to other Hamlets in the past, this is also one of the performances that does stand out as being more naturalistic in comparison, and less stage bound.


Hamlet’s characters are so universally well known that you can imagine what the lives they have outside of the roles they play in the story.  That was the particular idea that playwright Tom Stoppard stumbled upon when he wrote his own meta examination of the story of Hamlet.  Instead of writing his play around the most famous characters in the story, he instead focuses on the throw away side characters; in particular Rosencrantz & Guildenstern.  The two characters are just bit players that occasionally are present to be the recipients of Hamlet’s rambling soliloquies, and are eventually unceremoniously disposed of off stage, with the titular line “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead” being their one noteworthy addition to the play itself.  Stoppard’s farcical play hilariously reimagines how the events of the famous play would appear when seen through the eyes of characters who are not meant to be the center of attention.  In the film, the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are played by Gary Oldman and Tim Roth respectively, and both off them hilariously portray the central conceit of the play perfectly, as they awkwardly wait for their turns to come in the story.  One of the best examples of this is when they find Hamlet talking to himself alone in a room.  We of course know this as Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy, but from the point of view of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet looks like a crazy person rambling off to no one.  And that’s what actor Iain Glen (most famous recently for his performance as Jorah Mormont on Game of Thrones) perfectly realizes in his performance; that demented insanity that was always beneath the surface with Hamlet that to him seemed deep and introspective but to others would be viewed as lunacy.  Glen also very much looks the part; youthful and full of energy, which makes his underlying insanity also that much more unsettling.  It’s a brilliant dissection of the underlying themes of Shakespeare’s work, and it gives the character and his tragedy a whole different context.  The movie of this play really captures the idea that the best way to see the absurdity of the world is to look at it through the eyes of those who are purposely pushed to the side.


Perhaps the most comprehensive adaptation of Hamlet ever undertaken for the silver screen, this version comes from someone who many consider to be the successor to Laurence Olivier in movie adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays.  Like Olivier, Branagh carried his experience of performing the Bard’s works on the stage and married them with a strong expertise of the cinematic arts, and perfectly reimagined these classic works for a modern day audience.  He naturally followed in Olivier’s footsteps by making his directorial debut with Henry V (1989), and he followed that up with a colorful adaptation of Shakespeare’s comedy Much Ado About Nothing (1993).  However, when it came time to consider taking on Hamlet, as I’m sure most devotees of the Bard do eventually, Branagh was committed to doing something that shockingly had not been done up to that point, which is film the full complete text of Shakespeare’s play unabridged.  As a result, we receive the full unedited version of Hamlet, which on film clocks in at a staggering 4 hours in length.  To match that epic length, Branagh also lavished his production on an epic scale, shooting it on 70 mm film with extraordinary set design and costuming, as well as a star studded cast including Oscar winners like Julie Christie and Charlton Heston, legends of the stage like Derek Jacobi and Brian Blessed, and Billy Crystal for some reason.  The movie may be a lot to handle for someone not used to a full adaptation of every line of Shakespeare, but you definitely have to admire the audacity of Branagh’s vision.  His style is very operatic and gives the true weight of the play the epic grandeur that it deserves.  He also manages to capture the character quite well, perfectly balancing the manic insanity of his character’s outbursts with the harrowing quiet self-reflection during his soliloquies.  He also surprisingly captures the youthful spirit of the character, despite also being a bit older like so many actors have been in the role.  Surely the best way to get the full experience of Hamlet is to watch it performed on stage, but as far as film adaptations go, this is definitely the best that has been done so far, because it’s the only one that leaves nothing out.  With this, Branagh more than earns his reputation as this generation’s Olivier, and when it comes to Hamlet, he may have even outdone the old master.


