After the conclusion of the Infinity Saga, Phase Four of the MCU has tried out something slightly new – and I’m not exactly sure if I like it or not – there is no clear story focus. We’ve introduced plenty of new corners of the MCU and continue to explore and expand familiar places. The growing debate has been on whether or not the MCU has been too time-consuming. With almost thirty feature films and numerous streaming shows, casual fans have a lot to catch up on, but that leaves true fans yearning, and sometimes underwhelmed when each film is made accessible for those who aren’t interested in a connected universe. I got news for you, this franchise might not be for you then. I enjoy an epic film as a reward for such commitment, but “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” was unable to fully live up to such standards.
As a standalone film to showcase Sam Raimi’s abilities after such a long break from not only the comic book genre but the director chair in general, this movie works perfectly. But seeing it stand among the scales of the larger universe, it doesn’t tower as high as it should. It’s insanely well-directed, dare I say the best-directed film in the franchise, and the applied visual Raimi style and horror pushing the boundaries of the PG-13 rating is something I never would’ve thought Marvel would go for. From the insane camera work to the tonal change of Wanda’s character arc, to the horrific scares. This is very much made for Raimi fans, but especially those who are appreciative of his work on the “Evil Dead” films – and that cannot be more true than with the Deadite-like Souls of the Damned creatures and the entire Dreamwalking scene in the finale. You can’t have a Sam Raimi film without a Bruce Campbell cameo either, and I have to say that I’m a bit underwhelmed with Pizza Poppa after how well Raimi used him in his “Spider-Man” trilogy.
For being titled “The Multiverse of Madness,” I was disappointed to see them not lean into the multiverse as much as they did the madness of Wanda Maximoff. There were very few big name, big character cameos, of which I hope they are saving what they have left for a future Secret Wars film. Although, the ramifications of what Wanda caused throughout a handful of universes were never established. I never felt such high stakes in this movie. Also, of the two major universes we visit outside of Earth-616, was one where red means go the best they had in mind? A few that we see in the jumping montage looked far more interesting, and sure, it may cost a bit more, but at a higher appeal for the audience.
We get to meet many different versions of Stephen Strange in this film, and Benedict Cumberbatch is amazing as every one of them. I especially liked his performance as the resurrected Defender Strange. Like the lack of exploring the universes, we never explore what differentiates each Strange beyond a few lines of exposition from the Illuminati and excuses for the Darkhold. As a matter of fact, there’s not much exploration into variants of any character in this movie. I just think Marvel needs to think through in the future what they hold within their final product and decide upon how confidential the ad campaign should be because we saw way too much of this movie in trailers and spots.
If there’s one thing that was a nice surprise that was nearly impossible to show all of, it was Danny Elfman’s soundtrack. You don’t bring in Danny Elfman and not ask for the lot, and he brought everything he had for the Strange-on-Strange music note fight. I’ve been seeing a lot of people have this scene as a deciding factor between awesome and far too campy. If you say so, I loved this scene. Elfman’s theme for Wanda was incredible too, though I’m not exactly sure if I enjoyed the overuse of heavy metal guitar riffs near the end of the film.
This movie is more Wanda’s than anybody’s, and seeing Elizabeth Olsen in top form (sidenote: her line readings are perfect) is nothing I am against, but that doesn’t necessarily mean Scarlet Witch’s character is in top form. It’s messy character development post-“WandaVision” because as soon as we meet her, she’s already evil. That was only kind of hinted at during the end credits of the show, but not enough for the regular moviegoer’s Marvel seems to be trying to please. I don’t have any problem with how much the Darkhold has consumed her and her following brutal actions, it’s just how confusing the transition was when it all happened off-screen. Having the Darkhold radiate bad effects on its reader that aren’t consistent at all is poor writing. Wanda just becomes crazy, while Earth-838 Strange’s fingers turn black, and Sinister Strange gets a third eye; despite all of that, Agatha’s sanity remains intact after years of reading the book. That said, Wanda is one-hundred-percent not dead. The next time we see her, I hope she leaps to the big screen in the title role.
It’s quite clear that Sam Raimi nor screenwriter Michael Waldron have watched all of “WandaVision,” if any. Aside from Wanda’s arc switch, the one thing this movie needed to do didn’t happen. Billy and Tommy are still lost out there in the multiverse, and I can only wonder how long it’s going to take before we get some progress on that. In a nutshell, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” is a sequel to “WandaVision” for people who haven’t seen “WandaVision,” made by people who haven’t seen “WandaVision.”
With all that is shoved in this movie, it desperately needed some breathing room. The first act flies by so fast (aside from the Gargantos fight that goes on far too long) that I couldn’t believe how that doesn’t reflect on the rest of the movie. It has an identity crisis in being a sequel to “WandaVision” and mostly focused on Wanda’s story in the first and third acts, whereas the center of the film is extremely out of place, focusing mostly on Stephen Strange himself with a few additional guest appearances. I understand how odd that sounds, as this is a Doctor Strange film, but it’s wildly distracting.
