Multiverse of Mediocrity.
Let this be a lesson to anyone working on the Marvel Cinematic Universe: if you’re going to come out with a sequel to one of the strangest heroes in your universe, maybe don’t wait six years to release it. Because at that point, not only do you run the risk of it becoming obsolete — you also threaten to have the whole thing crumble under the weight of its own expectations.
Enter Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness. In the span between its two movies, the MCU has debuted 18 new heroes, released six new TV shows, concluded the Avengers saga, and even released an entirely new Spider-Man trilogy to top it all off. So much has happened in the MCU that has affected so much already that it’s hard to release any sequel and have it stand alone as part of its own story. One might even argue that you can’t.
Sure enough, Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness fails in this sequelitis litmus test, a messy, sloppy film that is all over the place and trying to do way too much all at once. To properly understand this movie, not only have you needed to watch Doctor Strange, Avengers: Infinity War, and Endgame, but also “WandaVision,” “Loki,” Captain Marvel, Spider-Man: No Way Home, and even a few Fox-owned movie properties on top of all that. This is a film with the buildup of an Avengers movie and the payoff of a botched “What If…?” episode.
After he wiped the world’s memory of Spider-Man’s true identity in Spider-Man: No Way Home, Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is trying to adjust to a world with neither Avengers nor Infinity Stones. But just as he begins to experience some sense of normalcy, he encounters a girl named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) who is being chased by monsters through several dimensions. Now determined to help this young girl, Doctor Strange enlists in the help Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) to defend her from the monsters of the multiverse.
Before I say anything else, I want to get one thing right out of the way: it was wonderful to see Sam Raimi return to the director’s chair. While most known for creating one of the best superhero movies ever with the likes of Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2, his filmography has taken him everywhere under the sun, from deeply disturbing horror movies like Evil Dead and Drag Me To Hell to wildly entertaining B-movie blockbusters like Darkman and Army Of Darkness. But with his last feature-length film coming out in 2013 with Oz The Great And Powerful, it’s been nine years since Sam Raimi’s last movie, 13 years since his last horror movie, and 15 years since his last superhero movie. One has to wonder how his directing chops have held up despite being away for such a long time?
The good news is that Sam Raimi’s still got it. More importantly, he still carries his own unique signature that Marvel thankfully allowed him to carry over into one of their most popular franchises. Combining the campiness of his Spider-Man movies with the horrifying imagery of Evil Dead, Sam Raimi creates a dark and disturbing world with Multiverse Of Madness that feels cursed just by the look and feel of it. There were quite a few times where his imagery was so bold, bloody, and grotesque that it actually made me squirm in my seat. There were several moments where characters were getting straight-up dismembered, contorting into twisted, uncomfortable shapes, and even horrifically burned alive.
I was genuinely surprised that Marvel allowed Sam Raimi to go as far as he did with the violence, and even more surprised that this movie didn’t get an R rating. But Raimi teeters the line just enough to where the film never crosses the line of being over-the-top or gory, though I can’t help but wonder how different the film might have felt if Raimi was allowed to go even further.
I also really like the film’s visual creativity, especially in scenes where Strange is traveling through the multiverse. There was one really trippy sequence where Strange is falling through multiple realities, from the prehistoric era to an evergreen paradise to even an animated world flooded with watercolors. The whole sequence was so surreal and outlandish that I felt like I was on acid while watching it. If someone did happen to wander into the theater while under the influence, I pray for their sanity because it might be broken by the time this movie is over.
That said, some of the movie’s visuals don’t work quite as well, and you especially notice it with a lot of the film’s newer characters. America Chavez’s dimensional portals are one instance where they look like firework sprites coming from your laptop’s screensaver. One character in the mid-credits scene is so shiny and pristine that she looks like a scrapped character from Eternals. And one villain has a third eye appearing on his forehead that looks so photoshopped that I couldn’t help but laugh while looking at it.
However, the worst sequence hands-down comes from one fight scene where two sorcerers are casting spells at each other using… musical notes. I’m not even kidding. They literally lift musical notes off of a page of sheet music and cast them at each other like a game of darts. I remind you, this is coming from a franchise that was once a major contender for visual effects at the Academy Awards. And here, they’re just throwing in a fight scene so silly and cartoonish that it feels like it’s a deleted scene from Disney’s Fantasia.
But I can forgive inconsistent visuals. What I can’t forgive is poor writing, and this is unfortunately where the film falters the most. Not only does Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness have one of the worst screenplays out of the entire MCU: I would argue it is the worst screenplay, bar none. Dead serious.
Sure, there are other screenplays that are childish, silly, stupid, half-baked, or even underdeveloped. Thor: The Dark World, Ant-Man, and Eternals are the immediate ones that come to mind. But even at their most basic levels, those movies demonstrate at least some understanding of their characters and what motivates them. Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness completely misunderstands the heart and souls of its characters, and it makes their actions in the film all the more unbelievable.
Imagine following Tom Holland throughout his six-movie arc, falling in love with his charm, his wit, his sense of humor, his intelligence, and his unwavering commitment to doing the right thing. Then all of a sudden in his seventh movie, he throws all of that out the window and starts going on a violent rampage across the city where he starts viciously murdering people in the most gruesome ways possible. That isn’t just a gross manipulation of his character: it’s a straight-up betrayal of his character, and it does a great disservice to him and the arc he’s built up over the course of the entire franchise.
There are multiple characters that are betrayed in a similar fashion in Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness. And it would be one thing if these were alternate versions of these characters in another universe. But they aren’t: they’re the original characters in the original MCU. That makes their mischaracterizations all the more worse, and it ruins the experience for anyone who has been passionately following their journeys for quite some time.
Oddly enough, there is another multiversal film in cinemas right now titled Everything Everywhere All At Once. Go and see it. Not only does it utilize its bizarre concept to its maximum potential, but it’s also one of the most creative and unique narratives to come out of cinemas in the past several years. The only way Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness even comes close to that potential is in another universe.