The movies that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe have long since crossed the line into critic-proof cinema — even the lowest rated among them, 2021’s Eternals, earned over $400 million at the box-office during a pandemic. Fans love what producer Kevin Feige has been serving up for nearly fifteen years, and that’s not about to change now. To that point, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness gives fanfolk some real doozies guaranteed to leave them squealing, but along with the story, lead character arcs, and tonal intent they all feel a bit flat. Thankfully, director Sam Raimi does what he does best and kicks things up with energy, silliness, and an eye for horrifying hijinks.
A pony-tailed Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and a girl named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) hop through a mind-bending landscape with a demon on their tail, and within minutes the good doctor is dead. America and the corpse enter a portal through the multiverse and land in “our” world with yet another demon in pursuit, but she finds a new ally in a more traditionally coiffed Strange. There’s a threat to the multiverse — so, in effect, a threat to every universe — which leads Strange to turn to Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) for help, but she might not be quite the help he’s hoping for.
They say the MCU isn’t fertile ground for filmmakers with a vision of their own, and that’s arguably true, but as Taika Waititi showed with Thor: Ragnarok (2017) there’s room for exceptions. That one-man club now has a new member as Raimi brings his penchant for wild visuals, goofy humor, and creative demises to Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. The film’s at its best when he’s allowed to cut loose, but unfortunately that freedom only applies to roughly a third of the movie’s two-hour running-time. Instead, the bulk of it feels bogged down by dull exposition and character journeys searching for emotional beats that struggle land.
Writer Michael Waldron‘s (Loki, 2021) feature debut assumes (most likely correctly) that viewers are all caught up on both the MCU’s movies and television shows with WandaVision (2021) in particular being as much of a jumping off point as either the first Doctor Strange (2016) or last year’s Spider-Man: No Way Home. The necessary takeaways from those three amount to this — Wanda is still an emotionally unstable mess, Strange still needs to be “the one holding the knife,” and the multiverse is still full of surprises. No spoilers on that last one, but the film’s dealings on those first two leave something to be desired when it’s not slogging through banal explanations and embarrassingly dumb dialogue.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness wants to squeeze drama and emotion out of Wanda’s grief and Strange’s ego, but the end result is nothing less than a convincing argument for MCU heroes to wipe out their magic-wielding members altogether. Wanda in Scarlet Witch mode is a being “of infinite power” — cue Strange and Wong’s (Benedict Wong) sorcery students busting out bows and arrows — prone to saying “I’m not a monster, I’m a mother” as if she’s auditioning for a Lifetime movie of the week. Olsen is firing on all cylinders, particularly in later sequences where Raimi’s eye for horror takes hold (but more on that below), but her quest for sympathy can’t overcome the obstacles created by the story and her actions.
Strange fares slightly better as he comes to grips with his own ego-fueled failings, but it too feels like well-tread ground. He attends Christine’s (Rachel McAdams) wedding to another man and finds closure of sorts with a multiverse version of her, but the pair never really had the kind of emotional connection on screen to make viewers give a damn either way. (Steve and Peggy they ain’t.) The beats meant to land between them instead fall limply to the ground. Instead, the standout here is young Gomez whose mix of bright-eyed wonder and intensity leave her popping with personality.
Ultimately, though, the star of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is Raimi’s gift for visual insanity. From a giant eyeball that audibly pops out of its socket to a magical battle using musical notes as projectiles to a cameo by a square-jawed legend to some wonderfully grisly demises, Raimi’s comically grim fingerprints are all over this. Most of the beats are played for laughs or pure entertainment, but the director of Evil Dead II (1987) and Drag Me to Hell (2009) also ensures a few moments land with a more menacing horror. Wanda’s physical journey sits at the heart of most of them, and Olsen fully embraces and embodies the terror he’s envisioned. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Danny Elfman‘s score sees the composer on the same page with the director delivering an audible carnival ride when it’s not stuck trying to squeeze pomp and emotion from the screen.
One of the struggles with the MCU is the desire to find real stakes with the characters and stories. They’re there if you look, from Steve Rogers’ lost love to Iron Man’s ultimate sacrifice, both culminating in the mixed bag of Avengers sequels, but they’ve always been challenged by comic book sensibilities that allow for resurrections alongside inconsistent powers, convenient revelations, and deus ex machina on a regular basis. That struggle only magnifies with the introduction of the multiverse because now it’s even easier for a film to let anything happen to anyone knowing a replacement is just a quick line of exposition and a cg splash away. But enough about this film’s cameo surprises…
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness stumbles with its script and characters as neither amounts to all that much here, but Raimi’s direction rescues it from oblivion with an equal affection for the goofy and the horrifying. The whole, though, suffers from that tonal disconnect — when it’s fun it’s fun, but when it’s not it’s just so much dull noise. The best multiverse movie of the past couple years remains Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022), and the best MCU multiverse movie remains Spider-Man: No Way Home, but this is definitely the best multiverse movie with the word multiverse in the title. Feige, you’ve done it again!
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