Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness — out Friday in cinemas — isn’t really a Doctor Strange movie. I mean, sure, Benedict Cumberbatch is in it, as more than one Doctor Strange in fact. But the new Marvel Cinematic Universe movie isn’t really built around him, but rather Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda Maximoff and her grief over losing her kids in WandaVision. If a character’s name needed to be in the title, Scarlet Witch would have been more appropriate. That said, everyone involved — including director Sam Raimi (Tobey Maguire Spider-Man trilogy), writer Michael Waldron (Loki), Cumberbatch, and Rachel McAdams who plays Strange’s former lover Christine Palmer — do their best to conjure something believable and contribute to Strange’s emotional arc.
But it’s impossible to buy anything between Strange and Palmer, because the first Doctor Strange movie treated McAdams’ presence as an after-thought. Waldron’s big idea for Strange on Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is to question if he’s happy. The former Sorcerer Supreme might have saved the world a couple of times, but that’s come at a personal cost. Of course, bigger sacrifices have been in store for Maximoff, as anyone who has seen WandaVision — or previous MCU movies with Olsen — is aware of. WandaVision isn’t outright required viewing, but it does help you understand the headspace Maximoff is in now, and how her arc feels semi-reset in a way. The new Marvel movie reveals hidden depths to what we were told was a moment of closure and forward journey for Maximoff.
At the same time, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness has a lot more on its mind. I mean, there’s a “multiverse” literally in the title. Lacking the nostalgia hook that allowed Spider-Man: No Way Home to bring back beloved actors, the new Doctor Strange movie’s multiverse approach relies on surprising us with alternate versions of the characters we know — and beyond. There are major cameos here, both expected and unexpected, though I imagine not everyone will be on board with how they are handled. It essentially signals that only the MCU’s prime dimension — finally namechecked as Earth-616 on Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness — is the only one that matters, with every other Earth existing to serve it. Some might call it, to borrow a term from the movie, a desecration of reality.
But it’s exactly the sort of stuff you expect a former Rick & Morty writer — in Waldron — to come up with. Now that the MCU consists of infinite universes, where there are as many variants and takes on characters out there, you can basically do anything. Assuming you’ve the money, which Disney and Marvel Studios are hardly lacking in. It also helps that there’s no shortage of Hollywood actors who eagerly want to be part of the MCU.
Nearly every cameo in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is an extended gag — it’s pandering, but it’s also willing to laugh at their expense — which is somewhat in line with what’s come before. Marvel Studios has been trolling us through the MCU’s Phase Four, be it Evan Peters’ inclusion on WandaVision as Pietro Maximoff that turned out to be a red herring, and Vincent D’Onofrio returning as Wilson Fisk/ Kingpin from Daredevil on Hawkeye only to be seemingly killed off.
Though it’s not just Waldron who has been let loose in a
universe multiverse where anything is possible. Raimi operated with a somewhat down-to-earth aesthetic in the Spider-Man world — which is now retroactively connected of sorts to the MCU, ugh — but there are virtually no rules here. The 62-year-old director rises above the 35-year-old Waldron’s troubles with character arcs and fan service, pushing the MCU into places it has previously kept away from. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is, at different times, gnarly, gory, scary, and bizarro. It’s in your face and willing to push itself into the mythos and illustrative styles of some Doctor Strange comics like never before.
There is at least one jump scare. There are a few body horror moments, the most memorable of which finds Olsen squeezing herself out of a mirror, with her arms and legs all twisted and out of place before she fixes herself. I wonder how blissfully-unaware parents will feel about these, after their kids drag them to the theatres for “that new Marvel movie”. And in one sequence, somewhat early into Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Strange and another character crater through all sorts of universes, including an animated one and one where everyone’s paint.
Raimi — like Scott Derrickson before him on Doctor Strange — also finds ways to make the action interesting. The highlight is a battle that riffs on background music in an inventive and refreshing manner. I feel the first movie was more inventive on the whole, though it naturally helped that we were seeing the Masters of the Mystic Arts for the first time.
