Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
Directed by 'Evil Dead' legend Sam Raimi, the latest MCU film about surgeon-turned-sorcerer Dr Stephen Strange is darker and trippier but still dispiritingly standard.
May 04, 2022
Somewhere in the multiverse, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is terrific. In a different realm, it's terrible. Here in our dimension, the 28th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe teeters and twirls in the middle. The second movie to focus on surgeon-turned-sorcerer Dr Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, The Power of the Dog), it's at its best when it embraces everything its director is known for. That said, it's also at its worst when it seems that harnessing Sam Raimi's trademarks — his visual style, bombast, comic tone and Evil Dead background, for instance — is merely another Marvel ploy. Multiverse of Madness is trippy, dark, sports a bleak sense of humour and is as close as the MCU has gotten to horror, all immensely appreciated traits in this sprawling, box office-courting, never-ending franchise. But it stands out for the wrong reasons, too, especially how brazenly it tries to appear as if it's twisting and fracturing the typical MCU template when it definitely isn't.
Welcomely weirder than the average superhero flick (although not by too much), but also bluntly calculating: that's Multiverse of Madness, and that's a messy combination. It's apt given its eponymous caped crusader has always hailed from Marvel's looser, goofier and, yes, stranger side since his MCU debut in 2016's plainly titled Doctor Strange; however, it's hard to believe that such formulaic chaos was truly the plan for this follow-up. Similarly, making viewers who've long loved Raimi's work feel like their strings are so obviously being pulled, all for something that hardly takes creative risks, can't have been intentional. It's wonderful that Multiverse of Madness is clearly directed by the filmmaker who gave the world Army of Darkness and its predecessors, the Tobey Maguire-starring Spider-Man movies and Drag Me to Hell. It's fantastic that Raimi is helming his first feature since 2013's Oz the Great and Powerful, of course. But it's also deeply dispiriting to see the filmmaker's flourishes used like attention-grabbing packaging over the same familiar franchise skeleton.
Multiverse mayhem also underscored Multiverse of Madness' immediate predecessor, for instance — aka 2021's Spider-Man: No Way Home. That's the last time that audiences saw Stephen Strange, when he reluctantly tinkered with things he shouldn't to help Peter Parker, those actions had consequences and recalling Raimi's time with Spidey came with the territory. Strange's reality-bending trickery has repercussions here as well, because Wanda Maximoff (Elisabeth Olsen, Sorry for Your Loss) isn't thrilled about her fellow super-powered pal's exploits. Yes, Multiverse of Madness assumes viewers have not only watched all 27 past MCU movies, but also its small-screen offshoots — or WandaVision at least, where the enchantress that's also Scarlet Witch broke rules herself and wasn't still deemed a hero.
Multiverse of Madness begins before its namesake and Wanda cross paths after their not-so-smooth moves, actually. Strange's latest escapade kicks off with monsters, moving platforms, a shimmering book, and a girl he doesn't know and yet wants to save. It's a dream, but said teen — America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez, The Babysitters Club) — is soon part of his waking life. Hailing from another dimension and possessing the ability to hop through the multiverse, she's still being chased. Interrupting Strange's brooding at his ex-girlfriend Christine's (Rachel McAdams, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga) wedding, rampaging critters reappear as well, while a sinister tome called The Dark Hold also factors in. The mission: save the girl and all possible worlds, aided by Strange's old friend and now-Sorcerer Supreme Wong (Benedict Wong, Nine Days), and via a run-in with nemesis Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Locked Down).
An evil book, basically being dragged to hell, reanimated corpses, a scrappy young adventurer, wisecracks, a leading man with the initials BC: they're all Raimi staples, and they're all accounted for in Multiverse of Madness. So is a signature casting move that's to be thoroughly expected, and remains as delightful as ever. Michael Waldron, the writer/producer behind Loki, has scripted the feature with its filmmaker firmly in mind — or tinkered with the screenplay after OG Doctor Strange helmer Scott Derrickson left the sequel — and Raimi has taken those nods and run with them. But magic isn't about conjuring up the easily apparent, as the flick's cloak-wearing protagonist has learned over his time. Off-screen, that's something Marvel rather than its creatives-for-hire need reminding of, and what makes Multiverse of Madness a strategic exercise above all else. (It doesn't help that an inventive, clever and bold blast of multiverse movie, unrelated to the MCU, has beaten the latest Doctor Strange to cinemas by mere weeks. Everything Everywhere All At Once is inescapably chaotic, but gloriously, entertainingly and revealingly so, and never in a checklist-marking way.)
Marvel has a pattern, though. It hires directors with distinctive styles and vibes, uses them to differentiate any given MCU instalment from the last, and hopes that counteracts the formula at work. And, it can. Even this many pictures in, great films eventuate that don't completely feel squeezed through an assembly line in every frame; see: Taika Waititi's Thor: Ragnarok, Ryan Coogler's Black Panther, Cate Shortland's Black Widow and Chloé Zhao's Eternals. If Multiverse of Madness wasn't also saddled with other well-used, patently recognisable Marvel tactics, that might've proven true here, too. If only it had. But when a new MCU entry leans on multiple versions of its main figure (again), plus wholly fan-servicing cameos (again) — going for more is more several times over (yes, again) — and then attempts to freshen itself up by splashing around a famed director's beloved touches (again), it's always going to struggle to be convincing.
Gleefully pushing obvious buttons and trying to incite easy cheers was No Way Home's main aim as well; Multiverse of Madness fares better, thankfully. It's a lesser auteur-helmed MCU movie and a lesser Raimi-directed film, but it still benefits from the latter doing what he's able to within company-controlled confines. Danny Elfman's (The Woman in the Window) moody score always sets the right tone, and the kaleidoscopic imagery has its dazzling moments — albeit with too many pixels showing in the name of serving up a shiny spectacle. And, in all of its key roles, Multiverse of Madness is still extremely well-cast. Indeed, the scenes that linger are those shared by Cumberbatch with either Olsen, McAdams, Wong or Gomez that call for genuine emotion rather than dwelling on superhero schtick, nefarious villains, multiverse mechanics, incursions, surprise guests and the like. Alas, being gifted more of that, and more of anything that doesn't have to tick 75,000 of Marvel's usual boxes along the way, sadly and frustratingly isn't a reality for this film in our caped crusader-worshipping universe.