Review: Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness

It’s that time again already for the latest Marvel Cinematic Universe review (and it won’t be the last this year, given we still have two more films to come). If you’ve kept up with every film and TV show, you’ll be well aware that Marvel’s new focus is multiverses, or the idea that alongside our universe are potentially infinite variations. A cynical person might note that this is fertile ground for expanding a film franchise with alternate casting, recasting, and all sorts of potential additions – though a person with comic book knowledge can quickly point out that most superhero comics have been doing this for decades.

Anyway, after Spider-Man: No Way Home gave us a rip-roaring multiversal stew that sensationally brought three Spider-Men together, we now move onto Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. At the onset, it’s worth noting that you probably should watch WandaVision in full to get the most out of this film – and I believe that’s probably the first time a TV show is required viewing for a film!

After the events of No Way Home, Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) has stopped messing around with multiverses, but immediately has that thrown back in his face thanks to the mysterious arrival of the multiverse-travelling America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), who’s jumping across universes to escape a series of mind-bending threats to her life. Strange gets involved in helping her find out who’s trying to kill her, enlisting Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) to help: but Wanda’s got ulterior motives, and Strange has to work across multiple realities to keep America safe, while figuring out more about the new multiversal madness on his plate.

Doctor Strange was an excellent origin story (one of the better ones), and it was a shame to see its director Scott Derrickson leave the sequel. However, Marvel promptly hired Sam Raimi as a replacement – which, for any horror movie or superhero cinema fan, was one hell of a statement. Raimi is the man you have to thank/curse for the superhero craze – he directed all three of the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man films, and is known beyond those for his unhinged horror series Evil Dead.

Any Raimi film is immediately a movie made by this visionary madman – he’ll strap a camera to anything, utilise smash zooms (where a camera flies quickly into the face of a character), and throw the camera around to give the viewer a real sense of vitality and movement. However, many a film fan has loved to point out that most directors’ signature visual tricks are dulled down under the Disney thumb, and it was up for debate whether Raimi had managed to subvert that.

The short answer? He absolutely does – this is one of the only Marvel films that is undoubtedly made by a director in their desired visual style (Chloe Zhao’s Eternals perhaps comes a close second). And I don’t just mean visually – Raimi’s background in horror is very strong, and this is perhaps the most horror-centric and nigh-on unsuitable Marvel movie for kids yet made. For horror fans, it’s a tiny little reminder of Raimi’s horror and action chops, and I enjoyed seeing his style smash through the Marvel standard.

Raimi co-wrote the film with writer Michael Waldron, who also wrote all of the episodes of Loki, and has written episodes of Rick and Morty – his multiversal and horror credentials are not in question! While the movie has its set path to follow (and this film creaks under the force of having to fit into the areas Marvel needs it to at times), Raimi and Waldron infuse scenes with a more emotional and character-centric air than we’re used to.

They’ve also got to grapple with what they’re setting up and what they’re following within the interconnected plot network – as I mentioned, WandaVision is key to this movie, though it was surprising to me that Loki wasn’t, nor No Way Home. However, the animated What If…? show is worth watching to get a sense of what this film is like – and so for some, who struggle to keep up with the films, this might be a step too far in terms of keeping on top of the underlying plots.

However – for me, this is where Multiverse of Madness thrives. It gives us an indication, as the outstanding Spider:Man: Into the SpiderVerse did so well, of how far Marvel proper or Sony and Marvel are prepared to go when it comes to connecting old franchises with new, and when it comes to presenting the idea of multiverses. From hints at animated worlds to references upon references to esoteric comic book lore, Multiverse of Madness commits to the theme, and breaks open the possibilities for future films and shows.

This all means Raimi can go for broke, and he absolutely does with some of the imagery and visual stylings here. We even get to see his famed “POV of a ghost/spirit/creature” cam, which I’ll always associate with Evil Dead, but beyond all this his emphasis on heart and character really shines through in some of the conversations between characters.

The Marvel VFX cash works hard to create some more truly out-there effects and worlds, including America’s star-shaped portals between universes, a battle weaponising musical notes, shattered and destroyed parallel worlds, demonic creatures and much more. If Doctor Strange was an LSD trip, Multiverse of Madness is a truly bad, nightmarish trip in response.

And when it comes, the horror in this film is impressively grim for a 12 certificate. I laughed out loud at some of the deaths depicted here, which is usually a sign that there’s a creatively gory mind at work. To be honest, given the younger audience members in the cinema, I was surprised we didn’t have any panicked walkouts, but there’s been a minor moral panic already, which shows that the displayed or implied violence hit a nerve. It works because it hits home the stakes, more so than most Marvel films usually do.

The action is cleverly creative, though not (obviously) as visually distinct and unique as the first film’s magical battles were. At a certain point, and with certain characters, it does however get really interesting and very much less usual for superhero cinema – at around this time (about halfway through), the film seems to blend perfectly between superheroic and horror violence, and it’s refreshingly interesting (perhaps less so for fans of The Boys, but that’s the very upper limit within this genre!).

Where the film falls down is perhaps its shorter runtime and rushed desire to do a lot in a shorter time – it feels like it’s trying to do a lot at once, and it really could have done with a little more time or a little more focus. It wasn’t helped by the pandemic meaning it moved from one position to another within the Marvel timeline, necessitating rewrites and reshoots, and it can be said that it’s actually done quite a good job with these tune-ups to be both clear enough to follow and not too haphazard.

I also didn’t appreciate Danny Elfman’s score, because Michael Giacchino’s excellent soundtrack for the first film is just too good. Elfman makes no impact despite his excellent pedigree across Batman and Spider-Man movies, and he chooses not to use Giacchino’s themes either: it’s a real shame, and made the film feel unconnected with its predecessor.

