“Just because someone stumbles and loses their way doesn’t mean they’re lost forever.”
Al’s rating: Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is the single best title the MCU has ever come up with. As such, you must say the title in its entirety every time. It’s like A Tribe Called Quest.
Al’s review: Like so many others, I have rabidly followed the MCU since Iron Man burst onto the scene in 2008. That’s 28 movies, seven TV shows, six one-shot short films, and a handful of “making of” specials on Disney+. That dedication is important when it comes to a movie like Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.
For example, I know that Ned Leeds can use a sling ring in Spider-Man: No Way Home, so I’m keeping an eye out for him here. I know all about the TVA and how variant timelines work from the Loki series, too, so I feel like I have a good handle on the logistics of realities that are similar-but-different. Yes, I feel entirely ready for – I’m sorry, what? He’s not? Oh. It isn’t? So, what’s a variant timeline and what’s a multiverse? Aw, man. I’m confused. I guess we’re going in blind!
As Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness opens, life in the MCU is returning to normal, but Doctor Strange is still wrestling with his place in a post-blip world (Proposed MCU tagline: “Phase 4 — Age of Therapy”). Wong has taken up the mantle of Sorcerer Supreme. Strange’s impossibly bland love interest from the 2016 movie, Christine Palmer, is getting married to a muggle she met while he was dusted. Despite all Strange’s power and mystical mastery, is he even happy?
Luckily, Strange does not need to dwell on any of these questions due to the arrival of America Chavez, a multiverse-hopping teenager on the run from the censor boards of China and Saudi Arabia — uh, I mean dark magical forces. America escaped her last reality after the death of that alternate universe’s Doctor Strange, who betrayed her and believed he could only stop the encroaching evil if he murdered America and stole her power for himself.
America and our Doctor Strange form a tenuous partnership, and, seeing evidence of witchcraft, he goes to find the most expert witch he knows: failed housewife Wanda Maximoff. The visit opens Strange’s eyes to the existence of The Darkhold, a demonic tome of nasty nasties, and faster than you can say “Klaatu Verata Necktie,” America and Stephen find themselves on the run.
The 2016 Doctor Strange was a decently fun film and a good introduction to the character, but I always felt it was too vanilla. The movie could have been so much murkier and trippier, so I had hoped that the sequel might be able to go to the places that the first film couldn’t. If only there was a director out there who didn’t mind indulging some of those darker impulses. If only there was a director who knew how to use the camera in a way that makes the viewer a little sick and a little mad. If only there was a director who could take a chainsaw to the audience’s expectations. It’s only there was a director wh— look, it’s Sam Raimi!
I know this movie was a much-discussed “troubled production” (cue spooky fingers), but, if it couldn’t stay with Scott Derrickson, I am so so SO happy that it wound up with Sam Raimi. Movies like Evil Dead are largely responsible for my sensibilities about horror films, so his campy and creepy style is exactly my taste. Grasping hands, unexpected eyeballs, evil POV cameras, and — hey! — is that a deadite? I vibe with all of it.
I could talk about all of the performances here (Cumberbatch: good; Gomez: fine; Wong: criminally underused; small children: vomit emoji), but, really, the only names in this conversation are Elizabeth Olsen and Wanda Maximoff. Wanda’s experience in Westview* and her subsequent isolation has done a number on her. Olsen gives Wanda a haunted depth that feels like it builds naturally on the history we already know and then takes the character to places haven’t been with her before. She conveys the pain, anger, determination, and desperation that have built from her last several movies and they ground her off-kilter logic in a way that a lesser actress would not be able to convey. Her story plays in some tropes that I dislike, but Olsen is so good that I don’t mind putting her in a position that lets her chew the scenery and thoroughly steal the spotlight.
The movie looks great, toys with cool ideas, and makes choices that feel bold. The funny parts are funny, but it knows when to ease off the throttle and be serious. The antagonist feels like a threat and can be legitimately scary. The plot has consequences that I think we’ll see play out in the rest of Phase 4 and beyond.
Criticisms I’ve seen online of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness have ranged from reasonable to questionable to absurd, and people seem to be digging in hard. I’m usually happy to tell those folks to go bargain with The Dread Dormammu, but it would be disingenuous to pretend that the movie has no problems.
The plot makes our heroes almost entirely reactive instead of proactive, so it meanders a bit in the middle. At the same time, though, somehow (sorcery?) it also often feels jam-packed to the point of bursting. Our characters barely have time to breathe – I don’t think America every really graduates out of ‘plot device’ status – and yet the story also doesn’t feel like it can ever slow down enough to explain itself or let us sit and soak in an important moment. If the plot feels shortchanged and the characters feel shortchanged, where the heck are we spending our screentime?
Dr. Strange, as I mentioned, gets multiple plot and character threads hung on him, but none of them ever pay off satisfactorily. You want me to believe that Strange “always has to be the one holding the knife,” then I should observe my hero behaving this way throughout the film instead of just hearing about it repeatedly. Character growth comes from showing, not telling.
The Illuminati, who I haven’t gotten to mention before now, are a fun little cul-de-sac of hat tips and fan service, but I feel like there was supposed to be more. Is that really all we get out of a whole multiverse of possibilities? This would have been the perfect place to introduce the Pet Avengers!
There are other aspects of the movie I could talk about but I won’t — I’d rather let people have their own opinions and reactions. Frankly, I’m appreciating that people are having discussions about Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness instead of collectively nodding their heads like good little Marvel zombies.
So, yes, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a little messy. Yes, it’s still an MCU movie so it mostly colors within the lines you are expecting. Yes, it totally could have used more Wong. But, you know what? Sam Raimi has made a Marvel movie that feels like a Sam Raimi movie, and the MCU sorely needs more of that. So, yes, you should see it. Yes, you should support it. Yes, we should petition to visit the universe where Wong: Sorcerer Supreme is a three-season tv series. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a flawed movie, but I’m glad I live in one of the universes where it exists.
*See the now-classic Wandavision miniseries, on newsstands NOW! – Smilin’ Stan