Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)
Director: Sam Raimi
Screenwriter: Michael Waldron
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen, Xochitl Gomez, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Stuhlbarg
In a seemingly throwaway scene in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, loudmouth newspaper editor J Jonah Jameson and his Daily Bugle staffers are furiously brainstorming what to call the new villain in town who will eventually be known as Doc Ock. When the hapless Hoffman (played by Raimi’s brother Ted) excitedly pitches they name him “Doctor Strange”, Jameson wryly responds “That’s pretty good… but it’s taken!”. Who’d have thought that 18 years later Raimi would make good on that joke?
Previously on the Marvel Cinematic Universe… Peter Parker’s secret identity as Spider-Man was revealed to the world so he asked sorcerer Doctor Stephen Strange to cast a spell to make everyone forget. That spell went wrong and the multiverse opened, bringing heroes and villains from other worlds to ours. Elsewhere (‘Wandavision’), Wanda Maximoff created and sealed herself off from the world in her own blissfully happy reality, enslaving the minds of the town of Westview in the process
Now, Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) must help protect dimension-jumping teenager America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) who is fleeing a dark force that wants to take her power and her life, all the while encountering alternate versions of his own enemies and allies.
Sam Raimi’s hugely distinctive filmmaking style probably stands up the best to MCU-ification out of all the big name directors who have played in this limitless toy box so far. Black Widow only really felt like a Cate Shortland film for its fairly low-key opening 20 minutes, and while nobody else but Chloé Zhao would have made Eternals look quite the way it did, the naturalistic, personal storytelling of her earlier work was lost amongst the space operatic hugeness of the thing. In contrast, Raimi sprinkles dark humour and disturbing visuals including jump-scares and dismemberment throughout all the usual superhero action, moments straight out of Evil Dead or Drag Me to Hell sit somewhat jarringly but proudly alongside all the predictable fight scenes between super-people.
Standout scenes in Multiverse of Madness include a New York street battle against a tentacled cyclops, an imaginative and unexpectedly musical magical duel, and a sequence where Strange and Sorcerer Supreme Wong (Benedict Wong) try to protect their charge from her pursuer in magical sanctuary Kamar-Taj by briefly trapping them in the seemingly inescapable “Mirror Dimension”. All of these set pieces remind you that Raimi is still among the best out there at blocking action scenes and keeping the geography crystal clear among the chaos.
This is a multiverse movie but only to the extent that it is required for the plot to keep moving and the spectacle to keep coming. Don’t go in expecting lots of groundwork to be laid for future entries in the MCU; while we are presented with the entertaining possibilities in regards to characters and who might play them in other universes, it’s pretty explicitly stated that not much of this will stick around and affect the status quo of this series going forward (next year’s Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania looks likely to be the next entry to do that).
Multiverses are all the rage in Hollywood these days, from Spider-Man: No Way Home, Everything Everywhere All at Once and the upcoming The Flash, and as a storytelling trope they in theory allow you to do anything you can possibly imagine. This makes it more than a little disappointing that most of the worlds Strange and America Chavez travel to are just similar versions of New York with a slightly different colour palette. A dazzling montage that ricochets the pair through reality after reality, including one in which they’re animated and another in which they appear to be made of luminous paint, is all too fleeting.
There is a colossal bit of fan service about halfway through the film’s remarkably restrained 2 hour run-time – the much-teased Illuminati scene that is this secret society of smart superheroes’ first live-action appearance – but even this is gleefully lampshaded after the bare minimum amount of time is given for fans to squeal at who they’re seeing.
Annoyingly for some viewers, Marvel movies now require you to at least Wikipedia the major plot points of the TV shows in order to fully appreciate their latest big screen releases. In the original pre-Covid plans for “Phase Four”, Multiverse of Madness was set to be released before No Way Home, picking up directly after the events of ‘Wandavision’. The showrunner of ‘Loki’, Michael Waldron, is on screenplay duties here and continues Wanda’s character arc from the sitcom-inspired show created by Jac Schaeffer.
Wanda/Scarlet Witch’s journey – explicit discussion of which would constitute a spoiler – is likely to provoke the most heated of discussions among fans of the character, and it is debatable whether every eye-opening moment she is given here is fully earned, but Elizabeth Olsen is still excellent in the part.
Elsewhere in the cast, Benedict Cumberbatch is still an incredibly reliable lead allowed to bring a little melancholy to a character who finally has time to register how unfulfilling his life is when he’s not saving half the universe – plus he gets to play multiple iterations of Strange, all of whom have lived very different lives and experiences. Xochitl Gomez is a real find and has a warm repartee with Cumberbatch, while Rachel McAdams gets to be a much more active participant in the action this time around.
There are admittedly some rather laborious exchanges, telling rather than showing using clunky dialogue to explain what the hell is going on and why it matters. Some of this might be due to having to re-write the film to fit in with the new chronological order of the MCU caused by the pandemic delays, but there must be more interesting ways to keep your audience up to speed. The middle stretch of the film, while not wasting any time, sags and loses focus, though this is the rare Marvel film that keeps momentum in its final act.
Sam Raimi has a mischievous and twisted sense of humour, but he is also a pretty sentimental sort, so in the end this film is all about love. Much like the first Doctor Strange film, this isn’t the deepest of stories but it is memorable on a visual level, moves at a pace and delights in demonstrating how a vivid directorial vision can punch up some samey material. Multiverse of Madness is flashy and pretty exciting stuff that will delight fans in the moment, but whether it will linger remains to be seen.
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