Returning to what I did like though: I mentioned earlier that the characters are more developed and given more focus here. Raimi and Waldron allow the film to stop, breathe (quickly) and provide us with some insight into our main characters, and it benefits from this big-time. Strange is given a little more shading and his relationships with others a unique new perspective; America’s tragic story and her youthful distrust/enthusiasm are an interesting mirror to the lead character; and Wanda’s long-running arc of loss, grief, rage, redemption and great power is given the time and focus it deserves.

After Avengers: Endgame, Benedict Cumberbatch plays one of the only main heroes left in this franchise, and it’s fitting given that Strange is a completely atypical superhero. The character has been defined so far throughout the films as arrogant, self-assured to a fault and capable of making impulsive or downright insane gambles – which means the British actor has something to play with every time Strange appears, whether in his own films or someone else’s.

Here, Cumberbatch is excellent because he gets to show some range, to play with the stunted growth of Strange’s love and personal lives, providing a slightly tortured but visibly emotionally-growing hero who still can’t quite get past his own galaxial self-confidence. He’s particularly great in some quieter scenes with the three female co-stars, as well as scenes where he confronts multiversal “variants” of himself.

Gomez is a really strong addition, carrying on the trend for younger new heroes but also providing a moral core to the plot that seems to evade other characters. America’s experienced unimaginable things, but maintains an optimism that helps to defrost Strange’s pomposity (after Tom Holland’s Peter Parker did some of the same in No Way Home).

Elizabeth Olsen is however the standout here, and I think that’s thanks to WandaVision. Usually a bit-part in these films, Wanda was given six episodes of bizarre, emotionally-rich TV in which Olsen got to paint the tragic character as a woman defined and damaged by her loss, grief and love. Building on the surprising conclusion to that show, here the actress is able to layer even more complexity, with Wanda now very much aware of her potential and power, and fighting the extreme trauma, rage and regret that might end up defining her. She’s at turns terrifying, sympathetic and emotionally raw – it’s a testament to letting a character have some proper development.

Outside of the main three characters, Rachel McAdams returns in the latest example of love interest given more to do, with her Christine Palmer the one who got away for Stephen in every universe. McAdams is always great, and she’s given the time here to be more than just a love interest, helping Strange to accept what their relationship is to him and how he can get past it. It’s surprising to me that they did this, but it’s good that the actress got to come back and be more than just a crutch.

Sadly, Benedict Wong has a lot less to do than usual as Supreme Sorcerer Wang, including a lot less comedic stuff than usual. He’s either glowering, saying something portentous or getting hurt, though at least he remains the superior to Strange, as this defines the two characters’ relationship and gives his character purpose and motive.

In a similar vein, Chiwetel Ejiofor returns as Strange’s nemesis Mordo in an elongated cameo, but he has a lot less to do and serves as an ally and foil in an unexpected scenario. It’s a shame given where the character was left at the end of the first film, but perhaps we’ll see more of him in future. Last but certainly not least, Evil Dead fans rejoice: Bruce Campbell makes a cameo appearance, and that’s all I’ll say about that.

To discuss the other characters, meanwhile, I need to do what I did with the No Way Home review and give you the opportunity to not be spoilt. I’ll do that after my verdict…

… overall, Multiverse of Madness is just nuts and gonzo enough to be distinctive, and entertainingly so. Without Sam Raimi’s quirks and visual touches, this would have been a very diminished entry into the Marvel universe. However, even with the plot’s naffer elements, and the rushed runtime, Raimi manages to craft a surprisingly distinct, excellently unpredictable and unexpectedly horror-tinged visual feast. And it was truly excellent to watch a Marvel film filled with Evil Dead nods and references!


*SPOILER WARNING – DON’T READ ON IF YOU’VE NOT SEEN THE FILM. SERIOUSLY.

So for the second film in a row, we’ve got big surprises worth discussing. When Strange enters one of the many parallel worlds, he encounters the (comic book) team known as the Illuminati, made up of a series of familiar and surprising faces with HUGE implications for the films coming up. We’ve got Hayley Atwell returning as the superpowered Captain Carter; Lashana Lynch as the alt-universe Captain Marvel; the surprising return of Anson Mount as the Inhuman Black Bolt (from a cancelled/very shit TV show); and two big shocks.

Having Patrick Stewart return as Professor Charles Xavier is this film’s No Way Home moment, while John Krasinski’s appearance as the Fantastic Four’s Reed Richards is a huge cameo surprise (internet nerds have been fancasting him for years). Of the group, Stewart and Atwell make more of an impact simply by having more to say, and the legacy of their previous appearances; Lynch provides a glorified cameo but a nice nod to Captain Marvel (she’s Carol’s best mate who’s gained the powers this time).

Mount is absolutely (unintentionally) hilarious as the ridiculous character Black Bolt (Strange’s joke at the expense of his full name is spot on). His power being that his voice can literally kill people, it comes across as very stupid onscreen, in addition to his awful costume. You can see why Marvel gave the actor another chance, but the failure of the Inhumans show probably should have been the end of trying to honestly adapt this character.

Atwell clearly loves playing this version of Peggy Carter, and she handles the action incredibly well – it’d be great to see her back in this role (another pay-off from What If…?). Stewart meanwhile is as great as he always is playing Professor X; back comes the gravitas, the sense of steel behind the softly-spoken voice. He’s also the first X-Men character to appear in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so this is a huge deal for the crossovers and potential cameos yet to come.

Finally, Krasinski has so little to do, but the actor would undoubtedly be great proper casting for the Fantastic Four film to come. There’s also the blink and you’ll miss it shocker of a cameo from Charlize Theron, as Clea (another magical character from another dimension) – which I guess speaks to where Strange goes next. You have to wonder who’s left to be in this series when it comes to Hollywood…!

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