Directed by: Sam Raimi
Distributed by: Disney
Written by Anna Harrison
It was not too long ago that “Loki” offered us a glimpse into the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s multiverse, and not too long after that when “Spider-Man: No Way Home” blew the door wide open, leading us here: the so-called “Multiverse of Madness.” If the hype levels for Doctor Strange’s second solo outing (and his first since the original “Doctor Strange” way back when in 2016, before I had even graduated high school) aren’t quite as high as the fervor surrounding the Spider-Men of “No Way Home,” they are nothing to scoff at, either—“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” promised a continuation of the intensely discussed “WandaVision,” teased cameos galore, and marked the return of original “Spider-Man” director Sam Raimi to the big screen for the first time in nearly a decade.
And, despite all that hubbub surrounding it, the movie is… fine. Sometimes, it can even become really good and almost great, but only sometimes. Alas. Yet what does work in the “Multiverse of Madness” promises a step in the right direction for Marvel, and on balance, that’s a good thing.
We pick up with Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, among one of the more skilled performers in the MCU but with an unfortunate habit of overemphasizing his “r’s” whenever he has to do an American accent) at the wedding of his ex-girlfriend Christine (Rachel McAdams) to someone who is not him. (Michael Stuhlbarg also appears as Dr. Nicodemus West, rubs salt in Strange’s wound by reminding him how he saved the world “but… didn’t get the girl,” picks up a nice paycheck and a “with” credit, gets his name on the poster, and leaves.) “Are you happy?” Christine asks Strange, and the question gives him pause. That all of this is predicated on the idea that you actually cared about these two in the first “Doctor Strange” assumes a lot, but let’s just pretend you did.
Strange’s musings are interrupted by the arrival of America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a plucky teenager with the ability to hop across the multiverse, and just like that, we (with the welcome addition of Benedict Wong as Wong, the glue holding Marvel together) are off to the races, though Christine’s question lingers at the back of Strange’s mind. Is he happy? Is America happy? Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), last seen in “WandaVision” after losing her imaginary husband and kids, is decidedly not, and her quest to use the multiverse to bring back her twin sons only makes the feeling worse.
To give away the plot would be to spoil more than just the universe-hopping cameos (your mileage may vary on how much you enjoy these—for myself, it mostly feels like an exercise in flaunting Marvel fandom literacy, with none of these appearances doing anything to further the plot or arcs of the main characters, unlike, say, the addition of other Spider-Men in “Spider-Man: No Way Home”), but the spoilerific plot and the clunky writing that comes with it are far and away the worst thing about “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.” From “Loki” writer Michael Waldron, the script alternates between exposition (America, though played with gumption by Gomez, is a walking MacGuffin) and flatly stating the characters’ feelings with barely any proof to back up these proclamations. “Are you happy?” Christine asks Strange. By the end of the film, he has an answer, but is it a believable one based on what we’ve been shown by the script?
Luckily, even if “Multiverse of Madness” lacks strong character arcs—despite interesting kernels of development that frustratingly never amount to much—it does not lack strong direction. Sam Raimi gets to brand Marvel with his individual style more so than any director who has come before him, and his touch is almost enough to make you forget the awkward dialogue and the unexciting multiverse hopping (in this universe, green means stop!). There’s no shortage of scares or camera flourishes, and one scene where Wanda, covered in blood-like oil and shuffling around with glass in her feet, chases someone down a hallway briefly turns “Doctor Strange” into a zombie movie without any zombies (at least until the final act). It all feels more Raimi-like than I had any reason to expect given Marvel’s talent for covering up directorial voices, but here they (mostly) let him shine, and a battle involving music notation and Danny Elfman’s killer score and conducting is one of the most visually exciting set pieces to ever come out of Marvel. Combined with the fact that Marvel has now learned what natural lighting and location shooting are thanks to Chloé Zhao’s “Eternals,” it stands to reason that some day soon we may have a movie that even Martin Scorsese can enjoy, if only Marvel can learn to give us a reason to care about these characters other than our previous investment.
Nah, who am I kidding? But they should certainly keep trying.
“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” Trailer
“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” is currently playing in wide theatrical release.