Like Kurosawa many years prior, director Michael Almereyda also say a vision of how to bring the story of Hamlet to the modern day.  But what is interesting here is that he did so without changing a single word of Shakespeare’s text.  Perhaps inspired by Baz Luhrmann’s modern re-imaging of Romeo+Juliet (1996), this is a version of Hamlet that does retain the same language, but sets it in the world we know today.  And remarkably, it all still works.  Like The Bad Sleep Well, the story fits very well into a social drama of corporate greed and maniacal devotion to family legacy.  It feels very much like the recent HBO series Succession in that way.  Naturally, to make this version of the play work, the actor playing Hamlet has to feel like a contemporary modern man, while at the same time believably capable of handling the rhythm of Shakespeare’s words.  Thankfully, Ethan Hawke rose to the challenge, and gives a very strong performance.  It’s surprising how well the character of Hamlet fits into the style of a 90’s era angsty youth, and Hawke captures that perfectly.  He especially brings out the intensity of the character, while also feeling natural and not too showy in his performance.  Of course, Shakespeare purists might find some of the choices of setting and character a little too strange in this movie.  The movie does feature Hamlet delivering his “To Be or not To Be” soliloquy in a Blockbuster video store, which I’m sure is a far cry from what Shakespeare had intended.  But at the same time, it’s a looking at what this story means for our time and place, and the interesting thing about this version of Hamlet is that he’s also obsessed with the artform that has kept his narrative alive for centuries; the movies.  This gives that soliloquy a whole different context as a result, as Hamlet weighs what he plans to do against what he has seen happen in the movies themselves.  It’s an adaptation that may be a little too revisionist for some, but it is nevertheless a fascinating experiment in seeing how a modern day Hamlet would exist in our world.

No doubt Hamlet will continue to grace the silver screen in many more adaptations, but thus far, his screen presence has been marked not just by some great performances by some legendary stars, but by movie adaptations that try very hard to reimagine the character and his story in new and interesting ways.  Hamlet is very much a challenge for any actor, as you often have to memorize and deliver pages of dialogue without end, and if the actor can pull that off and make it feel natural, it can stand as a genuine achievement.  Most actors relish the chance to play Hamlet because of that challenge.  He is one of the most complex characters ever to come from the mind of William Shakespeare, full of contradiction and self-doubt.  The tragedy of Hamlet really comes from the fact that he becomes his own worst enemy in the end, by letting his emotions get the best of him and for not realizing the own folly of his plan, as noble a cause it may be.  Certainly when it comes to the greatest cinematic adaptations of the play, Olivier and Branagh are at the pinnacle.  Olivier achieved the impressive feat of winning the Oscar for his efforts, and Branagh’s version is probably the most complete version of the play that we’ll ever see put on the big screen.  But there are plenty of great performances over the years that have marked the character as well.  Even a parody of the character as seen in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1990) is it’s own special contribution, as it points out the inherent lunacy of the character and his not very well thought out plan.   There honestly is so many ways to tell this story and still have it work, based on it’s universal themes.  That’s why you can have the characters played by lions in an animated Disney film, or have it set in a corporate boardroom like the 2000 Ethan Hawke adaptation.  With or without the text of the play, it’s a universal cautionary tale about the way people consume themselves with revenge and how that only leads to a cycle of destruction in it’s wake.  The ultimate tragedy of Hamlet is that he is too blinded by his ambition to see that he’s sowing the seeds of his own destruction and in turn the destruction of his own kingdom as well.  At the same time, there is a nobleness to his character, in that he wishes to punish those who took power through their own ill intentions.  It remains a powerful work that continues to be both strong on the stage as well as on the screen.  And with that I say, “Goodnight sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to they rest.”

The Subscription Wall – The Future of Netflix and How Losing Subscribers Will Change the Game in Streaming

Let’s have no doubt that for the last decade, Netflix had become the most influential media company in the last half century.  Not only did they contribute much to the cultural zeitgeist through their exclusive content over the years, but they also changed the way that media is distributed to audiences, and how audiences consume their entertainment as well.  Already having caused the collapse of the movie rental industry with their conquest over Blockbuster Video in the early part of the decade, Netflix soon began to make waves through the new advances in streaming movies and TV shows online.  Netflix’s dominance in the early days of streaming made them a force to be reckoned with, as both the movie theater industry and the studios themselves began to fret over the rapid growth they were seeing from the Silicon Valley based tech giant.  Netflix certainly grew rapidly thanks to on demand entertainment options, which brought in many subscribers as well as lucrative contracts with the studios to be the online home for an extensive catalog of movies.  And the growth over that time not only turned Netflix into a multi-billion dollar behemoth in the tech and entertainment industry, but it also sparked their Hollywood division to expand into exclusive content, essentially making them not just a distributor, but a studio in it’s own right.  And invest they did.  Billions of dollars was poured into production of new shows and movies, exclusive to their platform.  This included investment of mega-budget productions that were comparable to tent-pole productions from the major studios; sometimes costing in the ballpark of $200 million.  And those budgets were allocated without the guarantee of box office returns to off-set them.  What Netflix justified the massive spending towards content on was the sustained annual subscriber growth and retention that guaranteed them revenue in the billions on a monthly basis.  But, while subscriptions as part of a company model has often been a favorable thing to tout to stockholders and capital investors, there is always the risk when a company reaches a point when that growth just stops.

