Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch (The Power of the Dog), Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene), Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave), Benedict Wong (The Martian), Xochitl Gomez (The Baby-Sitters Club), Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man), Rachel McAdams (About Time)
Director: Sam Raimi (Army of Darkness)
Writer: Michael Waldron (Loki)
Runtime: 2 hours 6 minutes
Release Date: 5th May (UK), 6th May (US)
Synopsis: When paranormal superhero Dr Stephen Strange comes into contact with America Chavez, a young girl with the ability to open portals to alternate dimensions, he must protect her from dark forces that seek to control her power whilst travelling through the vast multiverse.
As Marvel Studios continues rolling out their Phase Four slate and lays the foundation for the next Thanos-level event, one thing is clear: the multiverse is key to all of it. With Loki, What If? and Spider-Man: No Way Home already dipping their toes in the concept, the biggest plunge yet into the realms beyond the cinematic universe we know is now here in the form of Dr. Stephen Strange’s second headlining adventure. Arguably more intriguing than meeting new and familiar heroes from parallel worlds, however, is the return of Sam Raimi to the superhero genre. After essentially creating the blueprint for the modern comic book blockbuster with his first two Spider-Man movies, the venerable horror maestro is a more-than-worthy choice to assume the franchise mantle from Scott Derrickson, but the real question is whether Raimi’s signature style can play nice with the tried-and-true Kevin Feige formula. The result of this marriage, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, is something of a double-edged sword. On one end, it’s an incredibly ambitious, deviously twisted, and boisterously entertaining thrill ride through the dark side of the Marvel universe that only a director like Raimi could pull off. On the other hand, it’s a rushed and unfocused mess of bonkers concepts that is nowhere as deep as it thinks it is and raises more questions about the multiverse than it answers.
Mere moments after the Marvel Studios logo fades away, it’s clear that Multiverse of Madness isn’t wasting anytime. Clocking in at just over two hours, already lean for a modern blockbuster, it’s especially brief for one with so much complex world-building to impart. Whilst the pace is pretty relentless, it’s far from exhausting and has just enough quiet moments for the audience to catch their breath and the characters to plan their next move. After many criticised Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 for being bloated by extraneous subplots, he seems to have taken that to heart and crafted a very streamlined stop-the-bad-guy adventure packed with satisfying twists, a wickedly dark sense of humour, and plenty of crowd-pleasing moments. On that note, it’s also a relief to find the film isn’t the relentless succession of surprise cameos and tie-in teases that many were expecting. Though it certainly has strong ties to Endgame and WandaVision as well as the Derrickson original, it’s far more focused on telling its own story and keeps the fan service contained to the end of the second act.
Whilst it undoubtedly remains an MCU movie, Raimi manages to weave in his idiosyncracies into the film’s DNA in much the same way James Gunn and Taika Waititi have, and not just the ones you might be familair with from his Tobey Maguire days. Multiverse of Madness has touted itself as Marvel’s first horror movie, and though it’s hardly as disturbing as Batman Returns or even Raimi’s own Darkman, there’s enough macabre imagery and heaps of (strategically unseen but heavily implied) gory violence to satiate the Evil Dead fans in the audience and scare younger audiences into hiding under their seats.
Unfortunately, though the story structure and pacing may be simplified compared to Spider-Man 3, the heart and charm that made both his first two Spidey flicks and the best MCU entries work is severely missed. The screenplay, credited to head writer on Loki Michael Waldron, is so focused on keeping the plot mechanics straight that character and theme is a bit of an afterthought. There are fleeting moments of character introspection scattered throughout and it has a dalliance with concepts like living with regret and pondering what could have been, but there’s a frustrating lack of depth and originality to anything it has to say thematically. Whether the meat of these ideas were simply cut for pacing reasons or never there to begin with is unclear, but I for one would have happily sat for an extra ten or fifteen minutes just so I could leave the cinema having gained something of substance. More cynical audiences have complained that all of Raimi’s Spider-Man films were too cheesy and overemotional, but I much prefer a film be too honest about its feelings with me than be too scared or unwilling to express them at all.
It’s kind of weird to realise that though this is only his second solo movie, this is actually Benedict Cumberbatch’s sixth appearance as the (now-former) Sorceror Supreme. After being humbled and learning the responsibility of his powers in his origin film, he’s since become less of a character and more of a function. In contrast to the likes of Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, where their appeal goes far beyond their superheroism, his importance to the MCU has been less about his characterisation and more about how his powers can create or mend narrative problems. That may all be fine and dandy is something like No Way Home, but for Multiverse of Madness you’d hope they would use this reality-hopping adventure to push the character in new directions. Unfortunately, whilst Cumberbatch is still excellent at pulling off Strange’s smug-but-affable demeanour, there’s not a huge amount on the page for him to really dig into. He has two main arcs concerning his regrets about his relationship with Christine Palmer (McAdams) and how best to nurture and help America Chavez (Gomez), but neither really seem to prompt any significant change in Strange or his status quo within the universe; he ends up only slightly adjacent to where he started.
