Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and all the images you see in this review are owned by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Directed by Sam Raimi
Before this latest phase of Marvel movies, you would have sounded like a broken record listing off all the great things about it before giving it an above-average score, but the last few movies have wavered a bit in quality with the only real standout being the latest Spider-Man; the one that leans heavily on nostalgia for movies that weren’t even made by Marvel Studios. Still, even prior to the Post-Endgame MCU there was an easily identifiable formula for these things and even the best of the Marvel movies didn’t deviate much from it; including the first Doctor Strange movie which definitely benefited from its mind-bending vision but still fell into a lot of the same pitfalls of other Marvel films at the time. Now it’s sequel time with a veteran director behind it, so perhaps this will be the one to successfully break the Marvel mold and do something unique with it instead of just another really enjoyable entry in the catalog. Can this bridge the gap between the great simplicity of the pre-Endgame MCU and the more experimental phase it finds itself in now, or will it tear itself apart trying to fix what isn’t broken? Let’s find out!!
Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) may not be the Sorcerer Supreme since taking that five-year vacation, but he’s still hanging out at the Sanctum Sanctorum and just kinda working on himself. You know, get to know the REAL Doctor Strange, especially since his ex-girlfriend Christine (Rachel McAdams) is getting married and so he no longer has someone to pine after. Geez, this is starting to sound a bit sad. Maybe an interdimensional threat that could rip apart the universe would give him a bit of structure and a clearly defined goal to go after! Well as luck would have it, a young woman named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) is being pursued by the kind of monsters you’d find in a D&D handbook, and it turns out that she has the unique gift of being able to travel through dimensions. Well… sort of. She can’t exactly activate it at will but it always seems to get her out of trouble at the last second, though her luck seems to be running out as the malevolent force that’s pursuing her seems to be getting very close and she’s even gone to a few different Doctor Strange counterparts in those other universes without much luck in stopping this threat. Now it falls on our Doctor Strange to put an end to this sinister chase and stop them from taking her powers for their own nefarious end. For this task, he enlists the help of the current Sorcerer Supreme, Wong (Benedict Wong), as well as Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) who’s been off on her own since that whole Wanda Vision thing happened. Can Strange uncover the identity of this malevolent force that’s out to hurt America, and will he like the answers that he finds? What does Wanda hope to gain from all this, and will it be enough to make her whole after losing so much? I bet they wish they could escape to a dimension where Everything Everywhere All At Once came out the month after this instead of the month before.
It’s hard to get too excited about singing the praises of yet another entry in the biggest and most successful media franchise of all time, but I thought this was really good! It’s not exactly reinventing the wheel, and in some aspects, it feels a little less inspired than the first movie, but Raimi brings enough new ideas to the table that sets it apart from everything else we’ve seen in this current phase of the MCU. It’s dark, funny, and even has an emotionally compelling narrative surrounding its villain which is pretty rare for these movies, and while it may lean a bit too heavily into MCU continuity for some people’s taste, it definitely provides some closure and payoff for certain characters that will be all the more satisfying for those who have stuck with it for this long. Even with Raimi giving a violent shock of life to this formula, this is no doubt yet another movie in the Marvel mold so it’s probably not gonna do much for you if you’re sick of that stuff. Heck, it’s not even the best multiverse movie you can see in theaters right now, providing you’ve near someplace that’s still showing Everything Everywhere All At Once! Still, it’s hard to fault any of the individual movies in this gargantuan franchise for having such an omnipresent spotlight on it, so while it’s not the best movie so far this year and is probably only gonna make those sick of these comic book movies all the more irritated, I thought it was an interesting little adventure across reality with fun characters and a genuinely emotional character arc. Plus, it’s a good reminder of why you never sleep on Sam Raimi! He could be doing one of those Live-Action Disney Remakes next, and I’m sure it’ll still find a way to be weird and hilarious!
Each Marvel movie needs a unique selling point to hang on to the established framework, and for this film, it’s definitely getting Raimi behind the camera. The film admittedly doesn’t have the same level of mesmerizing psychedelic visuals as the last movie which was its way of differentiating itself, but Raimi more than makes up for it with his particular style which leans heavier on horror and comedy; especially when he gets to do both at the same time. This seems to have been a sticking point with some audiences as the violence and scares are definitely turned up for this one, but frankly, I’ll take the gloriously cheesy jump scares of this one over the two-hour misery fest that Infinity War. The moments of shocking violence, that are just as likely to cause laughs as they would gasps, keep this from feeling overly predictable which is what you want from the twenty-eighth movie in a franchise, and leaving Raimi to do his thing certainly leads to some very interesting moments that make the most of the wild concepts at play. Of course, it’s not just a movie about weird things happening and spooky freights; the movie has a solid story to hang all of this magical mayhem on with relatively unknown Xochitl Gomez having to carry the plot on her shoulders while trying to keep up with veterans like Cumberbatch, Olsen, and McAdams. It’s a pretty thankless role honestly as she’s thrown into a well-established cast and has to get audiences to care about her story, but the film does a good job of giving her the necessary background and a good number of heroic moments to keep from feeling like the odd one out in this.
