Sam Raimi’s first contribution to Marvel since oft-derided Spider-Man 3, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness mostly succeeds at being entertaining in its own right, but still relies on a certain amount of fan service
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, Xochitl Gomez, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Rachel McAdams
Marvel films are a law unto themselves. What started out as a few films about an egotistical playboy billionaire has spawned into a multimedia behemoth. Small glimpses that originally appeared as Easter eggs, or small teasers within mid-credits or end-credit scenes have become major causes for excitement within the fan community, making many Marvel films cater more to diehard comic book fans rather than necessarily providing what is most serviceable to the plot.
With the events of Loki unleashing the full might of the multiverse on the MCU, as further explored within Spider-Man: No Way Home and Disney +’s animated series What If?, insurmountably high expectations have been placed upon Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and the continuing MCU as a whole, to provide fans with popular storylines for the comics that have yet to break into mainstream consciousness. However, while Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness does pull a few surprise cameos out of the hat, it manages to do so without sacrificing the coherence of the plot and, while these appearances might not make complete sense to an MCU or comic newbie, enjoyment of the narrative is not dependent upon these characters.
Serving as the 28th film in the MCU, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness illustrates the diversity of Marvel’s offerings, whilst also continuing Phase 4’s themes of “What happens after”. After 22 films building to an epic climax in 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, there were concerns that the MCU had written itself into a hole and would ultimately burn out, lacking a coherent direction. Subsequent instalments have eschewed this assumption, however, giving incredible, epic and sprawling adventures an uncommon depth and humanity that was previously lacking within the MCU. One of the great strengths of the MCU following Endgame has been its continued commitment to finding the hero within the superhero – at peeking behind the mask and at the person beneath it.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a story rooted in grief. Fans of unexpected hit WandaVision will be familiar with Wanda’s (Elizabeth Olsen) desperation to be reunited with her twins Billy (Julian Hilliard) and Tommy (Jett Klyne), a desire that forcibly propels the movie’s trippy, reality-bending storyline. Elsewhere, Dr Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) mourns the loss of his doomed relationship with Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), though her wedding day brings more than just doldrums, as mysterious teenager America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) appears, pursued by a malevolent demon keen to attain her powers of inter-dimensional travel.
It is near-impossible to reveal more of the plot without swerving into deadly, spoiler-invested waters, but the end product is a rampantly pacy, visually inventive and palm-sweatingly tense movie. Director Sam Raimi’s fingerprints can be felt all over it, with a film that feels wholly tonally distinct from the entire preceding MCU. Going the furthest that Marvel has gone, and likely will go, with its sense of macabre horror, this helps keep the epic action feel more immediate and grounded with its claustrophobic framing. Danny Elfman is also on terrific form here, elevating the entire movie with his epic score.
Multiverse of Madness possesses many of the hallmarks of Marvel films, namely the tendency to use an offensive amount of CGI, but Raimi contrasts this with hallmarks of the horror genre, with lurching, tilting camerawork, zooms, jump scares, distortion and use of reflections. Two standout sequences involve Strange and Chavez hurtling through multiple universes, the entire world around them, including their own forms altering and shifting in a mind-bending way, along with corresponding alterations in the sound design that really make the sequence breathtaking, as well as a slightly off-the-wall fight sequence that once again marries the plot events with the score, as Strange does battle using weaponised musical notation.
Amongst all of the off-the-wall craziness, however, the true gem of the movie is Elizabeth Olsen’s incredible performance. Turning on a dime from grief stricken, to vengeful, to dogmatically determined, Olsen never loses sight of the shifting, myriad shades of Wanda/The Scarlet Witch, which is simply non-negotiable for the plot line to work. This film also gives Rachel McAdams far more to do than she was afforded in 2016’s Doctor Strange, but doesn’t give the same opportunity to newcomer Xochitl Gomez, who becomes little more than a plot device. Similarly, Cumberbatch seems sidelined in his own film, criminally outmatched and outstrengthed which, when coupled with his blunders within Spider-Man: No Way Home seriously dents his credibility as one of MCU’s defenders.
Multiverse of Madness probably comes the closest out of all of the MCU films at capturing the sheer fever dream that can be comic book sagas, especially when it comes to the unpredictability of the universe. While it is doubtlessly alienating to newcomers, the MCU has carved itself a reliable enough core audience by this point such that it need not limit itself to appeal to fresh eyes, but rather uses the audience’s knowledge of the characters and previous events to enhance and contextualise its narrative. Visually inventive and consistently engaging, Multiverse of Madness certainly sets itself apart from the rest.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness was released on May 5, 2022.