Sam Raimi returns to the world of superheroes, but not even his signature horror-tinged style can save a franchise content to spin its wheels.
I remember a time when the interconnectedness of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was one of its greatest strengths (or if not strengths, then at least novelties). It was almost exactly a decade ago when comic book fans finally got their first taste of crossover catnip with the first Avengers, where the leads of five different Marvel movies came together for one big teamup unlike any that came before. It was cool, it was unique, and it genuinely felt new. Now, with the MCU nearing its thirtieth cinematic installment, in a “Phase” of the films seemingly wholly focused on the infinite capacities of the multiverse, the MCU paradoxically feels smaller and more perfunctory than ever. With Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, the soul-deadening bloat of these films becomes ever clearer, mostly because you can see a great, inventive filmmaker trying, and failing, to style his way out of it.
Following hot off the heels of that other multiverse movie with Doctor Strange in it, Multiverse of Madness thrusts the former Sorcerer Supreme (Benedict Cumberbatch, floundering in heaps of exposition) into the unenviable task of protecting a young girl named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), who’s used her uncontrollable powers of universe-hopping to skip into our Earth, tentacled nasties in pursuit.
Suspecting witchcraft, Strange seeks out the most powerful witch he knows — Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), hot off her self-imposed exile following the events of Disney+ series WandaVision — for guidance. Things don’t go how you’d expect, or maybe they do if you have any sense of narrative foreshadowing and have seen any promotional materials. But we won’t say either way.
From there, it’s a merry chase through the multiverse, as Strange and America zap from one universe into another, and Wanda continues to struggle with her understanding of the Darkhold, the mystical book we see her toying with at the end of her respective series, and whether it might allow her to see the children she conjured while possessing all of Westview. (Vision, for his part, gets only a cursory mention.) The rigorous spoiler embargoes prevent me from saying much more, but suffice to say there are plenty of old and new faces that crop up, though not as they may initially seem.
If anything, it’s a blessing that I don’t have to talk much about Multiverse of Madness‘s story, because what’s there is pretty thin. Screenwriter Michael Waldron (Loki) takes the reins here for a script that has to serve too many masters — a meditation on grief (as love persevering, yadda yadda), special-effects spectacle, cross-universal fanservice, place setting for future entries in the Marvel universe, the list goes on. And as one of the series’ more blissfully-short entries to date (it’s only around two hours), none of these elements get nearly enough screentime to really justify themselves.
At best, we get a war of wills between Strange and Wanda over what might have been: What if Strange could make time for the love of his life, Christine (Rachel McAdams, doing a lot with a little)? What if Wanda could have her kids again, damn the cost to the universe? These are interesting ideas, and if Multiverse of Madness could stop for a second to explore them with more than rote platitudes, it could be interesting.
The soul-deadening bloat of these films becomes ever clearer, mostly because you can see a great, inventive filmmaker trying, and failing, to style his way out of it.
But if there’s a reason to see any of Doctor Strange’s most recent outing, it’s Sam Raimi, returning to filmmaking for the first time in several years and doing so with a vengeance (mostly). Once the buildup-heavy first act gets out of the way — complete with Big Dumb Glowing Orb setpiece that would be the big climax of most MCU entries — there’s some genuine inventiveness on display here. Raimi gets to play with his toys, especially in matters concerning Wanda’s witchy powers and her capacity for mindfuckery; fans of the Evil Deads and Drag Me to Hell will clap like a seal at every delightful whip-pan, anamorphic lens, and angle heavily Dutched courtesy of DP John Mathieson (Gladiator). Even Danny Elfman gets in on the fun once in a while, though apart from a few decidedly music-forward sequences his usual whimsy blends into the background.
Intermittently, the possibilities of the multiverse seen exciting, especially in one brief homage to Strange’s tumble through the cosmos in his debut film: he and America fall through dozens of universes, turning into paint and cubes and 2D animation in ways that’ll stress most people’s pause buttons when this thing ends up on Disney+. Individual sequences feel like proofs of concept for genuine, full-throated Marvel horror, and it’s a delight to see Raimi off the leash in fits and spurts.
But just as quickly as they appear, those scenes vanish, and suddenly we’re back to MCU bingo, bringing back old faves (and some not-so-faves, expect some rehabilitation of some of the least-regarded Marvel things to date) for lots of dreary talk in grey rooms and whoops, now we’ve got to fire more glowing orbs and move on to the next thing. Moment to moment, there are sequences that arrest and stir the blood, and showcase Raimi’s penchant for Tex Avery-style mayhem tinged with as much grotesque horror as a PG-13 rating will allow (Impalement and bodies getting sawed in half? Sure! Just don’t expect to see a drop of blood.) But none of it serves the film as a whole, making it feel like a broken rollercoaster, and not even in a good way.
The characters here are placeholders for, respectively, Raimi’s penchant for inventively-staged action/horror scenes and Kevin Feige’s commitment to planting seeds for middle-aged dorks to point and clap in recognition. Be prepared for long, interminable scenes featuring the Internet’s most on-the-nose fancasting, at the expense of making room for the characters we’re supposed to be following. Cumberbatch barely gets anything to play beyond waving his hands, Olsen’s performance as Wanda takes a step backwards from the yeoman’s work she did on her D+ series, and Gomez’s innate charisma can’t save a character that’s more MacGuffin than genuine sidekick.
What’s more, returning players get even less to do: Wong (Benedict Wong) is sidelined in favor of America, and even the return of Baron Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is sullied by a complete lack of followup from the Mordo we knew from the previous Strange. Even poor Michael Stuhlbarg comes back for a one-scene wonder and a ‘with’ credit whose chutzpah I can’t help but admire.
Simply put, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness feels like the apotheosis of everything that frustrates about the Marvel Cinematic Universe. You’re watching top tier special effects surrounding some of the best actors in the industry, with creative directors who are pulling out as many stops as their producers will let them. However, at the end of the day, it must all serve the Sacred Timeline Feige has planned, with little regard for how it advances the characters we see on screen.
Yes, it’s really cool and fun to see the action figures bash together, especially when it’s filmed with the same whirlwind mania that fueled some of Sam Raimi’s best pictures. But if this is the extent to which Marvel will let its creatives actually be creative, as opposed to creating gif/fancam fuel for stans in forums and on Twitter, we’re in a heap of trouble, folks, and no amount of black magic will break this spell.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness twirls its hands while the MCU remains static in theaters May 6th.