Marvel typically does a good job of leaving each entry feeling at least somewhat independent of the greater whole; not so much that the characters feel isolated from the world around them, but rarely so much that you’re missing something if you didn’t see movies X, Y, or Z beforehand. That is not the case here as much of this ties directly into the events of the Disney Plus series Wanda Vision which is arguably to the movie’s detriment, but for me, it ended up fixing one of the biggest problems with the MCU. To go any further however would venture into spoiler territory, so let’s just say that The Scarlet Witch is the key to this movie working as well as it does and you can skip ahead to the next section if you don’t want to venture into spoiler territory.
We good? Alright, so it’s revealed very early in the movie that the villain is Wanda. They don’t play coy with it or put her in an anti-hero role of some kind; she is positioned and framed just as any other Marvel villain would be and she’s very effective in that role. The MCU has done a good job of building us up to this point with her character and it makes for a villain who can be the mustache-twirling terror while also finding room for the nuances and bittersweet story beats that have eluded most of the MCU antagonists; especially Kaecilius from the first Doctor Strange who I’m sure no one even remembers. In truth, it’s not too different from Spider-Man No Way Home using the characterization of characters from other movies as shortcuts to emotional investment, but I think it feels more natural here. They spend enough time reestablishing her trauma and outlining her motivation, so even if you haven’t seen Wanda Vision and at most have vague memories of Infinity War, I think enough of the pieces are here that you won’t have any issues understanding what she’s all about.
This movie gets a lot of things right and it even manages to fix one of the MCU’s biggest problems which is that they tend to have an uninteresting villain. Unfortunately, that seems to have manifested as less of an overall improvement and more of a trade-off as the least interesting aspect of this movie is Doctor Strange himself. Now that’s not to say that Benedict Cumberbatch does a bad job in the role or that he’s unlikeable throughout, but the script leaves him in a strange limbo where he never seems to be driving the plot despite the plot’s insistence otherwise. Again, it’s pretty unfortunate for this film that Everything Everywhere All At Once came out only a month ago because while this is still a lot of fun, that movie runs circles around almost everything it does; especially with the main character. No matter what universe Evelyn found herself in, she was the one driving the plot and it was her actions that ultimately led to the resolution of the movie. Here, Strange is never really able to be more than just a bystander since each alternate reality arguably has a much more interesting version of him to learn about, and whatever growth he has to go through is almost done secondhand. Sure, there is some value in holding up a mirror to yourself and seeing what you could be if you were led by selfishness and ego, but it comes off less like Strange going through a crisis of self-understanding and more like a few cautionary tales with really obvious pitfalls to avoid. Also, and again this ventures into spoiler territory, the primary alternate reality they go to has some fun stuff in it, but the movie treats it as disposable which is disappointing. If they really did want to cover this particular ground, I feel like it could have been done with a bit more pomp and circumstance rather than just a diversion to try and raise the stakes.
As I’ve said, this isn’t a movie that’s gonna change your mind on the MCU. It’s certainly one of the better examples we’ve gotten since the Post-Endgame Soft-Reboot, but whatever life and maniacal energy Sam Raimi brings to the table is ultimately in service of that formula, and even when done this well it still feels a bit stifling. To say that Marvel is “struggling” is about as laughable an overstatement as you can imagine (though I’m sure you’ll find a million YouTube Shouty-Dudes saying as much), but it does seem to be trying to find what the next big thing is, and so far the streaming shows seem to be eclipsing the movies themselves. This is only the second time I’d say that what they’re putting on the big screen is better than what they’re doing on Disney Plus with Spider-Man being the only other example. In any case, I would definitely recommend seeing this one on the big screen if you have any fondness for the character or are just a big fan of Sam Raimi’s wacky and sinister style, though if you still need to catch up on Wanda Vision or even Moon Knight, maybe you can wait for its inevitable arrival on Disney Plus. If nothing else, it’ll give subscribers a Sam Raimi movie to watch that isn’t Oz the Great and Powerful.