That’s what has happened to Netflix recently.  After more than a decade of sustained new subscriber growth, the last quarter revealed a stunning new reality; that for the the first time, Netflix actually lost subscribers.  Now, the numbers do need to be put into perspective.  The total number of lost subscribers was around 200,000 in the first quarter.  Compare that to a total subscriber base of over 250 million worldwide, and the loss was a fraction of a percent, and yet this was enough to sound the alarms.  It didn’t help much that this sudden negative growth came after Netflix forecast as much as 2 million more subscribers in the last quarter.  Missing the forecast by that much was enough to shaken investor confidence in Netflix’s overall value.  The stock price, which had been trading a year ago at almost $700 a share has been in free-fall over the last month.  Now worth just over $100 a share, the stock is still trading comparable to other media companies like WarnerMedia and Disney, but it’s a nearly 700% drop from it’s peak.  Some speculate that this is a much needed correction, as Netflix may have been overvalued in the stock market and that this crash was inevitable.  But, even if Netflix manages to make up some of it’s lost value over the next year, there is one thing they may have lost forever, and that’s their dominance over the streaming market.  Streaming will almost assuredly still remain a key part of entertainment in the years ahead, but the idea that it is Netflix vs. Everyone Else has been obliterated.  In truth, one of the reasons Netflix likely hit this Subscriber wall all of a sudden is because the competition is greater now than it was in past years.  Since 2019, Apple, Disney, WarnerMedia, Universal and Paramount have all launched their own platforms, and in turn have consolidated all of their library material there as well.  Netflix has been preparing for this new eventuality for some time, given the billions of dollars spent on original content.  But, the effect may not have shielded them fast enough, and this has shaken people’s confidence in Netflix’s ability to perform in a more competitive field.

The news of Netflix’s sudden misfortune could not come at a worse time, as Disney themselves have managed to see higher than expected new growth on their platform, Disney+.  Of all the new streamers, Disney+ has seen the biggest rise in subscriber growth since it’s launch, clearing the 100 million mark in little over a year since launch.  The big advantage for Disney is that unlike Netflix, it doesn’t need to rely solely on subscriber growth to offset the cost of production on their movies and shows.  Disney+ is part of a larger company portfolio that includes theme parks, television networks, consumer goods as well as luxury cruises and resort hotels.  While Disney stock likewise has seen decrease from record highs, it’s fall was not as sharp and it’s prospects for growth still give it long term value.  There’s also the fact that streaming channels are also available from companies with nearly endless resources at their disposal like Amazon and Apple.  Apple in particular has been aggressively pursuing prestige projects from the industry’s most valued talent in the same way that Netflix had in the last decade, and it’s paying off for them much faster.  In little over 2 1/2 years since it’s launch, Apple TV+ has already picked up coveted awards like Best Picture at the Oscars (CODA) and Best TV Comedy at the Emmys (Ted Lasso), which Netflix has been pursuing for nearly ten years and has thus far come up empty.  One other disadvantage that Netflix finds itself in is that the more desirable library content has all been re-consolidated back to the studios that made them.  One of the things that made Netflix such a big hit with audiences before was that bingeable shows like Friends, The Office and Seinfeld had all their seasons readily available on it’s platform.  Since then, the shows have been pulled off Netflix as studios like Warner Brothers and Universal wanted to make those shows available to watch on their own streaming channels; HBO Max and Peacock respectively.   So, while Netflix still has a library of their own critically acclaimed, easily bingeable, it’s still not as extensive as the other big studios, which have had a decades long head start.  That’s where a lot of the confidence in Netflix has run out; the other platforms have managed to grow much more quickly, because they had the rights to the things people wanted to see.  Netflix has been doing their best to convince people that they weren’t loosing anything, but instead gaining much more, but sadly, that excuse had it’s limits.

