Marvel still has a lot to figure out with how it handles its women, but it’s getting the multiverse idea under its feet. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness starts its fast-paced but forgettable first act with dialogue that could be improved by a middle schooler before giving way to an emotional Elizabeth Olsen performance that holds down some eye-roll-inducing lines about motherhood, ridiculous cameos as plot conduits, and horror cinematography, sound and direction bouncing captivatingly between the grotesque and comical. Despite boring opening salvos that reminded me why so many people have grown hateful of the Marvel movies, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness eventually becomes very fun to watch.
Multiverse of Madness begins with America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), accompanied by a version of Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), running from some weird CG monster through a CG background that wasn’t helping me suspend my disbelief. The young superhero, who can travel through parallel realities, acts as the film’s MacGuffin. Strange leaves his ex Christine’s (Rachel McAdams) wedding to save Chavez from that aforementioned monster, then asks Wanda Maximoff (Olsen) for help training her. Don’t fret, if you worried there would be any consequences, material or rhetorical, for Wanda brainwashing a town in the Disney+ show, they are summed up by him saying that she made it right. Evidence? Spurious. Receipts? Nowhere to be found. Anyway, turns out it was Wanda (now styling herself as the Scarlet Witch) all along…sending monsters after Chavez because she wants to steal her reality-jumping powers in order to snag the children that she made up in WandaVision from some other universe.
After a customary MCU light-show fortress battle where we see a bunch of sorcerers from across the planet gather under Wong’s command to get killed by Wanda, Strange and Chavez flee. Running from Scarlet Witch into another dimension, the pair meet an alternate version of Christine and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo introduces the Marvel Illuminati. They’re made up of characters and actors you’ll recognize from some combination of Fox-owned Marvel properties, fan speculation, movies earlier in the MCU, the What If? show and the comics. If you don’t recognize them, that’s fine—they’re not long for this world as the movie hits its stride, turning into a horror-lite, complete with zombies and wraiths.
It’s weird that so many Sam Raimi fans were hoping for a return to his horror auteur form considering (1) we’ve seen a bunch of skilled indie filmmakers squish their vision into the Marvel frame for a big paycheck and (2) Raimi is known to the wider film-watching public as the guy that made the original Spider-Man trilogy. It’s weirder still that the horror fans were kinda right to be hopeful: The second and third acts are full of horror imagery, jump scares and a Bruce Campbell cameo (and fellow Raimi collaborator Danny Elfman does the score). One of my favorite things about the first Doctor Strange was that the introduction of magic into the MCU meant exciting psychedelic visuals. Multiverse of Madness alternates between being comparatively rudimentary and going past the original into the macabre. The later parts of the movie are sweet: There’s a zombie sorcerer with a cape made of ghouls. Part of me considers that an instant recommendation. Another visually and sonically captivating scene sees Strange fight yet another alternate version of himself. They enchant musical instruments and written musical notes, fighting with them while the score and sound direction sync up to punctuate it. It’s a cool audiovisual presentation that stands out from the literal gray background.
You can see also Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness with relatively little prep. WandaVision is the pre-existing story you’d expect to have the biggest impact on this movie, and it certainly sets up a few components of the story—Wanda’s powerful spellbook and fake children—but considering the film’s nod to the series amounts to her being forgiven without ever taking account of mind-controlling an entire town (much less whatever is going on with S.W.O.R.D. and S.H.I.E.L.D.), you can skip it. Where’s Vision? Who knows. Where’s Photon? Probably with Nick Fury and the Skrulls in space, due to return in The Marvels. One conversational aside makes reference to Infinity War and Endgame to establish that Strange wonders about alternate life paths, but the whole purpose of the conversation could have been achieved with a well-aimed longing glance at the bride.
In fact, his whole character arc is a little…Strange. Over the course of this film, Strange allegedly struggles with the weight of superheroism and the ethical dilemmas of multiversal travel despite never slowing in his goals or actions. Through all this, alt-Christine remains Strange’s emotional focus because this sexless, romance-free movie really needed Strange to tell a woman who was already his ex in 2015 that he loves her in fictional 2024. But don’t let the melodrama get you down, because there’s camp to lift you up.
Unfortunately, as with all Marvel movies, the director must square their vision with the circle of Kevin Feige’s machine. There are a lot of cool moments, but a lot of the flaws are derived from needing to set up a new superhero and connect to two or three or 20 movies. Opening with heavy CG that the actors aren’t interacting with in a way that’s legible as any kind of tangible space makes it hard to accept the movie. It’s less interesting. Too much time and money was spent on designing those FX monsters for me to come away thinking about how they could have gotten more out of the opening scenes by instead setting them in a series of dark rooms. At least the film was cheerfully light on the MCU’s usual state propaganda, except for the fact that one of the main characters is named America, so you get lines like “Should America give up her power? No, she should use it,” which, after it happens enough times, sounds like they snuck in subliminal American exceptionalism.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness also alternates between expecting fans to recognize characters that have never been mentioned in this series and selectively alluding to the plots of past movies to make sure we don’t forget them: Spider-Man was mentioned because that was Strange’s last adventure; Wong was talking to Shang-Chi last time we saw Shang-Chi, but he doesn’t show up to help. It handles the multiverse more effectively than Spider-Man: No Way 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 new propeller of the MCU and, while he remains similarly sarcastic and self-assured, different dynamics in his relationships and the way his normal and superhero identities blend (including that he’s not covered in CGI metal requiring close-ups in front of a green screen for dialogue) mean the stories feel more human, even as we plunge into the supernatural. Olsen’s character is framed, lit, posed and performed in a captivating way, but with an arc and dialogue that felt emotionally unearned. Gomez felt somewhere between a kid tagging along and an item being chased after. Because the movie’s emotional focus is on Strange and Scarlet Witch pining after lives they didn’t get to live, there’s not enough room to sit with Chavez. Her reality-hopping abilities are a vehicle to bring in Easter eggs; she gets practically forgotten, and spends much of the film physically inert.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness will surely be a commercial success, but it could have been more artistically satisfying if it wasn’t weighed down by the need to remind people of its outward connections. It stands better on its own than No Way Home but it’s still relying on early ‘00s Fox movies and internet fan castings for theatrical audience pops. It’s likely that I’ll grow to enjoy this film more over time, like I did with Thor: Ragnarok and Iron Man 3, simply because you can feel a director’s style showing through it, 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 collaboration, but not much more.
Director: Sam Raimi
Writer: Michael Waldron
Starring: 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 critic. He is a former Paste intern with an MA in history, who loves videogames, film, TV, and sports, and dreams of liberation. He can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.