Entertainment

'Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness' Is a Creepily Great Time

Director Sam Raimi's signature style is all over this one.

Marvel Studios
Marvel Studios
Marvel Studios

The toughest villain the Marvel Cinematic Universe currently faces isn’t a bunch of baddies gate-crashing from another film series, or a race of all-powerful godlike beings that use the Earth as an incubator, or the looming threat of Kang the Conqueror-it’s the persistent creep of same-ness, of Marvel’s grayscale in-house style and anonymous visual effects turning stale as we near the fifteen-year mark of superheroes dominating the box office. The franchise has attempted to mitigate this by hiring artier directors in recent years: Chloé Zhao was hot off her Oscar win when Eternals debuted in theaters, and we all remember the electric zing when Taika Waititi brought his irreverent wit to the Norse gods of Thor: Ragnarok. Fans’ excitement when none other than Sam Raimi was announced to direct Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness was twofold: he’s responsible for some of the best superhero movies ever with his Spider-Man trilogy, and, with the Evil Deads and Drag Me to Hell under his belt, he’s well suited for the horror-ish movie Multiverse of Madness was styled to be. Everyone’s excitement welcoming Raimi back to the superhero fold was well worth it.  

Doctor Strange is fine. He’s fine!! He saved the world a bunch of times, he’s so powerful he doesn’t even need the title of Sorcerer Supreme, and he’s pals with the remaining Avengers who generally keep things around these parts pretty peaceful. He’s fine. So what if he lives in an enormous mansion all by himself with only a rude cloak for company and has to watch as everyone, including maybe the love of his life, moves on without him? Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness introduces a more introspective Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) who isn’t sure how to answer the question “Are you happy?” Well, he can answer it, but he’s not sure if he’s telling the truth. In times like these, a teen girl named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) possessing the uncontrollable ability to universe-hop showing up out of the blue and claiming to have met another, darker version of himself while on the run from a demonic force is a welcome distraction.

To help the kid out, Strange hits up Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), now recovering from the ordeal laid out in WandaVision, which might not be the best idea-especially when the lure of a universe in which Wanda and her family are happily together becomes too much to resist. Strange and America Chavez are blooped around different worlds in the multiverse, searching for a way for America to learn how to control her powers while finding out some dark truths about Strange’s many selves.

Marvel Studios
Marvel Studios
Marvel Studios

Those of us who have been around this series for a while probably remember when Scott Derrickson’s Doctor Strange premiered and finally gave our lizard brains some genuine colors and Inception-esque setpieces to gobble up. Multiverse of Madness has a similar effect, but from a craftsmanship standpoint: Sam Raimi is all over this movie, once you get past the first few dutiful story-building sequences and it leans into straight-up horror B-movie territory. Body parts move in ways they shouldn’t, characters are chased down dark hallways by bloody, shuffling menaces, and actors scream straight into the camera like Bruce Campbell in Evil Dead II. In other words, a total delight!! (We should mention that this is the MCU’s version of a horror movie, so, parents, don’t be too concerned about it being too scary for children.) Not for nothing, Raimi’s frequent collaborator Danny Elfman even supplies the score, which all but takes over one particularly thrilling fight scene.

If you’re the sort who follows along with Marvel’s project announcements and schedule reorganizing, you can tell where the bits and pieces of an earlier draft of this movie would have fit in. Multiverse of Madness was supposed to come out before much of the Phase 4 entries we’ve already seen, including WandaVision, which, given what the emotional stakes of this movie try to accomplish, would have made more logical sense. As it stands now, much of the plot of Multiverse of Madness, when not following Strange and Chavez gallivanting around parallel worlds, is stuck repeating certain beats from WandaVision that we’ve more or less already seen, and loosely attempting to tie that together with Strange’s conflicted feelings about sacrificing his own happiness for the greater good. As such, the emotional pathway Multiverse of Madness walks feels like it isn’t as good as it could have been. Still, every time things start to slow down, there’s an action scene with outrageously canted camera angles to get your blood pumping again.

