Director(s): Sam Raimi
Writer(s): Michael Waldron
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen, Benedict Wong
When Iron Man kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) in 2008, it was never meant to be the creation of something that had never been done before. Marvel itself has been around for almost a century, and these characters, and their stories, have been a staple of pop culture since Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby brought them to the page in the late 1950s. No, when Iron Man first hit the theaters it was always meant to be its own version of the story and character. The same can be said for every MCU character brought to screen. Instead of being the sole version of the characters, they were the characters that fit within this universe and would create a story of their own.
This meant all of the other versions of these characters still existed, floating around in the infinite universes inside this fictional creation. Say what you want about the Comic Book sub-genre as a whole, but what can’t be denied is how vast Comic Book media is and how many different stories can be told with the same characters people have come to love. With this seemingly infinite amount of universes and stories, it was always an inevitability, even in the beginning of the MCU, that one day these stories would clash in some way.
Last Spring’s WandaVision, Loki during the Summer of 2021, and the most recent Marvel film Spider-Man: No Way Home all touched on the idea of multiverses within the cosmos that is Marvel. However, these were done on a primarily smaller scale being that, as Dr. Strange himself says in Spider-Man: No Way Home, “The multiverse is a concept in which we know frighteningly little.” With Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, the MCU takes its first real dive into the epic wonders of what Marvel as property has to offer.
Following the events of Spider-Man: No Way Home, America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) stumbles upon Doctor Strange after being chased by a demon out for her powers – she has the ability to travel between universes, but can’t control it. Doctor Strange, along with Sorcerer Supreme Wong, attempts to help Chavez; defending her from the evil powers coming for her. In a last-ditch effort, Chavez uses her powers to travel through the multiverse, taking Strange with her, which forces the sorcerer to not only find a way home but protect Chavez along the way.
The biggest story coming from this might be one of “too little too late.” Sitting at a short two hours and six minutes (including credits), director Sam Raimi and lone writer Michael Waldron (Loki) attempt to pull off a massive feat of multiversal magic. While this is definitively the furthest down the Marvel rabbit hole they have gone yet, it still felt as though they were only scrubbing the surface of what could have been. With containing one of the most expansive lores in history, one would believe that in the first film to truly jump universes, there would be time spent exploring those other planes of existence in a way to expand the vast MCU horizon. Instead, in a film titled Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness it hardly ever becomes a truly multiversal story, and also hardly ever becomes a truly Doctor Strange story either.
It has been 6 years since the original Doctor Strange was released, and from then Strange has only ever appeared in other films, or in massive team-ups. Sure, he does grow as a character some in these larger outings, but finally giving the Sorcerer a real chance to spotlight a story, one that isn’t an origin story, the focus should have stayed on him as a character. Instead, the film devolves into WandaVision part two, and serves more like a direct sequel to the Elizabeth Olsen-led TV show than it does to the previous Doctor Strange outing.
The biggest issue, and easily the most glaring one, comes in Michael Waldron’s script. Waldron who served as the lone writer – something that has only happened a few times, if ever, in the MCU – could have benefited from another voice in the room. The way this film played out, there was not enough focus given on Doctor Strange to really warrant this being his film, and while Elizabeth Olsen gives one of the best performances of her career, her character arc that was set forth in WandaVision is almost completely eradicated.
Just like there was a lack of Doctor Strange characterization, there was a lack of Multiverse characterization as well. Going into this, the MCU multiverse was a little-known idea in the infinite cosmos, and leaving this it remains just that. Glancing over ideas that could have made this a more expansive movie, it becomes far too contained for the promises there were going into it.
Visually, while the film has its stunning moments that Doctor Strange especially has come to be known for, as a whole the visual aspects of it feel clunkier than most. Some of the CGI just couldn’t work, and there were scenes that in any context just didn’t feel real. Aside from a few clever camera tricks and transitions, it wasn’t until late in the second half of the film that Sam Raimi was even allowed to display what has made him so unique for so many years. By this time the movie already had a clear voice, and it wasn’t Raimi’s.
It does pick up in a way allowing for some darker tones and scenes – probably some of the darkest in the MCU yet – but it was clearly reeled in after maybe getting too weird for too long. During this stretch, it really feels like it is picking up steam leading to a powerful finale, and while it never has the same drop-off as what there is in the first half, it can never reach those highs again. Some of these scenes are exactly what the MCU needs as Sam Raimi’s old-school horror elements are given small moments to shine. The MCU has always touched on more adult material, but it hasn’t grown with the audiences over the years. It has remained relatively tame, and even though they gave a sliver of freedom to Raimi, it never felt like a Raimi film; more like an impersonation of the director.
What the most disappointing thing might be is that it isn’t all bad. As I mentioned earlier, Elizabeth Olsen is the best she has ever been as an actress. She displays a level of rage and fight, that while out of character, stands out. Another big standout of the film is Rachel McAdams – who was given more to do than was ever thought. Her more grounded character tries hard to get the Doctor Strange storyline to work and almost does. There also clearly is a vision put into this movie that has its shining moments, it just never fully comes together, leaving this a jumbled and barely above average MCU outing.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness works, but on the thinnest of levels. The Raimi-led second half allows Doctor Strange and the rest of the characters to dive into the weirdness and horrors that this film was needed the entire time. Elizabeth Olsen is the star of the show, and the lead of it honestly, and even though her character arc might not make much sense, she completely owns every frame she is in. I wanted to like this more, and there were moments in which I could see true promise start to reveal itself, but ultimately this is one of Marvel’s bigger disappointments.
Jacob is a film critic and co-founder of the Music City Drive-In. He is a member of the Music City Film Critics’ Association and specializes in the awards season. You can find him on Twitter @Tberry57.