Directed by Sam Raimi – Screenplay by Michael Waldron.
Let’s be honest here. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), arguably the most popular film series of our current time, is really more a series than a selection of films. Martin Scorsese has referred to superhero films like those as theme park rides (which I still contend isn’t as dismissive as it has been received by the internet), and, with its cliffhangers, easter eggs, references, and overarching character arcs, it is becoming increasingly difficult for these films to stand on their own. Some of these Marvel movies, for better or worse, don’t even try to stand on their own (like Avengers: Age of Ultron). Doctor Strange In the Multiverse of Madness is one of those films.
On paper, this is a sequel to Scott Derrickson’s Doctor Strange from 2016, but it is damn near impossible to fully understand it if you didn’t also check out the Avengers films, Spider-Man: No Way Home, and even the Disney+ series WandaVision. The excessive barrier of entry is starting to become a threshold that is difficult for new audiences to cross. If, however, you are familiar with the ins and outs of this cinematic universe, then you can look forward to watching probably the most violent and horror-inspired Disney-Marvel movie yet. It’s definitely not without its problems, but this is a fascinating entry into the MCU precisely because of its director and the way he has infused this story with his oeuvre and the horror genre’s traits.
As mentioned, Sam Raimi’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness picks up where Spider-Man: No Way Home and WandaVision left off. Haunted by nightmares that are later revealed to be glimpses into alternate universes, Dr. Stephen Strange (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), the surgeon-turned-sorcerer, has saved the universe on multiple occasions and has become familiar with the existence of the multiverse consisting of a number of these alternate universes.
Meanwhile, Wanda Maximoff (played by Elizabeth Olsen), the powerful former Avenger who went into hiding after having unintentionally enslaved the town of Westview in Disney+’s WandaVision, is toying with the dark magic of the ‘book of the damned’ known as the Darkhold in an attempt to bring back the children that she had to let go of in the aforementioned series. Desperate to get them back, Wanda starts to lose control of herself and becomes influenced by the dark magic.
Suddenly, Strange’s nightmare becomes real as a young woman with the power to open portals to alternate universes — America Chavez (played by Xochitl Gomez), who had appeared in his dreams — suddenly finds herself in our universe. Chavez, who is immediately distrustful of Strange due to having met other versions of him in other universes, is about to have a target on her back because Wanda knows of her existence, and she is hell-bent on using Chavez’s powers to get back her children from another universe no matter the consequences to the rest of the multiverse.
It’s no secret that this film went through somewhat of a troubled production. It went through multiple rewrites, as well as long reshoots, and, long ago, Scott Derrickson left the project due to creative differences. Furthermore, due to the COVID-19 lockdowns, production was initially delayed, and, from what I understand, it was somewhat of a start-and-stop production because of surges in COVID-19 cases. I think you can tell in the final product. There are several shots that have an overreliance on visual effects, streets look a little bit too empty or artificially populated, and, to be honest, I think it’s fair to say that the writing leaves something to be desired. There are too many information dumps, and, perhaps most egregiously, a notable turn in Wanda Maximoff’s character arc happens off-screen. Although Wanda Maximoff did end up as somewhat of a surprise antagonist in WandaVision, she’s a little bit too wicked at the start of this film.
Also, for a movie about the multiverse and about creating portals to alternate universes, the film was surprisingly uninventive when it came to crafting alternate worlds. There’s a fun scene where Strange and Chavez go swiftly from one universe to the next, but the alternate universe that we spend a sizable amount of time in is just there to show us fun but ultimately meaningless cameos that don’t really add all that much to the story. It’s an alternate universe designed not to advance the story but to pander to audiences. As a Marvel fan, I was admittedly initially excited to see these characters but disappointed that the film didn’t do anything interesting with them storywise (that said, the way the movie later bids these cameo characters adieu is downright awesome and kind of funny).
And yet, I ended up liking the movie. What gives? Well, the usual criticism of a Disney-Marvel movie is that they are designed around a very successful but very defined formula, and they thus feel very formulaic and can often lack a distinctive artistic style or directorial imprint. What I found to be so exciting about Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness was that even though you can feel the MCU machinery in the plot, excessive information dumps, and callbacks, from start to finish director Sam Raimi’s fingerprints are all over it. Raimi, of course, is the director of the ‘original’ Spider-Man trilogy starring Tobey Maguire — a hugely beloved trilogy — so, in a way, he’s superhero movie royalty. But he has a distinct visual style that has also been used for horror comedies like his Evil Dead film series. He’s not afraid to be excessively cartoony or very violent and I was surprised by just how much Disney-Marvel let him make his movie.
Though I’m sure the people at Disney-Marvel had to cut some stuff to make it slightly more family-friendly, it isn’t like this movie is a fully kid-friendly film. This is the closest Disney-Marvel has come to making an actual horror comic book movie with overt horror gags and traits. In one scene, the main antagonist basically walks up slowly to one of our protagonists like she were Michael Myers, in another scene she is appearing out of a reflection and moving strangely as if she were a character from The Ring. There are surprisingly violent scenes here that I won’t reveal, surprisingly intense character deaths that took me by surprise, and, yes, even a couple of jump-scares. But it’s also silly in the way that Raimi films can be, with the much anticipated Bruce Campbell cameo being a direct reference to Evil Dead II. Raimi’s vision and style prevent this film from being bland, and so do a couple of really inventive action scenes. As crazy as it sounds, Strange does something really cool with a corpse that I didn’t think I would get to see in a Disney movie. I’d also like to add that there is a genuinely refreshing action sequence involving the sound of music that I’m still thinking about days after seeing the film.
I fully recognize that for a lot of people an auteur’s trademarks and horror traits won’t be enough to truly enjoy the film, but it isn’t like there isn’t anything here for your average audience member. There is a lot of action, fan service, and solid performances. Raimi’s film is about the danger of opening Pandora’s Box and accepting that you sometimes have to relinquish control, and both Cumberbatch and Olsen are quite good here. It’s the kind of film that accepts the weirdness — strangeness — of Stephen Strange’s corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s probably largely inaccessible and exhausting to those people who aren’t caught up with the MCU, though.
There is no getting around the fact that from minute one you can feel the MCU machinery moving underneath it all threatening to overwhelm the film, but what Sam Raimi has done here is to give the film some quite refreshing flavor. Although it sometimes feels like mere glimpses, his fingerprints are all over the visual style (angles, transitions, the slamming of a door, trademarks), and I’m genuinely impressed by how much violence and horror he gets away with here. There is also a lot here that simply didn’t work for me as well as intended, so I won’t call it a great movie (it certainly isn’t a top tier Marvel movie), but what Sam Raimi has added to it is enough for me to say that I really liked it, though I can fully understand why some would really struggle with it.
7.9 out of 10
– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.