Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness — A Big Mixed Bag

Image retrieved from TMDb

15 years after he last took the helm of a superhero flick, with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Sam Raimi has reemerged into the superhero space. And while Raimi has improved on what Marvel typically does visually, without a doubt, the film still held together by flimsy plotting, excessive exposition, and character moments that are either repeated from previous MCU properties, or are given the bare minimum weight and importance.

The film opens with its roughest looking action scene where Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and who we come to find out is the universe-hopping America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) are fighting some CGI monster in what amounts to a dream. Strange wakes up, and it’s the day of his ex, Christine’s (Rachel McAdams), wedding. Christine asks Strange if he’s happy, introducing the small bit of character work that’s done for our protagonist. From there, the idea of a multiverse is introduced (in this movie), as now-villain Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), who picked up the moniker of the Scarlett Witch, wants to get back to her kids, following the events of Disney Plus’ debut Marvel show, WandaVision.

Fortunately though, for what this movie is trying to do, Raimi clings much more closely to his horror roots than to anything that made his three Spider-Man movies successful. As Strange and his pals jump between universes and fight Scarlett Witch, things tend to get ominous and violent — like, heads blowing up and people being impaled on spikes, violent. Raimi also brings in effective lighting, close-up framing, and some wild overlay transitions that immediately signal this as dark and uniquely-made. This all gives the film a strong sense of menace and foreboding. It’s not quite at “anything could happen at any time,” but there’s a pervasive uneasiness that only works thanks to Raimi’s sure-handed work behind the camera.

It’s become a tired and overwhelming constant conversation in movie circles — online and offline alike — but Marvel movies aren’t known for their visual mastery as much as they are a fairly basic aesthetic experience, with immensely endearing characters being what you really latch onto. For the most part, over the now-14-year existence of this interconnected universe, mastermind producer Kevin Feige has plugged in smaller directors who have done lots of TV or a few really good indie movies, and whose sensibilities will only be visible here and there (Joss Whedon’s character work and Taika Waititi’s unique brand of humor immediately come to mind), but the overall feel and story of these films are still quintessentially Marvel. Those films are full of muted, gray color palettes and a penchant for using green screen when it’s not necessary, which can pull the life out of a scene. But Raimi dispenses of that almost immediately in Multiverse of Madness. The second action sequence — and first full sequence set in the real world — is full of colors, interesting visual ideas, lighting and color that make you feel like you’re watching a big budget movie, and New York streets full of innocent bystanders to give the fight actual stakes. Throughout the movie, one of the main aesthetic things that stood out to me was how striking and real simple film elements like costume design felt. Raimi, being the first Marvel director since Kenneth Branagh to have a long history of successful movies that were distinctly made by them, is the main reason Multiverse of Madness stands out at all.

Where it really begins to feel just like every other Marvel movie, though, is in its story, which feels like it’s there to serve a greater multiversal purpose, and not to serve its characters. Doctor Strange is the focus (thankfully, given that the movie is subtitled Multiverse of Madness, implying cameos and extra characters galore), but the lessons he learns are at best, basic, and at worst, unclear. There’s lip service paid to some of Strange’s previous potential screw-ups and to what it means to be a hero, and Christine tells him the importance of facing his fears, but there aren’t too many meaningful truths about life to be gleaned. And it doesn’t help that Cumberbatch has seemed perpetually bored since he first got cast as Stephen Strange. Even Wanda, who’s been put through the wringer since her introduction in Avengers: Age of Ultron, basically learns the exact same lesson that she learns at the end of WandaVision. As opposed to Cumberbatch, Olsen is at least giving it her all, and she at least makes something something out of the lackluster character arc she’s given, and you do feel for her in some ways.

What’s most perplexing about Multiverse of Madness is that at once, the multiverse doesn’t feel very mad, and there’s too much going on for there to be any one idea to focus on and take something away from. It’s more of a large scale series finale for WandaVision than it is a sequel to the first Doctor Strange (and it’s banking heavily on the assumption that you’ve seen the show), but at the same time, a lot of it feels like setup for whatever is coming next in the MCU. It doesn’t put aside a whole lot of time to just be its own movie. The film fortunately doesn’t go off the rails with its cameos and Easter eggs like it very well could have (there are some cameos, though), but the plot was still to scattershot to feel cohesive.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness succeeds the best in its various character moments that are amplified thanks to the direction from Raimi; it’s refreshing to watch one of these Marvel films that has an interesting and unique directorial style. But it unfortunately fails when it relies too heavily on the typical Marvel plotting, one-liners, and even a fake-out death or two. It’s simultaneously a step in the right direction and an insistence to stand pat.

One thought on “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness — A Big Mixed Bag

  1. I feel if this movie was a lot more “Doctor Strange fighting his evil self with music” than it was fighting the Avengers, “Wanda goes full Omniman on the alternate Avengers”, I’d have liked it more. Those things it did were cool, but like all Marvel movies cool isn’t a substitute for the same substance we get from other potentially introspective scenes. Loki and WandaVision so far have dealt with the multiverse much better than the movies. I feel like they’ve got a solid idea, but can’t figure out a way to execute it.

    Liked by 1 person

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