Film Review – Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
The idea of a “Multiverse” is all the rage now. From Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018), Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021), to Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022), stories featuring multiple dimensions with multiple versions of the same characters is the hot new trend for movies. When it comes to superhero franchises, that seems to be the natural progression, doesn’t it? The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been around for a long time now, with endless characters inhabiting endless locations – tying in comic books, movies, TV, and merchandise. At this point you’ll need a reference guide and Google to keep up.
That is the biggest hindrance of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022). Each MCU entry have had to balance its own identity while fitting into the “grand scheme” of the entire franchise. How does a film set itself apart when it operates as an advertisement for the next big thing? To have a grasp of what’s going on here, one will need to be familiar with the first Doctor Strange (2016), Avengers: Endgame (2019), as well as the TV series WandaVision (2021). The various cameos and guest appearances will require not only further knowledge of the MCU on the big and small screen, but of other superhero franchises beyond that. Hopefully you all did your homework!
Luckily, this installment is headed by a director who knows a thing or two about big budget blockbusters. Sam Raimi has been – and still is – one of the most inventive and badass filmmakers of his generation, whose work with The Evil Dead and first Spider-Man trilogies redefined the horror and superhero genres, respectively. With Multiverse of Madness, Raimi is assigned to juggle a lot of plates, and manages to do just about as well as anyone can under the circumstances. His offbeat humor, kinetic editing, and keen visual eye constructs many of the action scenes with life and energy. We see this right away, as an opening set piece has Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) going toe to toe with a giant octopus monster on the streets of New York. (Sidenote: Fans of Spider-Man 2 (2004) will notice the “octopus” connections).
The MCU has developed a reputation for watering down the visions of their filmmakers to stay constant in tone and aesthetics. Muted colors and snarky punchlines have become just as much a part of the brand as the characters themselves. With the exception of James Gunn, Raimi comes the closest to disrupting the status quo. We get elements of horror, with classic camera shots taken from the villain’s point of view. The cinematography (John Mathieson) tosses in several Dutch angles, rotating the frame off center to create an unnerving sensation. Wanda/The Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) has never felt more “witch-like” than she does here, utilizing her powers with Carrie (1976)-like effect. The macguffin this time involves an evil book called “The Darkhold,” which contains spells that can corrupt anyone who uses it. Raimi fans will immediately see this as a variation of his famous “Necronomicon” book. We even get shades of a zombie film, which is not something we would normally see from the MCU.
It’s these sequences – when Raimi flexes his creative muscles – where things truly get exciting. This is best exemplified in the bravura scene when Strange – along with newcomer America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) hurtle through different dimensions in rapid succession. In flashes, we see them reconstructed into everything from cartoon characters to paint splashes. Sadly, these moments eventually tamper down as we settle into the story. The writing (Michael Waldron) shifts into neutral, having the characters weave their way through a plot heavy affair. Strange and Wanda both attempt to take the Darkhold for their separate reasons. The second act sags considerably, revisiting storylines that don’t leave any kind of emotional impact. Strange’s relationship with Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), Wanda’s grief over her children, and America’s ties to the multiverses never have a sense of urgency. The writing and direction skim these bits out of necessity. Familiar face Wong (Benedict Wong) – who has quietly become one of the mainstays of the entire MCU – shows up and just kind of hangs out the whole time without much to do.
We sense the push and pull between Raimi doing his own thing and having to connect all the dots of Marvel property. The result is a mixed bag. The inclusion of several faces – both new and familiar – is where this imbalance is at its worst. I’m not against the notion of having cameos feed the nostalgia of fans, but in this instance it feels especially egregious. The surprise guests don’t operate as active participants in the central story, but to stir rumors and gossip for possible future installments. Their reveal opens the door for speculation, feeding the MCU machine for years to come. Instead of telling a complete, standalone tale with legitimate stakes, the film creates an ouroboros effect, marking itself almost irrelevant before it has a chance enjoy its own success.
Am I making too much out of this? Perhaps. Or maybe this is me wondering what Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness would have been if Raimi and his team were given full autonomy over the material. Would the final product have been better? Worse? Raimi is such an assured and stylish director that anything that lands in the middle feels like a letdown. He’ll swing for the fences and miss spectacularly or smash a grand slam. As much fun as this was at times, I couldn’t help feeling that a better movie was lurking somewhere underneath.