Doing her best to make up for this is Elizabeth Olsen returning as Wanda Maximoff, and whilst her performance here isn’t quite as nuanced or heartbreaking as the one she gave in WandaVision, she absolutely devours every scene she’s in. Fully embracing her status as the Scarlet Witch, Maximoff is a true force to be reckoned with and uses her newfound powers to pull off some truly twisted deeds, but also has more emotional investment and development than any other character in the movie. There’s a fascinating complexity to her inner conflict, her unwillingness to see how her desires would do more harm than good, and how she is blinded and radicalised by her trauma. All of the best scenes in the movie involve Wanda in some form or another, including the most biting exchange of dialogue that will stick in my head for days, and Olsen just sells every deliciously dark moment. Benedict Wong is still just as brilliantly deadpan and hilarious as he’s ever been as Wong, and it’s nice to see Rachel McAdams’ Christine Palmer get in on the action more, but Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Baron Mordo is sadly underused in a perfunctory role that could have been filled by any number of other Marvel characters; hopefully his true return will be a lot more satisfying.
However, the most disappointing character is unfortunately the reality-hopping newcomer America Chavez. Whilst Xochitl Gomez injects the character with a lot of youthful energy that suggests she could become a promising character in the future, here she’s little more than a walking-and-talking MacGuffin for the heroes and villains to fight over. Barring one quick but admittedly effective scene establishing her backstory, she has little agency and the movie is basically over by the time she finds it after a hackneyed and predictable “you gotta believe in yourself” arc. Chavez is an incredibly fascinating character in the comics with huge potential, so hopefully she gets her true chance to shine later down the line.
Whilst Raimi has perhaps not brought his A-game when it comes to storytelling, on a visual level he’s never one to give anything but his gonzo best. Multiverse of Madness is as much a breath of fresh air to Marvel’s usual aesthetic monotony as Eternals, brimming with imaginative cinematography choices by John Mathieson that only accentuate both the mind-bending and horrific visuals alike. The kaleidoscopic Steve Ditko-inspired imagery returns and is turned up to eleven, especially in the sequences where characters cross dimensions and briefly flash through worlds that will inevitably be picked through frame-by-frame for hidden easter eggs. My only real criticism of the film’s visual design is that the main alternate reality we visit, Earth 838, is a little confused. At first it seems like some bizarre future world where weird plants grow everywhere and there are machines that can replay memories, but later on it just seems the same as the main MCU but with a few timeline tweaks.
The action sequences are enthralling and flow well, helped by strong moment-to-moment editing. The first major battle against Gargantos is a major highlight that immeidately brought to mind the bank fight from Spider-Man 2, the second-act skirmish as Wanda invades Earth-838 delivers a fan-pleasing match-up that’s as darkly funny as it is entertaining, whilst the third act sees Strange using his powers in some surreal and outright skin-crawling ways. Whilst there is the usual Marvel problem of too many locations being obviously green-screened rather than shot on location, when the visuals effects are about creating otherworldly environments or creatures they’re absolutely top-notch, whilst the few bits of practical effects work are quintessential Raimi; you’ll know what I’m talking about when you see it. Oh, and who could forget Danny Elfman’s wonderfully deranged music? Whilst certainly not quite the best MCU score (it’s going to take something transcendant to beat Black Panther on that), it’s easily in the top three as it builds on Michael Giacchino’s themes and, like the film itself, then melds tones and genres to create a wonderful fusion of heroic and horrific soundscapes.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness certainly lives up to its title in delivering yet another diverting chapter of the MCU, but there’s an unfortunate lack of method to the…well, you know. In its best moments, it reminded me of what was so great about Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy and proved again that Marvel movies don’t have to be homogenous blockbusters when Feige trusts a director to bring their vision to the table. At its worst though, it brought to mind The Rise of Skywalker; a technically well-made movie but one that focuses on plot and spectacle to the detriment of everything else. Its positive qualities ultimately outweigh its negatives, in particular Elizabeth Olsen’s delectably nuanced evolution of Scarlet Witch and the sheer brazenness of some of Raimi’s directorial choices, enough for me to give the film a recommendation but it pains me that I can’t praise it more. I only hope Marvel’s future explorations of the multiverse will have something more profound to say about it.
FINAL VERDICT: 7/10