Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (United States, 2022)

May 04, 2022
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness Poster

Spoiler Note: The review is “spoiler lite” with nothing beyond what has been shown in the trailer and other officially sanctioned pre-release material. However, although I don’t reveal any cameos that are in the film, I mention some that are not in the film. To my way of thinking, those aren’t spoilers (more in the line of managing expectations) but I realize there are some who may disagree.

As Spider-Man: No Way Home was unspooling, with its introduction of the “multiverse” concept into the MCU, there were warning signs that this new plot device could overturn and unbalance the carefully laid foundation of more than 20 films. The giddiness accompanying the returns of Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield muted such concerns, however. Now, with another visitation to the multidimensional realm where divergent choices splinter into different realities, Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness causes the red lights to blink brighter (even though the vast potential of the Multiverse is underused). Suddenly viewers are confronted with a depressing truth: nothing matters. Not death. Not victory. Not defeat. Anything can be undone. Thanos has been reduced to a transient intergalactic thug whose vision was limited by his non-multiversal thinking.

From a narrative standpoint, The Multiverse of Madness is poorly constructed and developed. It’s said that director Sam Raimi, returning to the Marvel fold for the first time since Spider-Man 3, started shooting without a complete script. It shows. The movie feels like it was assembled from an unready draft – one that should have gone through another polish or two and spent more time developing a better ending. Visually, there’s no denying the film’s strengths. It looks great and although many of its most arresting elements are holdovers from the first Dr. Strange and/or Christopher Nolan’s Inception, they frequently distract from the paucity of the plot. There are some tremendously mounted action sequences, including the opening one (which feels like a video game-in-waiting) and one that involves using musical notes as weapons (which could have been better developed and gone on longer).

The movie starts out by introducing a newcomer to the MCM (Marvel Cinematic Multiverse): America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a twentysomething woman with mysterious powers. She can spontaneously travel from universe to universe but doesn’t know how to control her abilities. She’s being pursued by monsters and, when they go on a destructive spree in New York City, Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) feels duty-bound to intervene. Aided by the Sorcerer Supreme, Wong (Benedict Wong), Strange saves America (the character, not the country) and learns of her dilemma. Feeling out of his depth, Strange seeks aid and information from Wanda Maximoff, a.k.a. Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), only to learn that she’s the one behind the invasion. She wants America’s powers and will do whatever is necessary to possess them (the act of which would kill the woman) so she can find a universe where the life she created in the streaming series “WandaVision” is real. Predictably, the struggle between Strange and Wanda continues across several other universes as America’s powers are triggered during times of high stress.

To its credit, the movie tries to make Wanda’s motivations more interesting than those of a cliched, power-mad lunatic. She’s simply deluded and desperately lonely. She wants an imagined, perfect life with her imagined, perfect children. Unfortunately, there’s no depth to Wanda’s pain. It’s sketched out shallowly and briefly because any true examination of grief wouldn’t mesh well with the pyrotechnics and CGI. The lack of substance makes it all the more remarkable what James Mangold was able to achieve with Logan, the only Marvel movie thus far to deal bluntly and honestly with dark thematic material while not disengaging from the superhero tropes.

There’s some superficial fun to be had in tripping the light fantastic across universes but it quickly loses its appeal as the viewer realizes that the movie isn’t going anywhere. Clara Peller expressed it well in an ‘80s TV commercial when she asked “Where’s the beef?” Or, to put it another way using an older reference, the Emperor has no clothes. This is eye candy masquerading as something deeper and mind-bending, except the depth is in the shoals and the bends are disappointingly straight.

Prior to the film’s release, fan circles were abuzz with rumors of a cavalcade of cameos. The truth doesn’t match up with expectations. Most of these fleeting appearances are designed with the Marvel devotee in mind. Those who boast more than a passing familiarity with the comic book source material will find enough Easter eggs to make an oversized omelet. For more casual viewers, however, familiar faces are somewhat scarce. In addition to one whose identity was spoiled by advance publicity material, there are only a few more and none is on quite the same level as Maguire or Garfield. Those anticipating appearances by long-lost Avengers, past Spider-Men, Deadpool, or Wolverine are in for a disappointment. The most curious absence of all is Vision. Considering how important this character is to Wanda’s fragile psyche, the lack of even a token/dream appearance by Paul Bettany is curious.

Recent Marvel movies have begun to stray evermore into weird, cosmic territory that, although not uncomfortable for comic book fans, this direction may be increasingly off-putting to conventional movie-goers. The filmmakers are having an increasingly difficult time wrapping their arms around all the consequences and implications of some of their story decisions. In that way, The Multiverse of Madness recalls Eternals not necessarily a good reference point since the latter is widely regarded as being among the least successful MCU movies. The problematic aspects of the Multiverse are wide-ranging. The most disturbing of which is that it represents a permanent, always-available deus ex machina. So even though it now makes a Batman vs. Spider-Man showdown easy to imagine, it creates a sense of impermanence where major events can be undone with the stroke of a pen. We’re way beyond Bobby Ewing stepping out of the shower.

Putting aside any long-term implications, The Multiverse of Madness is a frustrating mix of eclectic elements that at times feel more like Raimi referencing his Evil Dead movies than his previous superhero work. It’s undeniably fascinating and at times exhilarating but my overall feeling is one of vague disappointment. As for the “WandaVision” connection – it’s as important a prerequisite as the first Dr. Strange. It’s possible to follow the story without having watched the streaming series but a lot of the details will be lost. This raises questions about the relationship between major motion pictures and ancillary programing, but that’s a discussion for another time and place. Suffice it to say that Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness may find rapturous approval among comic book fans but could be less appealing to mainstream movie-goers.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (United States, 2022)

Director: Sam Raimi
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, Xochitl Gomez, Rachel McAdams
Home Release Date: 2022-07-26
Screenplay: Michael Waldron
Cinematography: John Mathieson
Music: Danny Elfman
U.S. Distributor: Marvel Studios
Run Time: 2:06
U.S. Release Date: 2022-05-06
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Disturbing Images)
Genre: Action/Horror
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1