One thing that probably affected Netflix’s staggering drop the most is the fact that their monthly subscription cost became too high for many people.  Once available year’s ago for the low price of $8 a month, Netflix now chargers subscribers over $15 a month, making them now the most expensive streaming service.  Now, subscription cost increases are nothing new, and Netflix is not alone among streamers that have gradually raised their prices over time.  But, at some point, audiences begin to wonder if they are getting their money’s worth when the prices keep going up.  With Netflix raising their monthly subscription at the same time they were losing licenses to shows people wanted to watch on their platform, that question became more and more on people’s minds.  At the same time, Netflix has also cracked down on password sharing, which they believe was affecting their subscriber growth.  That’s honestly one of the disadvantages of having content behind a paywall; the draw for subscribers is determined by the desirability of what’s inside those said walls, and a lot of people were for the longest time being content to leech off of their friends or family who had an account in order to access their shows they wanted.  Because it was easy to do, people just password shared for the longest time, so Netflix would still see a large amount of traffic to their site, but not as many sign ups.  This didn’t seem like a concern when subscriptions were still fairly low, but as concern over competition began to grow, and the need for more costly exclusives grew with it, Netflix could no longer just passively overlook the password problem.  However, by closing the loopholes, it also loses them a growing audience.  Sure, they can save themselves from piracy, but a lot of those people suddenly losing access are not guaranteed to start subscribing for real as a result.  At this point, the higher cost of streaming becomes an issue, as a lot of the people suddenly cut off are probably those who can’t afford the new high rate, and that creates a loss in engagement with the expensive new programing they want people to watch.  Also, subscribers who have been connected for a long time, suddenly are not seeing the value of what they’re buying either, especially when the other streamers have better rates and more interesting content.  And with economic hardship setting in post-pandemic, it becomes a perfect storm for Netflix to all of a sudden handle right now.

Now, at the same time, it has to be stated that Netflix is not going away the same way that Blockbuster Video did in it’s wake.  Despite seeing much of their content moved over to other streamers, they still have their own in-house content that is very much still popular with a lot of people.  This includes hit, awards winning shows like The Crown, Stranger Things, Ozark, and Bridgerton, as well as acclaimed original movies like Roma (2018), The Irishman (2019), and last year’s The Power of the Dog (2021).  And just last year, Netflix enjoyed the success of it’s biggest hit yet; the Korean import Squid Game.  These shows and movies will ensure that Netflix will still have content of value on it’s platform.  But these programs were made in a flurry of when Netflix seemed to be unstoppable.  As they’ve hit the wall now in subscriber growth, what does that mean for all the projects that they have still in the pipeline, as well as the projects that they might have been interested in.  Already, there seems to be some belt-tightening going on at Netflix, as many projects have suddenly been announced as scrapped or being put on hold.  A lot have cancellations had preceded the news of Netflix subscriber miss, which indicates that Netflix may have been well aware of their precarious position before.  But, now the problem is compounded.  I’ve heard a lot of bad takes related to why Netflix is suddenly vulnerable and beginning to downsize.  Among them is the completely false criticism by anti-SJW critics that Netflix’s commitment to inclusivity and social awareness is at fault for the declining result; trying to work the news into their “get woke, go broke” narrative.  The reason this is false is because the projects getting cancelled are not the ones that are described as “woke;” because those shows are actually popular and well regarded.  What Netflix is especially cutting out of their programming outlook are overly expensive projects that are more about the flashy name recognition than the actual quality of the show.  Think needless cash grabs like the Cowboy Bebop live action remake series which was cancelled fairly quickly once the audience numbers came.  If anything, it’s probably a good thing that Netflix is learning to tighten it’s budgets now and invest more wisely, because what they had been doing in the past had been a bit reckless.

But what needs to be addressed more with regards to Netflix’s future is how they’ll be able to grow with regards to subscriptions.  The fact that this business model was their sole driving source of revenue was always going to be a problem.  Eventually, you run out of new people to sign up for your service.  Even by cracking down on password sharing you can only grow your subscriber base so much.  For a lot of people, the cost to content ratio just isn’t enough to make them jump on board.  So, if Netflix needs to prove it can raise it’s total subscriber base, they may have to resort to that dreaded A-word: advertisements.  Such a move wouldn’t be unusual in the streaming market.  Other platforms like Hulu and Peacock already have ad-supported tiers available to their subscribers.  The one problem that Netflix would face from this is loosing their appeal for having add free content.  Putting ads in the middle or at the front of their shows and movies would change a lot of the dynamic of their programming, and some subscribers may see it as selling out.  But, on the other hand, such criticisms would be moot if they still maintained that ad-free tier that currently sits at $15.  There are two benefits to an ad supported tier.  It allows potential subscribers another option that might better fit within their budgets.  And, Netflix would have a secondary source of revenue selling space to advertisers.  Sure, it would mean that some people would have to get used to annoying ads during their programming, but as we’ve seen, some streamers have managed to make it work for them.  At this point, Netflix really has no other choice.  This is the only way to lower the rate of subscription for them without having it cut into revenue, which will help reinvigorate investor confidence.  But, no doubt about it, Netflix will be a much different company as a result.  The question is, how soon will Netflix begin rolling out this option to the public.  We’ll likely see add supported Netflix tiers before the year is over, and maybe even much sooner.  But, Netflix more than anything, wants their audience to have access to the content they make while at the same time maximizing the benefits to them.  And there certainly will be a lot of people out there who won’t mind enduring a couple adds if it means being able to access Netflix content as a more reasonable price.

