By: Joseph Hillyard
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After having spent the last few years of his life helping kill supervillains and getting into disputes with America’s favorite web slinger, Doctor Strange In The Multiverse of Madness, finds the titular character in an unfamiliar place. He is no longer Sorcerer Supreme having lost the title to his sarcastic colleague Wong (Benedict Wong). Also, his ex-girlfriend (Rachel McAdams) is getting married, and for the first time he’s pondering whether despite all his magical gifts if he is truly happy. However, Strange has to put all of that aside when he encounters America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) a young woman with enhanced abilities who is chased through the multiverse by…dun dun dun…the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen)! The former Avenger has been corrupted by dark magic and seeks to use America’s powers for her own selfish ends. This sends Strange and company on a multiverse-hopping adventure to keep America out of the witch’s reach.
Watching Doctor Strange In The Multiverse of Madness I was constantly reminded of Spider Man: No Way Home, which also had a multiverse plot involving the former Sorcerer Supreme. Beyond their superficial MCU similarities—quippy heros, CGI-laden fight scenes, and increasingly tedious after credit scenes—both films suffered from a lack of imagination. Like No Way Home, the multiverse gimmick is mostly used as an excuse for cameos that are fun in the moment but contribute little to the overarching narrative beyond setting the table for the next stage of Marvel’s path to world domination.
Much has been said about how much control or lack of control Director Sam Raimi had over the creative direction of this film, to the point where some have speculated that another, bloodier version of the film exists somewhere on the cutting room floor. One much more befitting the director famous for finding the dark humor in horrifying and bloody imagery. The Multiverse of Madness constantly flirts with being an outright horror movie, setting up the Scarlet Witch as our over-the-top villain with the ruthless precision of Michael Myers and the maternal instincts of the Alien Queen. However, aside from some mildly gruesome imagery and the occasional jump scare, these visual flourishes are largely ignored in favor of sticking to the traditional MCU formula, further deflating any sense of excitement the film has going for it.
It’s disappointing to see The Multiverse of Madness struggle to form a cohesive identity since the seeds of something compelling are clearly visible. The horror elements are intriguing on both an aesthetic and storytelling basis, adding fresh elements to the aging franchise. The actors also do a better-than-expected job with such uneven material. Olsen, hot off her Emmy nomination for WandaVision, gives a moving performance that adds depth to the two-dimensional characterization she is given here. Benedict Cumberbatch helps give Strange a deadpan charm that enlivens drawn-out expositional scenes that serve little purpose other than the aforementioned cameos. Gomez has the misfortune of this being her debut MCU film and spending most of her screen time doing typical wiseass teen stuff, but she has an engaging back and forth dynamic with Cumberbatch that should be explored more as her role in the franchise expands.
With its latest installment, the MCU attempts to push itself in a new direction, yet is too cowardly to fully commit to it. Thus continuing a troublesome trend for the franchise, which suggests a course correction may be necessary as the schtick of quickly-edited action sequences and 20-minute sequel teasers begins to wear thin. There are still some pleasures to be had, but they’ve been subject to diminishing returns. For die-hard fans these flaws will matter little, but the casual viewer may consider skipping this entry and waiting until something better comes along.