The size and success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s full of dozens of colorful characters, most of whom could command their own film or series under the right conditions. It allows for exploration of multiple genres and styles. On the other hand, after 28 films and six television series (not including the pre-Disney slate) the MCU is a bewilderingly complex playground that can very easily get tangled in on itself. This is the world where Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness finds itself, caught between an exciting horror adventure with dynamic characters and a meandering yet dense narrative that feels like cramming for a test in Marvel 301.
The film opens by focusing on a young woman named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), gifted with the power to punch open gateways into other realities. Someone is hunting her to take that power for themselves, and in her flight she runs into Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Wong (Benedict Wong), the latter of whom is now Earth’s Sorcerer Supreme. Strange looks up the only person he knows with the knowledge and power to help: Wanda Maximoff, aka the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). Soon our heroes find themselves colliding into different realities and discovering unexpected new dangers that they never could have prepared themselves for.
NOTE: While I always strive to keep my reviews as spoiler-free as possible, there still may be some mild spoilers contained within. I will try my best not to reference anything not found in official trailer releases, and I will keep my allusions as vague as possible.
Doctor Strange’s second leading film in the MCU has been a long time coming. It’s been six years and a hell of a lot of metaplot in-between. Some might even say too much. Both Strange and Wanda have had major story arcs to themselves in the meantime, and knowledge of both is essential to fully understanding the plot basics laid out here. It’s possible to go in mostly cold, but while there is plenty of expository dialogue thrown at the audience in high-fidelity stereo, you’d miss out on the character moments and several layers of the cast’s performance.
And that’s where the movie finds its biggest strength. To be blunt, the story here is a bit of a mess. Sometimes a lot of a mess. It’s essentially an extended multiple MacGuffin hunt with the MacGuffin in question changing as the scene requires. Some of the characters even treat America Chavez herself as one of them, reducing her to the power she carries. While the script by Michael Waldron does find time to give characters enough emotional beats to shine through the threadbare plot, the narrative tends to swallow itself in self-importance, much like Waldron’s grand arc for the Loki TV series did. But also like that series, the characters managed to truly outshine the material and transcend it to a higher plane.
What also helps the film elevate and distinguish itself, and consequently add a fair amount of extra polish to the story, is the sure hand and keen eye of director Sam Raimi. While Scott Derrickson made the first Doctor Strange a true event and has proven his horror bonafides elsewhere, there is probably nobody better qualified than Raimi to combine an epic superhero film with a horror vibe that is both brutal and hypnotic. Raimi often skirts right up to the razor’s edge of Disney’s contractually-obligated PG-13 rating, finding ways to keep scenes visceral without sacrificing intensity. There are some truly horrifying moments here that linger in the brain, twisting around long after the credits roll.
At the same time, Raimi brings the same colorful escapism he did to the first Spider-Man films, leading to several dazzling and inventive set pieces that pierce through the film’s otherwise weak story. It’s a masterful balancing act that’s perfectly suited to Raimi’s skill set. Raimi’s work is also underscored fantastically by a rather experimental and eclectic score by Danny Elfman that includes work reminiscent of his early Tim Burton days as well as elements of psychidelica and whimsy. A perfect example of Raimi and Elfman harmonizing together is a third-act battle where two characters have a magical duel, ripping notes from pages of sheet music to turn into weapons. It’s inventive and surprising, and it weaves the audio and the visual together seamlessly.
Unfortunately, talented as Raimi is, he can’t disguise the fact that this film is at times a bit of a slog to sit through. I hate saying that, I really do, but it’s true. The pace is remarkably inconsistent. Things often grind to a halt just when momentum is starting to build, and everything seems compressed and tightened to fit an artificially-designated runtime. It doesn’t help that during these slow bits, a barrage of information is launched at the audience often with little context. Names, events, and concepts fly through the script, with many of them requiring a full understanding of multiple aspects of the MCU across several platforms; in some cases, it even requires knowledge of pre-MCU material. It’s much like the Kingdom Hearts games, another franchise with a needlessly convoluted mythology. You have to determine if it’s worth it to play all the side games and get all the information or to skip them to focus on the character arcs in the main titles.
At least in this case, it’s the characters that end up being the more important part. Benedict Cumberbatch continues to show confidence and ease in his portrayal of Stephen Strange, here having to face head on the consequences of his actions from previous films. He ends up playing multiple versions of Strange across different realities, each one focusing on specific aspects of Strange’s personality and potential. Like Tony Stark, Strange is charmingly arrogant, and this trait ends up being the mirror that causes him to examine himself. Cumberbatch reigns Strange’s emotions in but never lets them get fully suppressed. He has a clear grip on the character that he hasn’t let go of since his first appearance.
He’s in sharp contrast to Elizabeth Olsen, who proves once again why she is clearly one of the MCU’s most valuable players. If Strange keeps his emotions in check, Wanda is fueled by them. In fact, she wields them like deadly weapons. Wanda goes to some incredibly dark places here. She’s essentially the MCU’s Jean Grey; a woman capable of immense cosmic power who’s constantly in danger of losing herself in it and the chaos it’s birthed from. Olsen makes that struggle hypnotic. Wanda is both remarkably sympathetic and remarkably terrifying in equal degrees and often at the same time.
Much like she proved in WandaVision, Olsen plays Wanda as something removed from the binary concepts of hero and villain. She is her own creature, rejecting and rebelling against the standards set for her by others. She exemplifies an alignment often used in very early editions of Dungeons & Dragons: “Chaotic Neutral (with good tendencies).” Strange’s dedication the the greater good leads him to make difficult and sometimes disastrous choices, while Wanda’s prioritizing of her own goals and needs over everything else takes her down a similar path.
Strange and Wanda are not the only luminaries in this cast, however. Both Benedict Wong and Rachel McAdams (returning as nurse Christine Palmer) get ample screen time and far more agency and heroic moments than they did in the previous film. McAdams in particular makes great use of her time on screen and feels much more integrated into the film this time around. But most welcome is Xochitl Gomez as America Chavez. Gomez takes Chavez from frightened girl to powerful young woman, imbuing her with personality and an appealing verve that makes her a welcome addition to the MCU. In addition, the film does not hide the fact that Chavez has two mothers or that she identifies as queer herself, even if that’s limited to a pride pin on her iconic denim jacket. And to its credit, Disney has refused to remove this aspect of the character to please queerphobic audiences.
As a whole, however, Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness is in many ways a very typical MCU film, often more concerned with world-building than story-telling. It was probably too much to hope that the relatively finality of the ending of Spider-Man: No Way Home would become a trend. If the cast weren’t so talented and dedicated to their jobs, it’s possible that the characters might even have been swallowed up by a narrative that often feels like it doesn’t deserve them. Sam Raimi offers up a film that at times becomes deliciously twisted and macabre but ends up feeling restrained by the MCU formula and Disney’s overarching plan for the franchise. We all go a little mad sometimes, but this is an instance where we all could have stood to go just a little bit madder.
FBOTU Score: 7 out of 10 / B*
* But in another universe, this easily could have been a 6 out of 10 / B-.