Synopsis: When dimension-hopping teenager America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) inadvertently lands in Doctor Strange’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) world pursued by demons, Strange and newly minted Sorcerer Supreme Wong (Benedict Wong) seek the help of Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) to return Chavez back to her own dimension. However, Wanda has far darker plans for Chavez’s power, and in order to protect her, Strange must go on an odyssey through the multiverse, aided by a parallel version of his ex-girlfriend Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams).
1. Appropriately, there are two versions of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (henceforth shortened to Multiverse of Madness). One is the paint-by-numbers Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) entry, which itself is an archetype that is fast becoming bogged down by the need to set up future narratives and to maintain consistency with pre-existing continuity – which is becoming a problem now that said continuity is twenty-seven feature films and a smattering of TV shows, with one of the latter being vital viewing for Multiverse of Madness to make any sort of sense. This version of the movie is the boring one. But within that straitjacket exists a far more interesting movie. A Sam Raimi movie. Raimi has not directed a feature film since 2013’s Oz: The Great and Powerful, and his absence is proof positive of how much the Hollywood landscape has shifted since his Spider-Man heyday. Raimi has always been one of mainstream filmmaking’s most unique voices, with a heterodox stylistic alchemy of campy earnestness coupled with a splatterhouse appetite for gory horror. Both of these aspects are now hopelessly out of fashion in mainstream blockbuster filmmaking, which tends towards bloodless CGI-sweetened action scenes and wisecracking characters that encourage you not to take anything on the screen too seriously (1), with neither reflective of Raimi’s sensibilities. It is thus no surprise that Multiverse of Madness is schizophrenic in its execution, with the generally expected roped-off path that you’d expect from a sequel to a decent-enough movie starring one of Marvel’s less interesting characters occasionally veering into much more interesting territory before being yanked back in line.
2. One major problem, of course, is the protagonist. I’ve had my say on Cumberbatch (his limited range, his wobbly American accent, his complete lack of chemistry with The Unfairly Underrated Rachel McAdams), but it’s not exactly his fault that Doctor Strange never pops off the screen like he should. The key complaint is that the character always comes across as a lesser facsimile of Tony Stark, what with the whole arrogant genius who learns to serve a purpose greater than himself schtick, with this similarity even lampshaded in Infinity War. Strange works best as part of an ensemble, and there are not enough flashbacks and meaningful conversations in the world that could make me care about his personal happiness and masculine sadness at things not working out with his ex. This issue is compounded by the fact that the villain of the movie is about a thousand times more interesting and complex than the hero, especially after her starring role in Wandavision. It doesn’t help either that Wanda Maximoff’s motivation is also far more compelling than simply ‘oops I shouldn’t have broken things off with my ex in the last movie’. Unfortunately, the film really does not do justice to Wanda either, changing course so rapidly from the end of Wandavision that it makes me question if that TV series was supposed to originally end in a much darker way. What other reason could there be for throwing away nine episodes of character development just to go ‘welp, she’s a baddie now I guess’? Multiverse of Madness attempts to handwave it by claiming that the Darkhold (the spell book taken from Agatha Harkness at the end of Wandavision) had ‘corrupted her mind’, but this reasoning is lazy to the extent of being insulting. I know Strange’s name is on the marquee, but a more balanced film that cut out some of his plotline to actually show Wanda’s corruption would have been a far superior one.
3. This imbalance in the film extends to more than the two main characters. Multiverse of Madness treads an uneasy line between the usual overly CGI-ed action scenes and Raimi’s more stylised horror. Take for example Shuma-Gorath’s attack on New York, which at first is nothing more than the typical MCU first act action beat, until we cut to an extra in a building screaming wildly at the sight of the demon, in the first of many callbacks to Raimi’s previous work. And then, Strange literally stabs the creature in the eye and pulls it out, causing it to bounce down the street. When this happened, there were genuine gasps in my screening, which has become a rarer and rarer response to the assembly-line of MCU action scenes. Similarly, Wanda’s attack on Kamar-Taj first plays out like you’d expect, with plenty of CGI beams shooting out of wavy hands … until she crawls out of a reflective surface, body twisted and bent like Sadako from The Ring. These moments of creativity are interspersed throughout the movie, and are by far and away the most interesting fights the MCU has featured in a while. Wanda’s battle with the Illuminati (a multiversal variant of The Avengers) is particularly inspired in its gruesomeness, with Raimi using Disney’s infinite resources to stage kills that finally go beyond ‘laser beam hits character in the chest’. I won’t spoil them, but let’s just say that they are bloody delightful when they happen. Later on, a chase scene degenerates into something resembling from the Evil Dead series, with a bloodied, shuffling Wanda hunting down the heroes in a moment that is genuinely thrilling and scary in a way that few of these movies have ever reached. Raimi also has some fun moments with his signature camera work, from expressionistic Dutch angles to swooping villain-POV shots and shots that tilt on their axis to follow characters going from horizontal to vertical (and vice versa).