But, what does the recent struggles for Netflix mean for every other streaming platform out there.  Does the sudden stop in growth raise concerns for the other streamers as well, as they try to also rapidly grow their base.  One thing that has really changed the game recently is the increase in competition.  With more than one player in town, that means that there are multiple choices to chose with regards to what people want to sign up for.  And in most cases, some of those platforms are going to be passed over in favor of others.  That’s likely another reason for Netflix sudden subscriber loss; because audiences favored subscribing to another streamer over them.  The cost piles up the more streamers you subscribe to, and for many, the choices are tough.  This is true for all of them, beyond just Netflix.  That’s why the competition is fierce over all the content being created and all the talent that is being drawn in.  Every one of the streaming platforms needs to make their case to become part of the maybe 2 or 3 streaming channels that the average consumer signs up for.  And this is even in a market where YouTube also exist for free, making the competition for attention even greater.  The entire streaming market is in a balancing act of justifying billions of dollars worth of investment in high profile projects, while at the same time keeping the consumer cost justifiable in an increasingly competitive market.  Again, the ones who are best equipped to handle this are companies where the media side is still just a sliver of the company’s overall operation, like Amazon or Apple.  Amazon has spent a billion dollars alone on their upcoming Lord of the Rings series for Prime Video.  In the grand scheme of things, it’s nothing compared to the money they make annually, and if no one ends up watching the show, it’s not going to hurt them in the slightest.  Certainly Amazon would love people to watch their shows, but they are not really dependent on people watching them either.  With the other streamers, who solely operate as media companies like Netflix, it is crucial that they make wise choices in what they choose to make and how they wish to present it to their audiences.  And when it’s possible to lose out in being chosen as a chosen platform in any individual customer’s preferences, the choices made have to be much more carefully thought out.

So, for right now, Netflix is at a crossroads that a mere year ago was seen as improbable.  They have taken a beating at the stock market and consumer confidence in them has been broken for the first time.  Are they doomed to continue that spiral downward or are they going to be able to pick themselves up again.  My money is honestly on the latter, because some may forget, they’ve been in this boat before.  Back in the early part of the 2010’s, Netflix suddenly raised their subscription rate after they decided to split their services into two separate categories, each with their own subscription rate.  One was for their original disc rental through the mail service that first put Netflix on the map, and the other was for the brand new streaming service they just launched, with a third bundle tier to do both.  People thought that Netflix then had shot themselves in the foot by splitting the services like they did, but what we soon realized was that Netflix was actually looking to the future with streaming.  And they were right, as most people abandoned the rental service and chose the streaming service instead, creating a boom for Netflix for this cutting edge platform that they were very much the forerunners for.  Over the next decade, they continued to ride that wave, and forced Hollywood to confirm in response.  But, Hollywood has indeed caught up, and Netflix now must look at the options they have in front of them in order to find that special spark again.  It’s going to be hard, because when they embraced streaming in the first place, they were filling a void that hadn’t existed before in entertainment.  Now, that revolutionary action has become the industry standard, and they are no longer the market mover that they once were.  At this point, Netflix may even need to resort to following the other streamers lead and adopt ad-support as a part of their business model.  It obviously will be a big blow to the esteem they had as the trendsetter in a changing Hollywood.  But, as long as they continue to make movies and shows that people love, continue to make smart bets and refrain from costly gambles, and reinforce their esteem as a quality brand that cares just as much about the artists as it does about the product, they will continue to prosper.  Netflix made streaming what it is, and their days are far from numbered.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness – Review

When Marvel began developing all the possible adaptations of their comics for inclusion in their massive cinematic universe, I’m sure that one of the hardest sells they were going to have to make to their parent company Disney was a movie based around the character of Doctor Strange.  Strange holds a special place in the Marvel comics library.  Unlike other characters in the assemblage of earth’s mightiest heroes known as the Avengers, Doctor Strange is not someone who fights threats with super powers or state of the art gadgetry, but rather with magic.  Basing a big budget action film around a magician casting spells doesn’t immediately scream out as smashing success, but Strange did have champions in high places.  There was of course Stan Lee, one of the men who created Doctor Strange in the comics, who certainly held sway over the Marvel brain trust in much of his later years.  And then there was also Kevin Feige, the head of Marvel Studios, who has long been an outspoken fan of the Sorcerer Supreme.  One of the things that certainly helped to make Doctor Strange’s presence on the big screen possible was the fact that he was a crucial member of the Infinity War storyline that was the backbone of the first three phases of the MCU.  Being the guardian of the Time Stone, known as the Eye of Agamotto, Strange was not just an important figure in his own franchise, but also a key character in what would ultimately be the epic showdown with Thanos in the climatic Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019).  At the same time, Marvel took extra special consideration to not just make Doctor Strange another super hero like all the rest.  They wanted him to be a flawed but inspiring hero in his own right, with a character journey that was just as complex as any of the others.  It’s not just about the ability to master the mystical arts; it’s about overcoming the problems with oneself that defines becoming a hero in the first place.  That’s what was essential in establishing in the first Doctor Strange (2016) film, and even more so in his continuing adventures.

