A fun ride of a film, but an undeniably messy “sort of” sequel
I’m really curious to see the box legs on Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, largely because I don’t think people will feel particularly satisfied after the film. In my case, I’m extremely biased because the original Doctor Strange is my personal favorite Marvel movie, one for which I have been jonesing for a sequel for several years now. I’d heard all the rumors about its connections to WandaVision and Spider-Man: No Way Home, and the cameos. and the potential for it to bring entities into the MCU from the 20th Century Fox films, all that jazz, and I remember thinking to myself at first that it seemed like too much pressure to put on this upcoming sequel. Hearing that it would connect to and complete an arc that runs through WandaVision and No Way Home (and connected to What If..? and Loki for that matter) eventually assuaged my fears and helped me get more excited because I thought it would take the pressure off, but having seen the film now, as well as the other projects, it seems that my fears were warranted.
To be clear, I don’t hate this movie. I don’t think that it was at all a waste of time or money because I did genuinely have a lot of fun throughout a good chunk of it, thanks in large part to a committed cast and the stylings of Sam Raimi. That said, I am underwhelmed. The pacing of the film is a bit awkward, particularly in the hyper-fast first act which plops you right into the middle of a story that’s already happening and forces you to orient yourself at breakneck speed. I know that that’s supposed to be good storytelling (“enter a scene as late as possible and leave as early as possible”) but here it creates the feeling of the narrative being on autopilot. It’s a feeling I’ve gotten from quite a few movies recently, most notably Disney’s own Raya and the Last Dragon, and it makes it hard to get invested. The breakneck pace does subside going into the second and third acts, but by that point, we begin to run into other issues.
Given that this is a multiverse movie with characters who hop into different realities, the conversations had in the film inevitably move into wistful territory at points as characters begin to think about the choices they have made and whether or not their lives are better in another reality. The question, “Are you happy?”, pops up a lot in this movie, and that’s a very good thing because I feel it gives the film the closest thing it has to a theme: “The grass is always greener on the other side.” That’s a universal feeling that we can all appreciate that is magnified to the nth degree by the ability to glimpse what life is like on that other side. Character-wise, it ties into Stephen Strange’s emotional state (with a deeply impactful moment at the beginning of the film brought me back to one of the first scenes of the Hawkeye series, where our hero glimpses graffiti that says “Thanos was right”) and his relationship with Rachel McAdams’ Christine Palmer. It also informs Wanda/The Scarlet Witch’s actions as she tears through multiple universes looking for *SPOILERS* her children. Side note, there has been some talk as to whether or not you need to have seen the TV shows to understand what is happening in this movie, and while some may say it’s not necessary as they do briefly run through the events of WandaVision, I definitely don’t think I would’ve been able to get on board with much of this plot and Wanda’s characterization here (which is messy at best) had I not seen it. Yes, Wanda is in search of her children (whom she created from her own mind but had to give up at the end of WandaVision) and, having been infected by the mystical spellbook, The Darkhold, in her search for a way to get them back (not the best explanation for her radical change in personality, but I can go along with it), has gone murderously mad as she’s begun sending demons after a young girl from another dimension named America Chavez, who has the power to open portals between universes, to kidnap her and steal her powers (likely killing America in the process) in order to get them back.
Once again, Wanda’s rampage to get her children back illustrates that “grass is always greener” mentality as she longs for a better life than the one that she’s currently living in this world. However, if that complicated run-on sentence of a plot in the last paragraph tells you anything, that theme is more of a throughline than an actual driving force in this messily constructed story. I wouldn’t even say that the plot is convoluted as, if you’ve seen a comic book movie before, you’ve definitely seen worse. The plot moves from point A to point B to C and D in a pretty straightforward (if a bit bumpy) manner. What burdens the plot is the weight of this cinematic universe as a whole. I’ve already stated that I feel that WandaVision is important viewing material for this story (more than No Way Home is) but you could absolutely make the argument that What If..? and Loki are also necessary to understanding world-building mechanics here, as well as some plot points in this very story regarding Doctor Strange himself. That’s not to mention the major, “earth-shattering” cameos that have been rumored, several of which are indeed in the movie (though some are likely not the ones you think they are), and one of which feels as though it was directly pulled from Twitter conversations from the past four years. While not unsatisfying (truly, it’s hard not to smile when you see them, especially if you’ve followed Marvel production history and rumors for years), these cameos are still very short and do a lot more to imply what could possibly come next for the MCU than they do in service the actual plot of this film. They’re narrative baggage that further clutters a story that is already stuffed to the brim. In so, the weight of MCU franchise as a whole unfortunately suffocates many of the strongest elements of this film, most notably its character-centric themes of wanting for a better life and happiness, and dilutes the amount of time that we actually get to spend with the characters that we ostensibly came to see this movie for, Doctor Strange and the Scarlet Witch. There is a more thematically fleshed-out version of this film somewhere (maybe in another universe), one that has stronger characterization and doesn’t feel too disjointed as it speeds through major plot points that go beyond the scope of these two characters. However, speaking of the grass being greener, we don’t live in that universe.