What’s great about Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is that some real imagination went into this beyond the requisite cameos (and there are some fun ones) and storytelling acrobatics that tie this self-contained story into the broader film series. The worry that followed the announcement that Raimi would be at the helm here was that Marvel wouldn’t let him play around with his personal style, but, for the most part, they’ve found the best of both worlds (universes?). A director known for his love for and mastery over horror cinema is, oddly enough, the perfect choice for a movie that deals in supernatural forces and body horror and threats of unthinkably horrible deaths from alternate dimensions. Marvel’s latest entry is worth seeing just to watch an adept at his craft cast his signature dark magic.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat.

Emma Stefansky is a staff entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @stefabsky.

Entertainment

With One Orgy, 'Queer as Folk' Sets a New TV Standard

Peacock's reboot of the gay drama is finally giving queer disabled people some of the representation they've been seeking on television.

Peacock
Peacock
Peacock

Everything is ready for the orgy. The snacks and drinks are prepared, the disco ball is hanging, and there are mechanical lifts to help people in and out of their wheelchairs. As a few guests mingle and a go-go dancer gyrates, Marvin (played by Eric Graise) rolls onto the stage in his wheelchair to act as emcee. With the help of a sign-language interpreter, he kicks things off by announcing, “I know you’re all dying to tear each other’s clothes off, or to have your attendants take them off for you.” This is no ordinary orgy; it’s “#F*CK Disabled People,” the titular orgy from Episode 4 of Queer as Folk.

The Queer as Folk reboot, released this month on Peacock, is already far more diverse than the versions of the show that came before it: more racially diverse, more body types, more genders, and multiple disabled actors in key roles. Episode 4 pushes the envelope beyond almost anything seen on network TV. It’s the kind of representation that disabled viewers-and actors-have been dreaming about, centring on a queer disabled orgy and one stunningly beautiful sex scene.

Ryan O’Connell, who both co-writes and acts in the series, recognized the reboot’s potential when it came to better representing the lives of queer disabled people like himself. Key to this was sharing the screen with multiple disabled actors, including recurring appearances by Graise. Marvin’s presence had already sold O’Connell on the show when he began meeting with series developer Stephen Dunn, who had previously directed the coming-of-age movie Closet Monster. “He was like, ‘I also want you to star in it too,’ and I was like, ‘Wait, you want two disabled people?'” says O’Connell.

O’Connell grew up enjoying the sexy, soapy escapades of the American Queer as Folk, Showtime’s five-season adaptation of the British series of the same name. Amid widespread bigotry and the AIDS epidemic, the two popular shows offered a rare picture of happy gay life. But O’Connell longed for a reflection of himself on the screen. That impulse eventually led him to create Special, the Netflix sitcom about a gay man with cerebral palsy seeking love, sex, and friendship. Queer as Folk gives him another special opportunity: to tell sexy, soapy, positive LGBTQIA+ stories with an ensemble cast wherein he wouldn’t be the only disabled character. “I was so shocked in a way that was truly depressing, but it’s so rare as disabled people that we get any kind of inclusion whatsoever, let alone that there’s two of us,” O’Connell says. “Immediately, writing for the reboot, I felt a sense of ease.”For Graise, working on a show written by O’Connell was a “dream come true.” He continues, “I’d always said there needs to be a disabled person in the writers’ room, but I had no idea how significant it would be and how much it meant to me. And even Stephen Dunn has a disabled friend who Marvin is very much inspired by.”

Marvin is outgoing, even wild in his energy. When we meet him at a bar in the first episode of the series, he acts like he owns the place, flirting and serving up wicked verbal jabs with equal ease. Before we get to know him better, O’Connell’s shy, sheltered Julian Beaumont seems to fade into the background by comparison. Initially, he serves mostly as a foil to his more outgoing older brother, Brodie (Devin Way), who, in many ways, is the chaotic core around which the rest of the ensemble orbits. During the first three episodes, the brothers, along with Brodie’s on-again, off-again lover Noah (Johnny Sibilly), convert their shared New Orleans home into the epic party house known as “Ghost Fag.” It’s Ghost Fag that attracts Marvin, in the fourth episode, with the idea of hosting a queer disabled orgy. We don’t learn as much about Marvin’s background, but it’s clear he’s made himself a cornerstone of the LGBTQIA+ community despite the everyday ableism he faces.