A lot of time has passed in between our first outing with Doctor Strange.  The Infinity Saga wrapped up with Endgame, and it was time to launch the MCU into it’s next big chapter.  So where does Marvel go in a post Infinity War universe.  To the Multiverse of course.  The Multiverse has been an especially popular tool for comic book writers both at Marvel and DC, because of the seemingly limitless possibilities it offers.  The multiverse allows storytellers to not just have one version of a character in their story, but many all at once.  And it also allows for many different variations of the same character to all be considered canon.  Before Marvel became the power house studio that they are now as part of the Disney company, they had previously been relying upon multiple studios to bring their heroes to the big screen, spreading their licenses across all of Hollywood.  Now under one tent, they’ve been establishing the MCU as a connected universe built on continuity, which excludes everything made before Iron Man (2008).  But, the multiverse concept actually gives Marvel a chance now to say that indeed, all of it is canon.  It’s exactly what they did with last winter’s Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021), which combined all the Spider-Man franchises of the past and present into one, and legitimized every cinematic iteration of the character up to now as part of the MCU’s greater story-line.  And naturally, Doctor Strange was also along for the ride in that film.  Further development of the multiverse storyline has been built into the MCU through the limited series runs on Disney+, especially in the shows Wandavision and Loki.  Now, the Doctor Strange series itself brings the threat of what the multiverse means for the greater MCU to a head, and it helps to firmly establish where Strange’s story is about to head in this, lack of a better word, “strange” new world.  With Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) we get our best look yet at the next big threat of the MCU, and the question we find is it a bold new direction for the franchise or is it too much, everywhere, all at once.

The story picks up right after the events of No Way Home.  Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is having re-occurring nightmares where he dies after trying to help a girl named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) who is being hunted by demonic creatures.  While he has these dark dreams, he is also living out his life dealing with the aftermath of the even in the MCU known as the “Blip.”  Having been absent during the five years of the Blip, he has lost many things in the process.  He no longer has the title of Sorcerer Supreme, which has been passed on to his one time assistant Wong (Benedict Wong), with whom he now has been butting heads with.  Also, his one time romantic partner Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) had found a new love of her life in the intervening five years, and is getting married.  All of this makes Stephen begin to wonder what saving the universe cost him personally.  Yes, Thanos had been vanquished, but losing five years has also made him alone and less powerful.  Then, in the middle of Christine’s wedding, a disturbance grabs Strange’s attention.  The girl from his nightmares, America Chavez, is being chased through the streets of New York City by a horrific looking monster.  Strange and Wong together manage to save her, but they soon learn that she has been on the run from many other demons just like it, and will likely be hunted down again.  She reveals that she has the special ability to travel across the multiverse, which Strange believes might be what the one who sent the monsters is after.  America Chavez is initially hesitant to trust Doctor Strange, because other Strange’s that have helped her in the multiverse ended up betraying her.  To seek a solution, Doctor Strange decides to go to someone who might know a bit more about the limits of the multiverse than he currently does; Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), who has been in self-imposed exile after the events of Wandavision.  However, Strange is unaware that Wanda has been growing her power in secret, reading from the forbidden book known as the Darkhold, which has elevated her to a higher level of power and turned her into an entity known as The Scarlet Witch.  As Strange and America Chavez venture deeper into the depths of the multiverse, they run into a Sorcerer Supreme variant of Strange’s old adversary, Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who is also in league with a powerful organization in charge of surveilling the multiverse; the Illuminati.  With all this madness going on around him, can Doctor Strange manage to set things right without leaving more destruction in his wake.