Set after the events of No Way Home, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness finds Strange encountering teenager America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez, from Netflix’s The Baby-Sitters Club) who reveals she can inadvertently move between dimensions and that everyone is after her power. That kicks off an interdimensional adventure as Strange tries to protect her from those who seek to harm her. Chavez is less a character and more a MacGuffin. (There are two object MacGuffins too, all of which together drive the plot. Maybe the movie should’ve been called Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of MacGuffins.) As such, Chavez has no arc of her own — her growth at the end feels artificial — and the only real lesson for her on Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is that adult superheroes are mostly terrible.
In some ways, that could be interpreted as the theme of the new Marvel movie. That MCU’s heroes are always a step or two away from going full bonkers. That the powers they possess are too much for them, and they probably shouldn’t be trusted with them. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness shows that Tony Stark/ Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) was right. Some of these heroes are so powerful with the wrong training that it’s impossible for others like them to keep them in check. Of course, there are major pitfalls with regulation — institutions can be corrupted too, as Captain America: The Winter Soldier showed — but in a multiverse where crazy powers are everywhere and seismic events are a common occurrence, maybe there ought to be some form of regulation.
But these elements are never really brought up, let alone discussed, on Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. That’s unfortunate. More so given Strange is a big part of the conversation, following his irresponsible actions on No Way Home, where it was comical that a sorcerer with so much power failed to ask basic questions before giving a teenager his brainwashing wish. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness even teased such a direction, that Strange would be confronted by his more evil selves who lost the plot. And the movie has trinkets of how Doctor Strange poses the greatest danger to the multiverse but they seem to be remnants of an earlier draft of the movie. Turns out, Marvel lied about the plot. Because the film is about something else entirely.
In doing so, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness discards the ending of the previous Doctor Strange movie. Entire characters, ones who were meant to have an important role in the sequel given how the original set things up, are forgotten. I can’t say if this played into the “creative differences” for Derrickson, who left half a year after the film was officially announced. For Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness has been an ever-changing beast. The movie has reportedly changed a lot, due to shifting Marvel schedules and in response to Loki, No Way Home, and test screenings. Reshoots were extensive, with actors being brought back repeatedly — in December, January, and even March, less than two months from release.
When Marvel brought Raimi on board, it seemed a curious choice for he had directed just two movies in the intervening 15 years since he wrapped his Spider-Man trilogy in 2007. But he was not only steeped in horror — as the creator of the Evil Dead franchise — something that Marvel desired for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, but it could be argued Raimi made superhero movies a thing. Though others would build upon the genre’s credibility, Raimi set the stage for the MCU to exist and superheroes’ current domination of our pop culture space.
With Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Raimi delivers what is in some ways Marvel’s craziest movie in years. But for all its wackiness, Raimi can’t hide its flaws. He is still working within a system after all. While the movie’s multiverse might allow for limitless possibilities, the MCU doesn’t. Everything serves the greater good for Disney and Marvel Studios. Despite having a free hand with the screenplay — which allows Raimi to put his stamp on the movie — Waldron fails to make meaningful progress for Cumberbatch’s title character. He’s playing with some heavyweight tools, including fate, parenting, and the pursuit of perfection and idealism. But Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness trips over itself time and again, because it doesn’t have the depth in what’s trying to tackle.
At times, it feels like a live-action Rick & Morty episode — or an episode of Marvel’s heavily-underwhelming animated What If…? — stretched to two hours with two hundred million dollars. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness gets lost in its multiverse shenanigans, and forgets that great stories are ultimately about people and their relationships. You can throw as much CGI and as many fun cameos at the audience as you want. But it’s never going to amount to more than a popcorn flick, if your characters do not go on a meaningful journey.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is released Friday, May 6 in cinemas worldwide. In India, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is available in English, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, and Kannada.