Beyond the surface differences, Julian and Marvin couldn’t be more divergent. In addition to their differing disabilities (Marvin, like Graise, is a double amputee), they come from disparate economic classes and have radically contrasting outlooks on life. Julian protects his vulnerability with an introverted lifestyle and a carefully cultivated routine, while Marvin hides his behind a boisterous exterior. Just like real life, not all members of a marginalized group get along, or even have very much in common.

“I don’t ever try to feel the burden of representation because there’s no point-you have to write from a place of truth,” says O’Connell, who wrote Episode 4 with Alyssa Taylor. “It was really fun creatively to have these two disabled characters who are so wildly different from each other in how they conduct themselves in their relationship to disability and to sex and all those things, but also I think in Episode 4 it was really interesting to show their commonalities.”

Peacock
Peacock
Peacock

Both Marvin and Julian get laid over the course of the episode, but even before their clothes come off, the orgy scene fills the screen with something seldom seen on TV: disabled people in all their sexual glory. The scenario was inspired by a 2015 disabled sex party co-hosted in Toronto by Andrew Gurza, the show’s disability awareness consultant. After Gurza joined QaF, he mentioned the party in the writers’ room. “Mine was a lot more tame than this should be,” Gurza recalls telling them. “I’d like this to be a lot racier.”

Gurza even appears in a sex scene during the episode. “Being together on the show was an amazing moment,” says O’Connell, who cites Gurza as one of his inspirations. “He’s so honest and demands that his voice be heard and makes no apologies for that, and I try to do the same.”

As the orgy continues, both characters hook up with sex workers. It’s clear the actors and creators wanted to affirm that sex work is work. “It’s incredibly difficult work, not only the physical labour but the emotional space you have to hold for somebody to make them feel seen and heard and not judged. It makes me happy to showcase their work in a more positive light,” O’Connell notes.

Sachin Bhatt, who plays Ali, the sex worker hired by Marvin, agrees. He adds that his role is an all-too-rare example of a Southeast Asian man being sexual on-screen. “Anyone who’s not a cisgender, white male has many more mountains to climb,” Bhatt says. “So for me it was really exciting to play this sex worker because they wouldn’t typically cast an Indian for this role.”

Peacock
Peacock
Peacock

While their relationship is transactional to begin with, Ali is respectful, playful, and caring throughout his interactions with Marvin. However, his feelings for his client intensify during Episode 4 as the pair connect alone in a room at Ghost Fag. “We bonded instantly,” Bhatt recalls of Graise. “It was very important to both of us that we get the intimacy and the vulnerability right.”

For Graise, who also appeared on Netflix’s Locke & Key, that actorly connection made the sequence what it is. “We spent a lot of time kiki’ing off-set and discussing what we wanted out of this scene for both of us. The scene wasn’t just about me. It’s also Ali exploring Marvin’s body in a way that he’s never explored with anyone before, and his insecurities and trepidations about interacting with a disabled body.”

Unlike previous interactions shown between them, Ali asks to top Marvin this time-and to interact with his body in new ways. “Can I touch your legs?” Ali asks. This was influenced by Graise’s own life, as someone he dated for three years realized he’d never touched Graise’s legs. After some tender caressing, Marvin wraps his thighs around Ali and they make love. Graise’s background as a dancer is evident in his elegant movement throughout the scene, which contrasts with some of the polished, more “Hollywood”-style sequences that appear elsewhere in the series.

“Sachin and Eric really fucking landed that plane,” O’Connell says. “It was everything I want in a sex scene, which is that it was vulnerable, it was tender, it was awkward, and it was sexy.”Beyond the new Queer As Folk, it’s rare for media to let disabled people be either queer or sexy. O’Connell cited a few other examples, such as Jillian Mercado’s role in The L Word: Generation Q or the work of playwright and actor Ryan J. Haddad, but it’s sparse overall. With one episode, Queer as Folk has set a high bar for other shows to follow, and the series as a whole demonstrates how disabled actors can portray real, complex, and flawed human beings.

“A cognitive dissonance happens when we watch things on our TV screens, where, all of a sudden, we want things to be simplified,” O’Connell says. “Isn’t it art’s job to reflect humanity accurately?

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Kit O’Connell is the Digital Editor at the Texas Observer, and lives in Austin, Texas with their spouse and two cats. Follow them @KitOConnell.

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