During the development of this movie, a lot of issues began to rise up.  First, the director of the original Doctor Strange, Scott Derrickson,  bowed out over creative differences.  This alarmed many fans because a director leaving a project is usually a sign of a movie that is falling apart and likely to be ruined.  But, fears of disaster for the franchise were alleviated once it was announced that Sam Raimi would be taking over the reigns of the production.  Raimi is a legend in the world of horror filmmaking, as well as in the genre of super hero movies, having been the guy who brought Spider-Man successfully to the big screen with Tobey Maguire in the 2002 original.  The prospect of him taking on the weird and wild world of Doctor Strange seemed like a match made in heaven, given Raimi’s knack for perfectly mixing humor and genuine terror together in movies like The Evil Dead (1981), Army of Darkness (1992) and Drag Me to Hell (2009).   But, Raimi has not been behind the camera in almost a decade, and his last film was a safe, corporate product called Oz, The Great and Powerful (2013), made for Disney.  A lot of people were wondering if Raimi would still be allowed to make a movie in his own style, or would he be hamstringed by the studio in order to work all the Marvel mandated elements into the film so that it would fit into their expanding continuity.  I can thankfully say that all those worries about what kind of Sam Raimi movie we would end up getting didn’t come true.  Even though the movie still fits well within the whole MCU continuity, Marvel still allowed Raimi to make the movie his way.  This is very much a Sam Raimi movie, with all the zaniness kept in tact.  If you love the creative camera work seen in the Evil Dead movies, it’s here too.  If you love the almost cartoon like visual flair of the Spider-Man movies, it’s here too.  There are a lot of treats here for long time Raimi fans but at the same time it doesn’t lose the focus of what it needs to be as part of the MCU storyline.  Honestly, his direction is easily the best element of this movie, because otherwise the movie might have lacked an identity apart from what he brought to it.

If the movie has a major flaw, it would be that it asks the audience to accept a lot of plot elements that otherwise won’t make much sense without prior knowledge of what has been going on in the larger MCU universe.  The movie not only includes backstory from previous MCU films, but also the Disney+ series Wandavision, so if you haven’t been following along up to this point, you might be lost.  At some points, particularly early in the movie, the film kind of loses some momentum as it attempts to catch everyone up to speed.   The movie also tends to not go deep enough on certain story elements, particularly related to America Chavez, who mostly serves the story as a human MacGuffin.  Which is why the Raimi touches are so crucial in picking up the slack of the movie.  It’s a lore heavy film, and that might turn off some viewers.  Even as someone who has watched every MCU connected title up to this point, I could feel the strain of this movie trying to make all the in universe connections service the story, and it becomes cumbersome.  As a result, the movie is best when you look at it as a Sam Raimi movie, and less as an MCU film.  I will attest that none of the shortcomings of this movie ever spoil the entertainment value of the film as a whole.  I do appreciate that it moves along very fluidly.  Those two hours go by in flash, and though I am sure some people would’ve liked a longer cut to savor all the “madness” of the multiverse, I do appreciate Sam Raimi and company showing restraint as well.  They could’ve gone crazier, but knew in the end that what mattered most was finding the core of this particular story.  That should be the goal of any stand alone MCU project; finding the reason why this particular story should be told in the midst of the larger story that it is set against.  When it doesn’t get bogged down in the larger universe implications, this is actually an interesting character study of it’s hero, as he examines what it takes to be the best version of himself, after seeing all the failures of his multiversal variants as well as the consequences that his actions have left in their wake, both good and bad.

One thing that is pleasing about this movie is the cast itself.  Benedict Cumberbatch doesn’t miss a beat in his role as the no longer Sorcerer Supreme.  One thing that has been interesting in his character arc over his presence in the MCU is watching him go from an arrogant playboy doctor to a duty bound protector of the cosmos, and here in this movie, we see him become more introspective than ever before.  Like I mentioned before, this is a Doctor Strange that is coming to terms with the personal cost of doing the right thing, and how that has ripple effects of its own.  In this movie, he learns what it means to be trustworthy, as he must find a way to protect America Chavez after many other versions of himself have failed to do so, and Cumberbatch manages to play that vulnerable side to the character perfectly.  Returning stars Benedict Wong, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Rachel McAdams also all manage to deliver more solid performances as well.  I was actually surprised to see how well McAdams is used in this movie.  Her character was largely an afterthought in the original movie, but here she actually has a purpose to fulfill in the plot other than being the love interest.  But, if the movie has a true stand out, it’s Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda.  Now in full Scarlet Witch mode, she is a terrifying presence in this movie, and her performance is also on another level.  There are moments in this movie with Scarlet Witch that rank among the most unsettling ever put in a comic book movie, let alone from the MCU.  And her performance runs the gamut as well, going from heartbreaking in one moment to foreboding in the next.  Seeing her progress this character from her first appearance in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), through the Infinity War storyline to her limited series Wandavision, has been one of the best things that has come out of the MCU as a whole, and we see much of the culmination of all that rich character development here in this movie.  Olsen is delivering awards caliber work here, making Wanda creepy and sinister while at the same time sympathetic and letting us know exactly where she is coming from.  If anything, it’s her story that is the element that lifts this movie up the most.  There are also some genuinely pleasing surprises in the cameos found in this movie.  Without giving anything away, these cameos will please those of you who are fans of the MCU, fans of the comic books, fans of Sam Raimi films, and fans of all the above put together.