To be fair, Benedict Cumberbatch and Elizabeth Olsen still do a lot of heavy lifting here and their performances, while not necessarily filling in thematic gaps in the plot, still get you incredibly invested in their stories on the strength of their acting abilities, sheer charisma, complete commitment to the plot (I always love an actor who is game), and their ability to take morsels of thematic depth and make meals out them. Cumberbatch returns to a role that he nailed in the first Doctor Strange and I continue to love his witty arrogance that comes off less as “asshole-ish” (a la Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man) and more “I don’t have time for this nonsense” (a sentiment to which I can kind of relate). It’s Olsen who really shines here though, fully committing to the “evil witch” persona that she has to embody in this story. In another example of how necessary WandaVision is, the performance may not allow her to display a ton of range, but the depth of her commitment to this corrupted, snake-like character with the power to kill you in both big and small ways is mesmerizing. She delivers lines about how “she’s showing mercy” by sending demons after America Chavez instead of attacking her herself, which would feel over-the-top in the hands of any other actor, with a low-boiling, sinister, and crackling skill that is amazing to behold. She’s a villain in this film for sure, and she absolutely owns it. The rest of the cast does okay work as they are all game to play along with the story’s shenanigans. However, to be honest, the costumes, set-pieces, and visual effects for them do a lot more heavy lifting than their actual performances; particularly in the case of Xochitl Gomez’s America Chavez whose performance is fine but majorly buoyed by a powerset that’s visually spectacular.
Outside of Cumberbatch and Olsen though, the one who makes this movie really work is director Sam Raimi. His coming aboard to helm this film (after the previous entry’s director, Scott Derrickson of Sinister fame, left over creative differences) was considered a coup for Marvel. Having seen the final product, it is a win for sure as Raimi really saves this movie. As awkward as the plot feels trying to balance the weight of the franchise alongside its ambitions as a sequel to both Doctor Strange and WandaVision at the same time, the film never feels less than propulsive and fun. Raimi takes his signature flair for crazy camera movements and over-the-top stylistic flourishes and really lets loose on certain aspects of this film. While some action scenes can feel a bit marooned in the grand scheme of the plot, Raimi fills them with visual texture and a surprising level of violence and gore for an MCU feature. It’s not insanely gory, but it certainly makes you jump when you see it (particularly where *SPOILERS* the cameos are involved). I wouldn’t say the action scenes replicated the awe-inspiring, almost balletic choreography of his Spider-Man films, but Raimi’s set-pieces here, particularly one in the middle of the film, are thrilling, dark, genuinely scary at times, and create a real sense of danger. The visuals and camera angles also make the scenes feel off-the-wall bonkers in a way only Raimi knows how to do. It’s these set-pieces where you will likely find yourself the most engaged as you wince and jump at the scary moments and laugh at the absurdity of it all, especially towards the end of the film when Doctor Strange uses a……..let’s say, “unconventional” way to travel into another universe. It’s the undeniably Raimi touch that makes the film feel fresh, ripped right off the comic-book page (if you’ve seen Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, you know exactly what I mean), and has you leaving the theater with a smile on your face. Martin Scorsese once compared Marvel movies to theme park rides, and while I will say that I have to agree with him on this one, I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing in this case.
Verdict: 2½ Stars (out of 4)
At the end of the day, I can’t say I like this movie. I’m not disappointed in it, but I am underwhelmed with it as both a sequel to Doctor Strange and WandaVision and I feel that its attempts to cram in so much story (including story that has little to do with Doctor Strange and the Scarlet Witch themselves) gets in the way of the stronger elements here that could have turned the movie into a richer experience, akin to that of the original. That said, with Olsen absolutely commanding the screen with her delicious villainy, Cumberbatch continuing to nail it as my favorite MCU character (aside from his Cloak of Levitation, the real MVP of the MCU), and Raimi serving up his brand of whacked-out fun and thrills, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is still, at least, a really fun ride.