Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, 2022.
Directed by Sam Raimi.
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, Xochitl Gomez, Rachel McAdams and Michael Stuhlbarg.
Doctor Strange, with the help of mystical allies both old and new, traverses the mind-bending and dangerous alternate realities of the Multiverse to confront a mysterious new adversary.
Madness is one of the last adjectives that come to mind when describing Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Even if one sets aside the unfortunate release timing that sees Marvel following up a genuinely imaginative, gonzo groundbreaking take on the concept (Everything Everywhere All at Once), there’s little here beyond the expected outstanding visual effects. While funnelling Benedict Cumberbatch’s surgeon-turned-practitioner-of-mystical-arts Stephen Strange from one eye-popping sequence to the next (there’s even an extravagant cold open cosmic battle against an enormous demon), director Sam Raimi (his first feature since 2013’s Oz the Great and Powerful, working with a script from Loki’s Michael Waldron) is bogged down with an overabundance of storytelling and lukewarm characterization.
The Mouse House prohibits spoilers, but it can be said that Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness somewhat picks up where WandaVision left off, forced to integrate some of the same themes and plot points, except with writing nowhere near as thoughtful or subversive or playful. Sam Raimi knows his way around stories centered on evil incantations, possessions, and the undead, but here it feels like a lazy plot device to create a villain with over-the-top cartoonish motives. The script was written by someone that knows nothing about motherhood, quick and comfortable with removing all nuance and layers from what was mostly a solid limited series. On more than one occasion, you can’t help but want to erase Doctor Strange from this narrative equation so the focus can be on Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) without reducing her to a crazy woman caricature that will stop at nothing to be reunited with her children.
There is only a trace of WandaVision‘s emotional power, namely from a segment involving Wanda’s first dreamwalk (freakily executed by Sam Raimi with a clever take on the function of dreams themselves). It’s also the only artistically formed piece of storytelling in the movie, juxtaposing different universes with symmetrical photography from John Mathieson, allowing Elizabeth Olsen to express shades and elicit duelling reactions. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is more concerned with her scorned rampage abilities, which are undoubtedly fun to watch but cut down the character’s emotional complexity. It’s a relief that a horror filmmaker was hired (not that Sam Raimi feels cut loose here or even given a moderate amount of creative control, at least outside of one predictable cameo that lets out the campy fun style that brought him much success making Spider-Man movies) because the surprisingly brutal PG-13 fatalities dished out by Wanda are about the unique element of her witchcraft carnage.
Not only does Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness misfire there, but the narrative tries to draw a parallel between Wanda’s desire to be with her children and Stephen Strange’s wishes to be with his friend and former co-worker Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), who has just gotten married. None of it resonates or feels insightful as Stephen Strange travels across the multiverse, seeking alternate versions of himself, wondering if they got the girl while unpacking his romantic aspirations and regrets. If that wasn’t enough, Chiwetel Ejiofor is back as former mystic arts associate Karl Mordo, heading up a new group in one universe dubbing themselves the Illuminati. Benedict Wong also returns as Stephen Strange’s mentor Wong, not given much to do. In a nutshell, there’s too much going on and little intrigue within the other universes.
Universes are barely sketched and hardly feel different from the primary world. One early sequence shows some promise, depicting Stephen Strange and a mysterious girl from his dreams, America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez, a welcome new addition to the ensemble who is both strong-willed and uncertain of the proper way to use her powers), freefalling and crossing over into alternate universes in quick succession. One of them shows the characters visualized as globs of paint for roughly 5 seconds, and that’s it. It’s as if the filmmakers came up with concepts and tossed some of them in for one set-piece without ever having any intention of expanding upon them for storytelling and characterization purposes like one would assume a multiverse would and should. There’s also a universe with the most advanced understanding of the multiverse, yet is filled with arguably dumb decision-making on behalf of everyone involved.
Here’s where I start to surprise myself with my dislike of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness: it’s easily the only Marvel Cinematic Universe entry not concerned with jokes and quips, which should be right up my alley but works against it considering, while there is a horror approach here, the entire point of jumping into alternative functions is to get weird and have some creative laughs. That could be accomplished through jokes about different universes themselves or even the much-anticipated cameos. Again, I’m not going to spoil anything, but the surprise characters here come across as flat and somewhere between respectively self-contained and utterly pointless. It’s fan service that doesn’t serve a point and probably won’t even please fans.
At the very least, Sam Raimi gets down aspects of that horror. The film is never terrifying, but it is filled with creepy imagery, atmospheric dread, and moments of visceral violence (even without seeing much blood). A third-act plot point also allows the filmmakers to whip up some striking practical effects, even if they are enhanced with CGI. Sam Raimi is maddeningly restrained by Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness and Marvel overlords, stuck with relatively weak material (and far too many plot strands to juggle) that is only digestible and exciting to watch for its special effects. Maybe in another universe everything came together.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com