One thing that is particularly with this movie is that despite being called the Multiverse of Madness, the movie never really goes all in on the madness part.  Sure, there are a lot of crazy elements to be sure, but the movie surprisingly shows a lot of restraint as well.  This is largely due to the fact that we never really get a full multiverse experience on the level that one might expect.  Most of the crazy extent of the multiverse is limited to an incredibly imaginative but short montage that I’m sure nerds are going to picking apart for Easter eggs for many years to come.  But, for the majority of the movie, we spend most of the story in at most three separate universes; the mainline MCU, an alternate utopian universe run by the Illuminati, and a dystopian universe that an alternate Strange is responsible for ruining.  Some fans may be disappointed that more wasn’t done with the concept of a multiverse, but I feel like this was the best route to take in service of this one story.  Doctor Strange needed to end up in these specific universes in order to make the crucial choices that he does.  Much like how Spider-Man: No Way Home  wisely held back on the amount of Spider-men that could’ve populated that movie, limiting it to just the ones we’ve seen up to now (Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield and Tom Holland).  Given where the movie ends up, I feel like it best fulfills what it needs for a multiverse story.  The Illuminati world is especially well constructed, being just slightly off from our own world without feeling too alien.  Of course, when the movie goes full Raimi it also doesn’t disappoint either.  He perfectly blends a gothic sensibility into this universe without it feeling too out of character for the MCU.  I especially like when Strange starts to mess around with spells related to the undead, which feels very much like Raimi in Army of Darkness mode.  Despite the seemingly limitless possibilities, I think it works well to this movie’s advantage that it remains grounded.  I’m sure that given Marvel’s larger MCU plans that this is far from the last we’ve seen of the Multiverse in the MCU, especially given what projects lay on the horizon for Marvel.  It’s an appetizer, but an enormously satisfying one that is especially enriched with the flavor of a filmmaker as unique as Sam Raimi.

So, overall Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness isn’t as top tier as say something groundbreaking like an Avengers level film, but as a sequel to the original Doctor Strange, it is more than adequate and I would say it even tops it’s predecessor by quite a bit.  For one thing, the whole Sam Raimi element of it all is great to watch alone.  Given that he was able to pour so much of his own voice into this movie is pleasing enough, especially given that he hasn’t been able to do that on this kind of scale in a long while.  One hopes that he’s not a one and done director for this franchise, because I think Marvel is better off with giving him more to do moving ahead in MCU.  Like other filmmakers who have managed to pour their own voice into the individual projects of the MCU, like James Gunn and Taika Waititi, Raimi has the chance of cementing his own unique corner of this massive cinematic universe if he is granted the oppurtunity moving forward with the further adventures of Doctor Strange.  But, if he choses to move on to something else, that is understandable too, given the rather shaky history he’s had in the past with studios.  As of now, it’s great to see this kind of movie in the pantheon of all of Marvel’s movies so far.  There are shortcomings with the story itself, but plenty to love when it comes to the style and the performances.  Elizabeth Olsen in particular is further cementing her presence as one of the best things to ever come out of the MCU with her amazing work here.  And Benedict Cumberbatch further reinforces why he was the best choice to play this iconic character on the big screen.  There are of course plenty of surprises throughout, but I should warn all the speculators online out there to hedge your expectations a bit.  Not every rumor that we’ve been ruminating on since this film was announced proves true, though a few did manage to become a reality, and there are even some that no one will see coming.  Overall, despite some minor misgivings, I would highly recommend seeing this on the biggest screen possible.  It’s really assuring to see Marvel taking some chances with their universe, including breaking convention and going into some truly terrifying moments.  They promised their first scary movie, and despite the PG-13 rating, it does live up to that promise.  You can imagine that a studio as monumentally successful as Marvel could easily rest on their laurels and just deliver the same old stuff over and over again.  So it’s nice to see them at this moment put so much trust in a filmmaker known for pushing boundaries and hopefully they continue to find new ways to make their remaining adventures into their expanding multiverse stay as “strange” as possible.

Rating: 8/10