All of the other characters are clipped down tremendously, to say the least. America Chavez is completely underutilized and is not much more than a one-dimensional plot device. Her dynamic with Strange is the only way we get to know her, so I’ll give the “introductory origin” a pass because we’ll no doubt see her and her “blink-and-you’ll miss it” Disney representation again. I continue to adore Wong, and I wouldn’t mind if he shows up in every single MCU project to come. His character fascinates me because it’s a rare instance where the film adaptation is superior to the comic book source material. Christine Palmer is definitely more integral to Stephen’s story here than in the previous film because he learns that, no matter what universe they’re in, the relationship between the two never seems to work out. That makes the episode of “What If…?” centered around the two all the more heartbreaking. Unlike a few other actors. (some even in this movie), I’m glad Marvel is actually using Rachel McAdams and not just labeling her another love interest.
I love it when the MCU brings in A-listers as great new characters (and the heroes tend to stick around a little longer than the villains do), so, yes, I am definitely excited to see Charlize Theron as Clea. She looks perfect and I can’t wait to see these two team up inside the Dark Dimension. The only thing is I feel the final fifteen seconds of the film could’ve been shaved off and directly replaced with this end-credits scene, and it would’ve felt a lot smoother. Adding onto the runtime discussion, for being one of the most comics inaccurate MCU films, more time was needed to explain some of this stuff because I have no idea why Doctor Strange ended up with a third eye.
I hate to say it because this is one of the biggest things in the movie I was most excited to see, the Illuminati scene wasn’t necessary in the slightest. It should’ve been cut to give time to the rest of the story that needed it, or they should’ve gone bonkers with cameos because five decent character appearances didn’t do it for me. It just felt so fast and inconsequential in the larger scale outside of adding to Wanda’s body count. As I said, I get this is a Doctor Strange movie and this scene does add to some of Doctor Strange’s internal morals, but it’s been all about Wanda up to this point. It was an odd point for the script to step off for fifteen minutes and then hop right back on the Scarlet Witch train. I don’t understand why everyone was so underpowered and killed so quickly either (especially Professor X on the astral plane). The Illuminati is a pretty big deal in the comics, yet I’ve heard people laugh at the movie both times I’ve seen it in the theater. These quick deaths don’t exactly hurt the group’s reputation, I just hope to see them back again in another universe, bigger and better.
Whatever happened to our Mordo’s storyline, I hope we drop this Earth-838 stuff and return to that. At least they referenced (albeit in a single line) the Mordo that took Stephen in is still out there. Chiwetel Ejiofor is one of those actors I was talking about how wasted they’ve come to be. This is also the proper time to throw one out there for Michael Stühlbarg and his agent for getting his name on the poster with a “with” billing with only thirty seconds of screen time.
The biggest reaction this movie got out of me was the surprise of a Mr. Fantastic appearance, only to be played by a fancast come to life: John Krasinski. This is nothing more than pure fan service, and I don’t know if it’s the lack of material or screen presence given to him, the writing, or his performance, but this “audition” didn’t impress me. And for being “the smartest man alive,” telling Wanda how to kill Black Bolt was incredibly stupid. I just can’t imagine Krasinski in such a serious role.
The other Illuminati members didn’t exactly step up from that either. I love how well Maria Rambeau’s Captain Carter origin fits the “What If…?” scenario so well, but her entire fight with Wanda was shown in the trailers too. In her even shorter fight, Captain Carter never demanded the screen as she did in animation – her physicality and fighting technique was so boring in comparison. I get that animation and live-action are two different things, but anything seems to be possible these days. Her death was cartoonish and especially lame as well, compared to what came before with Black Bolt’s death. This is the one time in the film I was legitimately startled, audibly saying “wow.” I’m not in the boat that’s surprised this wasn’t rated R, but I never knew you could do something like that in a PG-13 film (in a franchise that’s typically family-friendly). I love that Marvel decided to go that far (I frankly hope they continue to stay within these boundaries), and I’m happy for Anson Mount getting to reprise his role as Black Bolt after “Inhumans,” but this is the final middle finger to that disaster of a show.
As much as I feel “Logan” was a perfect sendoff for Patrick Stewart’s nearly two-decade run as Professor Charles Xavier, showing up again five years later wasn’t a disappointment. I just wish he did a little more than phone it in. The man’s eighty and they’ve killed him on-screen as this character four times now, it was just nice seeing him one final time and in the “X-Men: Animated Series” accurate look, and catching him saying the same line to Strange as he said to his past self in “Days of Future Past” was fantastic.
It was neat seeing the Fantastic Four and Mutants finally show up in the MCU after years, but uninspired performances and dialogue for the characters – all of the Illuminati, in fact – drew me out a little bit. This movie didn’t conclude with Wanda bringing Mutants into the MCU either (a reversal of the comics), so I don’t know how they’ll continue to explain these organizations being in the dark after so much has happened on Earth-616.
“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” is the second multiversal spectacle of the year, after “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” The film with a wider range (the one I am currently reviewing) is inferior. Only because one film is good doesn’t mean the other is, by default, bad in comparison. I greatly appreciated the risks this movie took in terms of genre and stylistic efforts, but at great cost came connections to the bigger universe. Not every one of these movies should be seen as a trailer to the next, but there should be some sort of overarching cloth that laces everything together in the end, and I don’t see that for Phase Four so far. I strongly believe that Sam Raimi should stick with this character for the long haul because he can bring the best of both worlds from his previous filmography experiences.
Final Grade: B+