Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a mouthful of a title, and its content is just as loaded. It’s the latest Marvel Cinematic Universe film to utilise the signature style of its director – in this case Sam Raimi. And, similar to last year’s Eternals, when it is allowed to be an unrestrained reflection of its director, and their influences, the film is excellent. However, it’s constrained by its MCU status, resulting in something of a disconnect between its inviting style and its inconsistent substance.
Shortly after ripping the multiverse apart at the behest of Spider-Man (see Dallas’s No Way Home review), superhero sorcerer Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is faced with another multi-dimensional dilemma. He meets a mysterious teenager named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), who has the ability to jump between universes. She cannot control this, but this matters little to adverse forces who want to seize her power for their own ends. In his attempts to protect Chavez from what’s coming after her, Strange finds himself reuniting with ex-Avenger Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), as well as multiple incarnations of himself and others from various alternative universes.
Raimi is no stranger to the superhero genre, having helmed Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man films. To this day, Spider-Man 2 is one of the best superhero films ever made. However, Raimi is better known for his horrors and thrillers, be it the fear and gore of The Evil Dead or the gripping mental anguish of A Simple Plan. Raimi brings his trademarks in spades to this film, and the ways he plays with the fun and frightening possibilities of its concept is beyond welcome. When Multiverse of Madness embraces its identity as a product of Raimi’s warped imagination, it offers some of the strongest moments of any MCU film.
This includes visuals and colour palettes that are as stunning as they are vividly creative. Strange is in this film’s namesake, and it uses this as a springboard for inventive imagery, be it a barren witch’s forest, the desolate nothing of the end of the universe, or even something as small but equally astonishing as ocean waves in a tea cup. This imagery incorporates spectrums of dark reds and browns, with bright oranges and whites sprinkled in between where the tone requires. Further enhancing the spectacle is Raimi’s signature direction and camerawork. This is one of the more innovative MCU films in terms of cinematography and editing, with Raimi’s recognisable whip pans and projectile cams being a breath of fresh air.
When the film enters the multiverse, it even taps into the potential horror of its concept. Among its action includes witchcraft, interdimensional monsters, and reanimated, decomposing, corpses akin to a toned down Suspiria. This is a rare 12A that earns its certificate. The building of atmosphere is notable too, as Raimi twists the inherent fear of the unknown and the potential corruption of the familiar to devious ends. One sequence involving Wanda on a rampage feels reminiscent of Carrie, given the blood and terrifying power of the mind on full display. Had this been any other filmmaker these moments would have probably looked mundane, but Raimi’s personal touches elevate this into an alluring spectacle with some genuine sense of terror.
Dr. Strange’s character arc is also quite interesting, especially since he’s someone who has often been relegated to an all-powerful entity in past instalments. Strange has always been arrogant and self-important, but this film confronts those traits with his own unhappiness despite his power. In meeting Chavez and travelling through the multiverse, we get a decent arc in which Strange must learn to trust the power and decisions of others, in the process coming to terms with his own insecurities about control and life. The way Chavez compliments this through her matched snark and power creates affable chemistry between Cumberbatch and Gomez, who is an exciting new talent.
However, Multiverse of Madness is chained down by its identity as an MCU film, meaning it cannot go all the way with this thrilling new style. Screenwriter Michael Waldron is no stranger to sci-fi madness, given his work on shows like Loki and Rick and Morty. But his script often buckles under the weight of superhero convention, particularly an emphasis on the rule of cool over the potentially emotional or intricate aspects of the narrative. Recent franchises have also fallen into an unfortunate habit of caving to regressive amounts of fan service at the expense of story, character and freshness. Multiverse of Madness isn’t quite as bad with this as, say, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, but it still shoehorns in notable cameos that feel manufactured to generate gasps and childish screeching rather than satisfactory payoffs. The film takes a while to get to the aforementioned madness, and even when it gets there it dedicates a sizeable portion of its time to cameo appearances that don’t do anything for the overall narrative or themes. Then again, anyone who’s going in purely for the Easter eggs isn’t going to care.
One creative choice in particular will likely divide audiences. This concerns Wanda, who went from a cool superhero in previous films to someone with rich depth in her Disney+ miniseries Wandavision, which explored the effects of grief and how the way we choose to process this can morph us into our best or worst selves. Yet, Wanda’s arc here feels inconsistent at best and problematic at worst. While there is a version of her arc here that makes sense, and could even work with more time to bridge the gaps between her appearances, she essentially has to relearn something she already wrestled with in Wandavision, which leaves one of the MCU’s better outings feeling somewhat obsolete in hindsight. Aspects of Wanda’s previous depth does come out at times, and Olsen delivers a powerhouse of a performance – by far the best of the film – but it nonetheless feels as though a character with complex, interesting turmoils has been reduced to a generic archetype driven by one thing, and a really reductive thing at that. It suggests a one dimensional feel to the film despite an otherwise adventurous idea. Maybe if it wasn’t so focused on cameos, there would have been more room for nuance.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is at times unique and at others stale. The style is quintessential Raimi, and his unique direction enhances the atmosphere, visual appeal and overall tone. And there is some interesting thematic material regarding self-acceptance and trust. But all of this still has to make a compromise with MCU conventions, meaning the film doesn’t go as far as it could and, at times, even undermines the strength of its characters and thematic potential in favour of feeding its audience a formulaic recipe complete with member berries. The film just about works overall, with a lot of great style. But with such a worrying commitment to an established, if profitable, formula, regardless of who’s at the helm, Marvel needs to take a page from its own film and start putting more trust in its writers and directors. As much as fans will eat up the cameos and roller coaster thrills, the customer isn’t always right.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is in cinemas May 6th.
Director: Sam Raimi
Writer: Michael Waldron
Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, Xochitl Gomez, Michael Stuhlberg, Rachel McAdams
Runtime: 126 minutes