4. This stylishness also extends to the planning of the fights as well, with two particular highlights of twin Stranges duelling each other with musical notes and a climax that actually, no joke, involves zombie Dr. Strange swooping in with a cape made of tormented spirits to save the day. It’s this kind of demented, gleeful filmmaking that has been in short supply in an increasingly formulaic blockbuster landscape. Beyond simply being fun and creative, it just adds so much more character, and few directors have ever had as much character as Sam Raimi. However, these moments almost always come to a shuddering halt to continue the ho-hum plot or set up the next tiresome plotline to be followed up with in a future instalment. The movie can really be summed up in a nutshell with the scene where Strange and America are first catapulted through the multiverse, where the viewer is treated to a quite wonderful montage (reminiscent of the superlative Everything Everywhere All At Once) of the different multiverses. Look, there’s a comic-book one! And a cubist one! And one where they are all made out of paint! And then … the rest of the movie is spent in only two alternate universes, one where everything is the same except Dr. Strange died in it (oh and red light means go and green light means stop lol how quirky), and another that is (say it with me folks) a post-apocalyptic universe. Seriously? That’s like showing a kid an entire display case of chocolate and giving them cornflakes instead. You get the idea – this movie is immensely frustrating because of how often it feints towards something ingenious or inventive, only to snatch it away and deliver the same lukewarm mush as always. I will give credit though, to Raimi and screenwriter Michael Waldron, for having the inspirational ‘you can do it as long as you believe’ speech be delivered by Zombie Strange, complete with over-the-top Evil Dead rotting flesh makeup. (2)
5. The acting is decent, I guess. Elizabeth Olsen is obviously the clear standout, fully embodying this character and her pain even when the plot does her nothing but a disservice. Between this and Wandavision, she might honestly have given one of the best performances in the MCU, and it helps that (unlike every other character in this franchise) there is never any winking to the camera or stupid quipping about how silly this whole thing is. It is a serious, fully locked-in performance, and guess what? Those tend to feel real and believable. I’ve already talked loads about Cumberbatch and his wonky American accent, but I will give him credit for doing a nice job at portraying Strange’s grumpiness, which is a trait that does separate him from other superheroes. The other actors are fine in their supporting roles, with no one really standing out. Special mention, however, must go to The Unfairly Underrated Rachel McAdams (or TUURM) for short, who continues to live up to the moniker I’ve bestowed on her by being given fuck-all to do but stand around and be a plot device. I’ve long maintained that Hollywood has no clue what to do with TUURM, and this movie does not change things one iota. For god’s sake guys, give this woman something more worthy of her talents!
6. At this point, there are twenty-eight feature films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That’s three more than James Bond, which has been going since 1962. The common comparison to be made about the MCU is to compare it to something like McDonald’s, where you know what you’re going to get but at least the quality will always be consistent. I’ve never quite liked this comparison, because fast food has always had a certain kind of trashy enjoyability to it, one that Kevin Feige and co. have steadfastly tried to avoid. A better analogy to make might be to compare the MCU to a casual dining chain restaurant (think Applebees in the US or Sakae Sushi in Singapore). There are just enough surface level bells and whistles to trick you into thinking that you are getting a premium experience, but even a cursory glance at the kitchen is enough to confirm that you are just being served reheated precooked food. Sure, it’s not bad, and it’s a decent enough use of your two hours, but is this really what you want to eat every day? Or worse still, is this what the entire restaurant industry should comprise of? With the MCU’s ridiculous dominance in popular culture, it’s hard not to wish (and frankly, expect) that it could do better and serve up more challenging fare instead of the odd menu item created by a celebrity chef (Taika Waititi and James Gunn are the obvious ones that come to mind). This issue is compounded by the most recent attempts by Marvel Studios to supposedly tell more interesting stories, particularly in television with Wandavision, Loki and Moon Knight all admirably trying something that at least goes beyond the norm. However, each of these TV shows (and Multiverse of Madness) noticeably fall flat in their endings, which eschew everything even remotely innovative for the usual overly pre-vized CGI big battle scene. In this way, Multiverse of Madness represents a fork in the crossroads for the post-Endgame MCU, with a unique filmmaker’s distinct voice constantly stymied and straitjacketed by the increasingly restrictive meta-plot and ho-hum house style aesthetics. It’s worth a watch, sure (mostly for the bits where Raimi gets to be Raimi), but considering the studio has more money and power than Tony Stark, surely we are entitled to ask for more?