Doctor Strange in The Multiverse of Madness
In what has become something of a tradition in Hollywood, Disney has kicked off the summer movie season with the latest release in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This new entry follows the series’ resident magic wielding sorcerer Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) as he tries to help a young, highly powerful superhuman named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) who is being hunted by a deadly force by The Scarlet Witch, a grief-stricken Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) corrupted by dark magic. Strange and America must travel to the other realities, as they adventure through the multiverse to escape Wanda’s clutches.
Following the events of 2021’s Spider-Man: No Way Home, not to mention several Disney+ series, the multiverse has been put on the table for Marvel to play with, opening the doors for an endless supply of characters from movies past, variants of ongoing characters and those from the other corners of the long history of Marvel comic books added to the cinematic toybox. Though the film does indulge in featuring cameos from various fan favorite characters, including Patrick Stewart’s repeatedly resurrected Professor X from the now defunct X-Men film franchise, as well as an appearance from one of the most iconic Marvel heroes who has yet to appear on screen in the MCU.
The Multiverse of Madness, however, doesn’t live up to the many madcap possibilities that an endless multiverse would present, particularly in light of this year’s similarly themed, inventive and comparably fractionally budgeted, Everything Everywhere All at Once. Besides a brief montage early on that sees Strange and America tumbling through various worlds in the multiverse via a range of digital effects and even turns the two characters into comic book styled animations for a few moments, the scenes that take place in the other realities of the multiverse don’t feel drastically different from the world in which we’ve seen these usual Marvel stories take place.
Which isn’t to say that the film has no visual flair. Sam Raimi, the indie film legend behind the Evil Dead series and godfather of the modern superhero genre and spearheaded the Tobey Maguire lead Spider-Man films, took over the film’s reins when original director Scott Derrickson stepped aside just as the behemoth project was entering production. By hiring a director with the unique vision and instinct of Raimi, Marvel Studios appeared to quash their not entirely unearned reputation for diluting filmmakers’ personal approaches in favor of a house style. And for the first hour or so, the Marvel approach reigns supreme, but once the action kicks into high gear Raimi takes over with his own inimitable style, utilizing whip pans, rapid camera movements and an abundance of Evil Dead style ghouls and gore. And, blissfully, Raimi was allowed to give a cameo to his old friend and collaborator Bruce Campbell, even managing to squeeze in a reference to his Evil Dead character Ash Williams. Raimi creates some of the best and most frightening moments of horror to be
seen in a superhero film since Doctor Octopus’ surgery massacre scene in his own Spider-Man 2, making some scenes perhaps a little too intense for a portion of Marvel’s audience.
While Raimi is able to bring a full rendition of his style to the film, the screenplay is underwhelming, feeling both meandering and convoluted. It also relies on the old and outdated plot convention of a sad woman turning evil and crazy, which felt notably out of place for a franchise which has leaned into, or at least given air to, more progressive ideals. It also pointedly unfair to a character like Wanda, who has gone through excessive levels of trauma and grief and also been largely used as a plot device in previous film outings, to come out the other side as vengeful and wicked, willing to murder scores of people in order to get what she wants. Elizabeth Olsen has done tremendous work in the role, doing her utmost to make a character who is often two- dimensionally written into a sympathetic and relatable individual, particularly after her work in WandaVision, the series that delved into her character in greater depth. And here Olsen is once again terrific, making Wanda as the Scarlet Witch one of the most intimidating, and at times frightening, villains in all of the MCU. It just would have been nice if a little more care or modernization happened in the adaptation of this years-old comic book storyline.
Of all the leading actors in the Marvel Universe, Benedict Cumberbatch appears to have struggled the most at making his character feel as vital as many of the others. Notably, many of his best moments in the role came from his scenes opposite the integral Tony Stark, brought to life by the immediately beloved performance of Robert Downey Jr. While Cumberbatch has been saddled with a character who is not as endearing or charming on the page as some of his peers, he has struggled to make him as appealing on film as Downey Jr.’s Stark or Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, for instance. His accent work also continues to be a struggle, with his dialect sounding like it comes from no recognizable region of the U.S., making Strange feel even more alien than a mystic sorcerer would already be.
Overall, the film manages to clear the bar as a satisfying entry to the Marvel film series, far from the worst, but not approaching the best. It is just nice to see Sam Raimi back in the director’s chair after almost a decade away, with his style making it to the screen intact and unfiltered, even if it doesn’t reach the skyscraper heights of his industry changing Spider-Man films.