This review briefly touches on some of the plot setup for this film. You have been warned.
The MCU has always been a little bit self-serious. Even in the films where comedy was the primary mode of storytelling (i.e. the Guardians and Spider-Man films), one has a distinct sense that though the material is self-aware, it’s not especially zany or eager to become playful with its subject matter, particularly on the crafts side. There are no star wipes, no cuts-to-black in the middle of proceedings, and zero freeze-frame lining the walls of the most popular and easily the most successful franchise – both critically and commercially – ever committed to digital rendering. There aren’t even any transitions where one frame bleeds into another as if characters are invading the narrative to take over its main thrust. Most of it, to be frank, is fairly straightforward comic-book storytelling, as straightforward as those things can be when dealing with a purple genocidal alien and a pair of best friends who take the forms of a tree and a raccoon. Generally speaking - and apart from the Guardians films – there’s not normally a ton of risk involved in directing a Marvel Studios film, at least not in terms of an audience being jarred by one’s sense of style; that can get boring after a fashion. In all truth, the MCU needed to get a little silly to stay fresh. It needed to evolve from a mere action/comedy franchise into something more akin to a fun exploration of what kinds of MCU stories can be told. And that, by far, is the biggest strength director Sam Raimi offers in directing the newest entry to the Disney juggernaut, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.
As the titular sorcerer travels the multiverse with the help of newly-introduced multiverse-hopper America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) in order to stop a fearsome evil from pursuing them and ultimately taking America’s power for its own, one can sense the Sam Raimi style bleeding into the frames from the edge until they consume the story entirely. There are multiple action sequences with genuinely silly effects – one in particular involving a classical music composition – and any number of transitions those unfamiliar with Raimi will no doubt notice as being distinct amongst the wider MCU. Raimi’s been no stranger to camp, ever since his original Evil Dead release in 1981, and it peppers Multiverse of Madness in some fairly significant ways. Another storytelling element to which Raimi is no stranger is horror; Multiverse of Madness is not a full-on horror film, but it does get significantly closer to that genre than any MCU movie has to date, though just how close Raimi was allowed to get is in question since Scott Derickson, the film’s original helmer, presumably left the project because Marvel didn’t want him to get too close to making an actual horror film. That said, certain images and moments are crafted with a horror element in mind, as is evident in certain sequences and with particular characters, especially the villains this time around.
Where the film runs into significant problems is its script, one that can’t seem to decide whose story it’s telling or how it wants to go about telling it. Whereas the initial Doctor Strange film had the benefit of being an origin story, thus only needing to set up one character, Multiverse of Madness carries the unwieldy task of not only introducing us to America Chavez, but to the multiverse at large, and all that it contains, both in its more brief appearances and its more significant layovers. That means a lot of characters and a lot of worlds to cover in a fairly short span of time, and it’s not always up to the task. Unfortunately, though the film certainly has at least a small arc for its titular hero, and he is very much in the center of the frame, the introduction of the wider MCU means that stories in which he’s involved can’t only focus on him now – even if he is, as noted, the title character. Because of all the setup involved, as well as needing to handle at least two other mainline characters’ stories, Strange feels a little bit pushed to the background in terms of development here. We know about him by film’s end almost as much as we knew at the beginning, and apart from some rudimentary introductory material, we don’t really know that much about what kind of person America Chavez is either. That said, MCU movies have bounced back from character development issues and over-bloat before – hell, even Iron Man 2 – the worst MCU movie – still coasts on the charms of Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johannson.
What Multiverse of Madness may not bounce back from is in how it handles the Wanda Maximoff character, whose MCU journey has been one of the most compelling of any of her cohorts across four movies and her own Disney+ limited series (though the number of movies drops to three if one considers she only briefly appears in Avengers: Endgame). It’s not to say that the place Wanda ultimately ends up in the film makes no sense, but on the whole, it’s merely a repeat of her emotionally-driven arc from WandaVision without the necessary developments taking place to get her back to where she needs to be at the beginning of it (I’m deeply sorry if that sentence is confusing, but keeping this spoiler-free means that will occasionally happen). There is one small line during the first act that hints at what might be driving Wanda towards this point of origin, but no justification for it or demonstration of its truth beyond what we already know from that series. Elizabeth Olsen, as always, acts the hell out of whatever she’s given to do, but her function in this film is more so as a plot device than as her own distinct character, ditto America Chavez for most of the film’s runtime. Wanda begins at an endpoint here without the MCU having earned that journey for her character, and while her story in this film may make sense in a vacuum, the question of how everything connects to the wider MCU forces it to confront a near-antithesis of itself without so much as a guide to who she is or who she has been.
All in all, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness does bring some of that much-needed fun back to the film side of the MCU, where nearly everything has been soaked in dour, post-Endgame dread or multiverse acknowledgement/setup, and is able to bring some of that Sam Raimi zaniness to this world with a decent amount of success, but the script for the film can’t seem to handle the weight of what it needs to accomplish in the amount of time it has to accomplish it. Everything that doesn’t work takes up a lot of the spotlight from the things that do, and despite the myriad showcases of style, some fun cameos, and a healthy dose of zany horror, this MCU entrant may end up disappointing audiences on a number of levels. Perhaps this film needed to be longer in order to accommodate everything it needed to include and flesh out some of its more significant pacing issues, but – while I won’t say I wasn’t at least a little bit let down by some of its less favorable material – for my part, it is refreshing to see the MCU dive head-first into becoming something almost entirely different than what it’s been to this point.
I’m giving “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” a 7.6/10.
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time.