DR. STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS Is Another MCU Entry, With Flashes of Raimi Magic

Reader beware, mild spoilers follow. You know, like what the movie is about.

If you don’t want to know anything about the film before going into it, know that there are certain plot elements of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, the newest film in the long-running Marvel Cinematic Universe, that prove too essential to not discuss here. As such, there are aspects that would technically constitute spoilers based on the film’s marketing, but are also revealed in the first 30 minutes of the movie. Thus…tread carefully. There are plenty of surprises in the film itself that won’t be revealed here, but if you want to know nothing, it may be best to see the film first and then come back here to read this review.

The spoiler-free nugget: The new MCU movie feels very much like a new MCU movie, with flashes of visual flair from director Sam Raimi that enhance its overall aesthetic. It has elements that will almost certainly become divisive in its depiction of long-standing characters, but it provides a propulsive enough plot that it is a worthwhile rollercoaster in the moment, without leaving a whole lot to chew on afterwards.

From this point on, be warned of potential spoilers. But like…not really.

The film is centered, naturally, on Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr. Stephen Strange, who was first introduced in his initial film from Scott Derrickson in 2016 and has been a central supporting character since; in the six years since the first film, Cumberbatch’s Strange has popped up in four additional films, including last year’s hugely popular Spider-Man: No Way Home. In many ways, he has been positioned as a lynchpin character for the entire franchise going forward, an interesting position for someone who has always been treated as a curio in the comics.

This time around, Strange is introduced to America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez, game for what she’s being asked to do), a young woman with the incredible ability to jump between different realities. Her power has gotten the attention of a malevolent force that is attempting to harness her multiverse abilities to their own aims. Strange agrees to help her, and attempts to recruit the assistance of Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda Maximoff…

…who in turn is actually that malevolent force attempting to capture America. Again, this is a thing that the film reveals very early on, and is woven into the rest of the context of the story throughout. The movie itself doesn’t treat the reveal as a giant third-act twist, but rather as the very premise, effectively establishing stakes and putting the pieces into place. And it logically follows for Wanda’s character, launching off effectively from the end of the WandaVision miniseries. Her basic scheme is that she has realized that her two children she created, Billy and Tommy, exist in other realities, and she wants to use America’s powers to be in a world where they can all be together. This puts Strange and Wanda at odds with each other, and leads to Strange attempting to keep America safe from the Scarlet Witch.

This is where those Raimi mannerisms really start to show their cleverness. With deep roots in horror vocabulary, he effectively makes Wanda’s Scarlet Witch persona into a menacing villain who lurks around the corner, manipulative and capable. It isn’t until the third act that the trademark Raimi smash camera zoom-tilts come into full effect, but when they do, they are a cathartic escalation. In addition, there is much visual imagery that borrows from the same bag of tricks of the earlier films, making heavy use of reflections and golden rays of magical energy. A fun addition is Strange apparently summoning mythical monsters to do his bidding, a new ability that has little explanation but pays off in one of the film’s most memorable moments.

At the core of the film are the two performances of Cumberbatch and Olsen, who have lived in these characters long enough now to know their mannerisms fairly naturally despite the often nebulous space they have to play them in. Cumberbatch especially has developed a persona for Strange that is separate from the “Tony Stark lite” take he had in the original film. A theme throughout the film is that if he gives into his worst impulses, Strange is a darkly menacing presence across the multiverse, a powerful sorcerer given to fits of egomania. Cumberbatch’s performance balances Strange’s rejection of that identity in himself with the quiet recognition that he is indeed capable of horrific things if he’d merely allow himself to pursue them.

Wanda’s depiction is far more tricky, as she could potentially be reduced to a horrific depiction of a “hysterical woman” on the rampage in an effort to have children. But Olsen understands the implications and the characters fairly naturally, knowing that Wanda’s actions are more akin to a response to the trauma she has endured and a means to establish some semblance of normalcy, regardless of the cost. She has continually allowed the needs of others to determine her fate in the film franchise. As such, her motives are understandable, even sympathetic, but the cost of her plan is unacceptable to Strange, who has determined that even one life is worth protecting.

This is all classically-minded superhero melodrama, a mode and tone that Raimi proved to be well versed in with his Spider-Man trilogy. But while those drew heavily from the interpersonal soap opera dynamics of the Lee-Ditko run, Multiverse of Madness is more interested in replicating the “event comic,” a cacophonous story that has personal stakes at its core but cataclysmic cost. For the most part, the film threads that needle, though it benefits greatly from having several films and a TV series to establish the characters before this point. Its very opening through to the middle point of the adventure has shaky moments of rushing through exposition, but once it gets to the final dramatic chase and allows its horror roots to really take hold, it grips you through until the end.

Raimi was a smart choice at the helm for this film, as he is able to lend his specific vision when needed, but also to simply meet what has become the recognizable Marvel house style through those more plot-driven dialogue scenes. His handling of that balance allows the film to feel special when it needs to but still in alignment with the larger universe. His style is fairly lost in the most CGI-reliant moments, save for one scene near the climax which is both clever and in conversation with his specific Looney Tunes aesthetic. But when you compare an opening monster brawl with the high points of something like Spider-Man 2’s Doc Ock sequences, it is hard to not feel like something is lost in an overreliance on animated elements.

And it is perhaps in that comparison that the current style of superheroes in film, and their attempt to model so closely to the comic book aesthetic, continues to prove worrisome. Doctor Strange definitely doesn’t reinvent the wheel despite its flashes of individualism, and it doesn’t feel like the fresh shot in the arm the franchise needs as a whole. Rather, it is the newest chapter in the biggest, most expensive serial storytelling experiment ever, with each piece feeling relatively less experimental. It never feels as hollow or cynical as No Way Home’s worst inclinations of fan service, but its attempts at character storytelling feel secondary to concerns of world building. Which is a shame, because when the film allows the characters to actually grow and contemplate, it proves that there is space for a more emotionally resonant version of these movies that still pay homage to the bombastic.

Like the kinds of films Sam Raimi used to make.

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