In a 2018 opinion piece for the New York Times titled “The Fourth Great Awakening,” David Brooks contrasts the “competitive virtues” of myths with the “cooperative virtues” of parables. The former, he argues, derive from Athens and celebrate strength, righteous indignation, and “the capacity to smite your foes and win eternal fame.” The latter, stemming from Jerusalem, emphasize humility, love, and forgiveness. Myths usually take place in some kind of “perilous realm” with a special set of rules and superpowers bequeathed to the various characters. They channel our heroic impulse, the desire to undertake a quest and destroy evil on the field of battle. Parables, on the other hand, dwell in the everyday world and normally deal with inner states of being, not external strife. They capture the moral dilemma of human existence and present their characters with opportunities to act with charity, mercy, and self-sacrifice.

Brooks argues that the mythic ethos has saturated contemporary culture to the exclusion of the parabular one. Among video games, sporting events, and superhero movies, he says, competitive virtues now crowd out cooperative ones in the minds of millions. This development bodes ill for our politics, since myths “see life as an eternal competition between warring tribes,” he says. “They tend to see the line between good and evil as running between groups, not, as in parable, down the middle of every human heart.” He’s on to something real — certainly since the advent of the Star Wars franchise, American movies have been dominated by blockbusters and commercial pop. Nowhere is this development more evident than in the dizzying iterations of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with its endless sequels, spin-offs, and crossover films. This comic book engine began in earnest with director Sam Raimi’s 2002 Spider-Man, starring Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst. Over the last 20 years, that picture spawned a veritable cottage industry of superhero films, with Marvel and DC trading blows with icons such as the former’s X-Men and Avengers and the latter’s Batman and Superman.

But Brooks’s thesis breaks down when you realize that the line between myth and parable often blurs. The two genres bleed into each other in the Western imagination more than he admits. Moses and Jesus, for example, are figures from parable, but both have mythic traits: a prophetic birth, a wilderness period, a triumphant return to face down evil. Harry Potter, on the other hand, is a hero out of myth, yet his tales involve the misuse of his gifts and learning cooperative virtues, including, ultimately, self-sacrifice. In our ideal world, we want leaders who embody both sets of characteristics: strength and charity, justice and mercy, battling external foes and inner demons.

It’s this precious alchemy that made 2016’s Doctor Strange memorable. In Scott Derrickson’s picture, Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) begins as an arrogant, hot-shot neurosurgeon who suffers into wisdom after a car crash destroys his hands. When his obsessive attempts to repair his body fail, he becomes a neophyte under the tutelage of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a sorcerer who (in an echo of Buddhist initiation) puts him through various trials to reveal that his problem is really his outsize ego, not his hands. She confronts him with a choice right out of a parable: regain use of his hands and go back to his old life or never fully heal but join her company in their defense of the cosmic order. Just as he wrestles with this decision, the machinations of the treacherous Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) intervene. A former protege of the Ancient One, Kaecilius wishes to give Earth over to the power of Dormammu — an interdimensional entity who seeks to absorb all other universes into his Dark Dimension. As Strange confronts these villains, he combines his smarts, his powers, and his newfound selflessness to save the planet. He wins by being defeated. He becomes not just a great hero but a good man, worthy of Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), his old surgical colleague and love interest.

You’d think that Raimi, who directs the new sequel Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, would want to build on this firm foundation. After all, he did so to wondrous effect with Spider-Man 2 (2004), which transfigured his hero into a kind of Christ figure. When Peter Parker saves a runaway subway car by lashing himself to its exterior, he gives his body for the sake of the passengers. They respond in kind and succor his broken frame, lifting him up and passing him among them in a wordless, empathic crowd-surf. The pathos of the scene elevates the film beyond its genre — pop begets art. Instead, Raimi and his team ruin the latest Strange installment in a conceptual maze. The picture opens with a young woman named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) and a version of Strange being chased by a demon (similar to the Balrog from The Fellowship of the Ring) through multiple universes. When Strange realizes he can survive only by harnessing Chavez’s power to jump universes, he begins to suck out her essence. But the demon destroys him, and Chavez opens a portal to our universe, taking Strange’s corpse with her.

Once in our universe, Chavez meets the version of Strange from the first film. He’s just decamped from Christine’s wedding to another man, and you think the story might be one of how he goes on a quest to a different universe to win her back and, in the process, comes to accept losing her. Instead, the creators shoehorn a completely different narrative into the story: that of Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), a witch who combines telekinesis and “chaos magic.” (Here viewers will benefit from having watched the Avengers movies, as well as WandaVision on Disney+.) Long story short, Maximoff had to kill the love of her life and later constructed an alternate reality in which the two of them rear a pair of boys in a suburban home. After that fantasy falls apart, Maximoff sees in a dream that her children really do exist, albeit in another universe. Determined to reach them, she hunts Chavez in order to take the power to jump universes for herself.

What follows is a plotless potpourri of nonsense in which Strange and Chavez leap from one alternate reality to the next to elude Wanda. The filmmakers regurgitate every magic trope available, and you lose track of the many convoluted, contrived twists around the same time you stop caring. The hard-boiled yet tender Strange from the first film is reduced to offering mind-numbing exposition and dumb one-liners. “This time it’s going to take more than killing me to kill me,” he intones at one point. Chavez has no character at all, and Gomez is rather colorless in the part. Chiwetel Ejiofor, with his soulful countenance and classical bearing, returns from the previous film. Like the others, he’s wasted here. The same with McAdams, who’s evacuated of all personality.

Michael Waldron wrote the witless script, and he throws a melange of sci-fi dreck at you. Lacking interesting ideas, he even tosses in Dr. Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and various heroes from other tales. This only leads to more idiotic battles in which the chief pleasure is seeing John Krasinski (as Mister Fantastic) liquidated, which relieves you of the burden of believing he’s the “most intelligent man” alive. The creators cobble together theories of the multiverse, but nothing’s grounded in a core conflict you care about. Along the way, you’re treated to such clever lines as “Go back to hell,” “Get the hell out of my universe,” and “You’re going to kick that witch’s ass.”

If you can endure two hours of this inanity, you get a perverse payoff. In the last 20 minutes, Raimi leans in hard to the camp style of his horror films. Suddenly, you’re treated to skeletal demons, body-snatching, and a zombie Doctor Strange. With its Grand Guignol effects, the sequence takes on an outrageous quality so bad that it reduces you to drunken giggles. That may not be enough to redeem the film, and I’m not sure it makes up for ignoring Strange’s character development, one of the more interesting of the Marvel legion, but at least it provides a catharsis of a kind. There aren’t any virtues to learn from this latest Marvel movie, either of parable or myth. But its sheer pointlessness may sharpen your appreciation for the virtues of taste.

Nick Coccoma is a Boston writer and critic who's been published in New PoliticsCritics at Large, and Full-Stop. Follow him on Substack at the Similitude and @NickCoccoma.