For all of the multiversal traversals that Loki, Avengers: Endgame and Spider-Man: No Way Home have teased, Dr Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is surprisingly conservative with its zany meanderings.
To be fair, I was referring specifically to the amazing reality-defying, world-bending sequences that defined some of the most memorable action sequences in Dr Strange and No Way Home. Those are nowhere to be seen.
The main sequence of effects in this movie was used primarily to tease a myriad of worlds that may or may not be featured in future Marvel movies, so it could be a matter of practicality over style. But sometimes, I feel as though Dr Strange is one franchise where the exception should be the norm.
Dr Strange was to Iron Man in the same manner that The Force Awakens was to A New Hope – almost copied homework with some changes. But what stood Dr Strange apart was the world that it created; one that was limited only by your imagination, and rubberstamped the sorcerer’s movies as one to expect mind-blowing visual experiences. It’s a visual spectacle like no other.
Fortunately or unfortunately, there’re far fewer visual excesses here, though you still get several WTF moments that only a Dr Strange franchise can pull off. The effects don’t always look immaculate, but they are on point thematically, so it’s easy to buy into it.
I suppose that the change in visual mindf***ery is down to the fact that this is a Sam Raimi movie, and inexplicably sometimes I get the feeling that I’m watching Spiderman rather than Dr Strange. It can look a little dated, though not always necessarily in a bad way.
Benedict Cumberbatch reprises his role as the good doctor, and it seems that Sherlock has certainly grown into the role like a well-worn pair of Momotaros. With every movie appearance, Stephen Strange takes another small step towards nobility. Alternate universe Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) certainly thinks so, and for the time being, Strange gets his romantic closure sorted out.
Strange starts off the movie with Dr Nicodemus West (Michael Stuhlbarg) posing him the question: was there any other path? It’s a reference to Strange suggesting to Tony Stark that there was only one outcome where the universe will survive Thanos. Strange’s reaction, set against the backdrop of Palmer’s wedding, could be interpreted as a question to Strange: would he have chosen another path where he would have a happy ending with Palmer?
Or, if you have a proclivity for overthinking as I do, you might be tempted to consider the fact that Strange was not entirely honest with Stark when suggesting that there was only one way. Frankly, we’ll never know if he was telling the truth back then. It would imply that Strange has no qualms about being manipulative if he deems it necessary to achieve his goals. It’s certainly one of the negative traits that Dr Strange in the multiverses seem to share, and most seem to distrust Strange; this is the crux of Strange’s journey in The Multiverse of Madness. Proving that he’s the sane one in a multiverse of madmen.
For Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) the path is a little… stranger. We last see Wanda taking the Darkhold, using its powers to find her children in another universe. It can’t end well that way, can it? Although this is pretty much a spoiler-free review (for the most part), one look at the promotional poster, and it doesn’t take much to decipher who the primary antagonist is.
There is one glaring omission from this movie that has no clear explanation. Since it’s not a spoiler if it’s already implied (or at least that’s my excuse) – Paul Bettany is not listed in the credits, and it doesn’t quite make sense that he makes a surprise cameo; I think you’ll surprise more people if he doesn’t appear.
So if Vision is missing, what does that take away from a story where The Scarlet Witch is looking for her children? Plenty, in fact, because it somewhat undermines WandaVision and the fact that it’s family that she wants. But I suppose, having him along for the ride would have complicated the storyboard – and possibly their budget – to the point of FUBAR, but not having him adds a proverbial can that Raimi presumably kicks down the road for someone else to fix.
The Multiverse of Madness also marks the first appearance of America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a not-yet-superhero who has the power to travel across the multiverse. And someone is after her powers. Chavez and Strange have a relationship that’s not unlike Rick & Morty, and in this movie, she would be the catalyst to kickstart the next stage in Strange’s never-ending character development. Can I request that we leave Strange at 40 per cent asshole? Must we fix everything?
And that brings me to another point, though it is one borne more from expectation than a genuine failure to deliver on promises. A multiverse of madness, this movie is not. If anything, Spider-Man’s multiversal adventure was more over the top and cohesive than anything Strange’s had to offer. This felt like a two-hour Rick & Morty episode. Even the biggest cameo hinted in the trailer culminates in an epic battle and almost farcical ending in the vein of the Vindicators – albeit in a darker tone – all because they wouldn’t heed Strange’s warning. You can call me out for clutching at straws here but I swear it almost felt like it. Almost like a metaverse of madness.
That said, Raimi’s dark humour and horror roots are instrumental to much of The Multiverse of Madness’ visuals – and while I do not think that it was necessarily the best choice but hey, we have here possibly the coolest zombie superhero pose ever committed to film. Justifies at least half the ticket price, I’d say.
But at the same time, the horror schtick leanings tend to lead to some baffling action moments. Can someone explain to me the rules of spiritual warfare; what works and what doesn’t? Doesn’t matter, I’ll just shut my brain down and just pretend it’s some fantasy Ash vs the Evil Dead stuff and I’ll be fine. There are some gloriously silly fights here that I enjoyed somewhat, but I suspect they won’t age well.
And by the way, spoiler alert – since it’s a Raimi film, you know whom to expect in a cameo.
Fortunately, choppy plot notwithstanding, the movie just about does enough to cross the line respectably. I do find Maximoff’s character a hard done by – I mean, she deserves to catch a break at some point, right? Nah, how about we have Chavez shake The Scarlet Witch out of her funk (in a manner of speaking) in a suitably tragic fashion. It is rather poignant though, that said.
Because, for all the criticisms I’ve levelled at the movie, I cannot fault it for its heart. Chavez’s confidence and growth are enabled by Strange’s efforts in becoming a better person and it’s borderline cheesy, to say the least. And yet it is strangely fitting. But more importantly, it’s earnest enough to feel believable. Grudgingly, I’ll bite. I’ve come to accept that this is one of those movies where I think it’s best not to overthink it and you’ll be much happier for it.
On a side note, for all the ‘inconsistencies’ in treatment, the one thing that is consistent about Marvel is the criminally underused Sorceror Supreme Wong – possibly one of the MCU’s best sidekick characters. Come on, Marvel, set him loose a little. They gave us a glimpse of a potential love interest, only to take it all away, and nothing more was said in the aftermath. It makes sense if you know your lore but… Seriously, wut.
I suppose that’s the best way to sum up The Multiverse of Madness: a glimpse of potential, but nothing more.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is now showing in cinemas.
Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
Verdict - 6/10
Raimi's take is very different from what we would expect from a Dr. Strange movie, but it's somewhat interesting nonetheless.