Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness Review: Sam Raimi Peeks Through MCU Tedium
Marvel still has a lot to figure out about how it handles its women, but it has the idea of the multiverse under its feet. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness begins its fast-paced but forgettable first act with dialogue that could be improved upon by a college kid before giving way to an emotional performance by Elizabeth Olsen that maintains a few eye-roll-inducing lines about motherhood, ridiculous cameos as conduits of plot and horror cinematography, the sound and direction bouncing captivatingly between the grotesque and the comic. Despite boring opening salvos that reminded me why so many people hate Marvel movies, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness ultimately becomes a lot of fun to watch.
Multiverse of Madness begins with America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), accompanied by a version of Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), going from a weird CG monster through a CG background that didn’t help me suspend my disbelief. The young superhero, who can travel through alternate realities, stars as the film’s MacGuffin. Strange leaves his ex Christine’s (Rachel McAdams) marriage to save Chavez from that aforementioned monster, then asks Wanda Maximoff (Olsen) to help train her. Don’t worry, if you’re worried there are any consequences, material or rhetorical, for Wanda brainwashing a town on the Disney+ show, they’re summed up by him saying she has well done. Proof? Fake. Received? Not found. Anyway, turns out it was Wanda (now impersonating the Scarlet Witch) all along…sending monsters after Chavez because she wants to steal her reality-hopping powers in order to kill her. hang the kids she invented. Wanda Vision from another universe.
After a usual MCU light show fortress battle where we see a group of wizards from all over the planet gather under Wong’s command only to be killed by Wanda, Strange and Chavez flee. Running from Scarlet Witch to another dimension, the pair encounter an alternate Mordo version of Christine and Chiwetel Ejiofor introduces the Marvel Illuminati. They’re made up of characters and actors you’ll recognize from a combination of Fox-owned Marvel properties, fan speculation, movies earlier in the MCU, the What if? show and comics. If you don’t recognize them, that’s fine – they don’t take long for this world as the movie picks up its stride, turning into light horror, complete with zombies and specters.
It’s weird that so many Sam Raimi fans were hoping for a return to his horror auteur form given (1) we saw a group of skilled indie filmmakers crush their vision as part of Marvel for a hefty check of pays and (2) Raimi is known to the general public watching the movie as the guy who made the original Spider Man trilogy. It’s even stranger that horror fans have a little reason to hope: the second and third acts are full of horror imagery, creepy jumps, and a cameo from Bruce Campbell (and fellow Raimi collaborator , Danny Elfman, does the score). One of my favorite things about the first strange doctor was that bringing magic to the MCU meant thrilling psychedelic visuals. Multiverse of Madness alternates between being relatively rudimentary and going beyond the original into the macabre. The final parts of the movie are adorable: there’s a zombie wizard with a cape made out of ghouls. Part of me considers this an instant recommendation. Another visually and sonically captivating scene sees Strange battling another alternate version of himself. They enchant the musical instruments and the written musical notes, fight with them while the score and the sound direction synchronize to punctuate it. It’s a cool audiovisual presentation that stands out against the literal gray background.
You can also see Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness with relatively little preparation. Wanda Vision is the pre-existing story that one would expect to have the biggest impact on this film, and it certainly sets up a few story elements – Wanda’s powerful spell book and the fake children – but given the film’s nod to the series, she’s forgiven without ever considering the mind control of an entire city (let alone what’s going on with SWORD and SHIELD), you can ignore it. Where is Vision? Who knows. Where is Photon? Probably with Nick Fury and the Skrulls in space, which must return in Wonders. An aside refers to Infinity War and End of Game to establish Strange wondering about alternate life paths, but the whole point of the conversation could have been achieved with a well-aimed nostalgic look at the bride.
In fact, his whole character arc is a bit… Weird. Over the course of this film, Strange would have grappled with the weight of superheroism and the ethical dilemmas of multiversal travel despite never slowing down in his goals or actions. Through it all, alt-Christine remains the emotional center of Strange as this asexual, non-romance movie really necessary Strange to tell a woman who was already his ex in 2015 that he loves her in 2024 fiction. But don’t let the melodrama get you down, because there’s camp to cheer you up.
Unfortunately, as with all Marvel movies, the director has to reconcile his vision with Kevin Feige’s Circle of the Machine. There are a lot of cool moments, but a lot of the flaws come from having to set up a new superhero and connect to two, three, or 20 movies. Opening with heavy CG that the actors don’t interact with in a readable way, as any kind of tangible space makes it difficult to accept the film. It’s less interesting. Too much time and money went into designing these monster FX for me to come back thinking about how they could have made the most of the opening scenes by putting them in a series of dark rooms instead. At least the movie was happily light on the usual MCU state propaganda, except for the fact that one of the main characters is called America, so you get lines like “America should- she give up her power? No, she should use it,” which, after enough times, feels like they’ve slipped into subliminal American exceptionalism.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness also alternates between expecting fans to recognize characters who have never been mentioned in this series and selectively alluding to the plots of past films to make sure we don’t forget them: Spider-Man has was mentioned because it was Strange’s last adventure; Wong was talking to Shang-Chi the last time we saw Shang-Chi, but he doesn’t show up to help. He manages the multiverse more efficiently than Spider-Man: No Coming Home, so the plot doesn’t collapse in on itself after thinking about it for ten seconds, but the characters are all over the place. Strange is being positioned to replace Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man as the MCU’s new propeller, and while he remains equally sarcastic and confident, a different dynamic in his relationships and the way his Normal and superhero identities blend (including that it’s not covered in CGI metal requiring close-ups in front of a green screen for dialogue) means the stories feel more human, even as we delve into the supernatural. Olsen’s character is captivatingly framed, lit, posed, and acted out, but with an arc and dialogue that felt emotionally undeserved. Gomez felt he was somewhere between a child following him and an object being chased. Because the movie emotionally focuses on Strange and Scarlet Witch pining for lives they couldn’t live, there’s not enough room to sit with Chavez. Her reality-hopping abilities are a vehicle for bringing Easter eggs; she is mostly forgotten and spends much of the film physically inert.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness will surely be a commercial success, but it might have been more artistically satisfying had it not been weighed down by the need to remind people of its external connections. It holds up better on its own than No coming home but he still relies on early 2000s Fox movies and internet fan casting for theatrical ratings. It’s likely that I’ll enjoy this film more over time, as I did with Thor: Ragnarok and iron man 3simply because you can feel a director’s style shine through, which is sadly distinct among its MCU siblings. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is everything you could reasonably expect from a Sam Raimi-Kevin Feige collab, but not much more.
Director: Sam Raimi
Writer: Michael Waldron
With : Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, Xochitl Gomez, Michael Stuhlbarg, Rachel McAdams
Release date: May 6, 2022
Kevin Fox, Jr. is a freelance writer, editor, and reviewer. He’s a former Paste intern with a master’s degree in history, who loves video games, movies, TV, and sports, and dreams of liberation. It can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.