A film review by Craig J. Koban May 19, 2022

DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS jj

2022, PG-13, 126 mins.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Stephen Strange / Sinister Strange / Defender Strange  /  Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff / The Scarlet Witch  /  Chiwetel Ejiofor as Karl Mordo / Master Mordo  /  Benedict Wong as Wong / Defender Wong  /  Xochitl Gomez as America Chavez  /  Rachel McAdams as Dr. Christine Palmer  /  Michael Stuhlbarg as Dr. Nicodemus West  /  Julian Hilliard as Billy Maximoff  /  Jett Klyne as Tommy Maximoff

Directed by Sam Raimi  /  Written by Michael Waldron
 

 

 

 

The wonderfully titled DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS is the 28th entry in the longstanding Marvel Cinematic Universe and, yes, a direct sequel to 2016's DOCTOR STRANGE (which was, astoundingly enough, 14 MCU entries ago).  That character introduction endeavor did a solid job of establishing the mystical and ancient magic unleashing hero that Stan Lee and Steve Ditko gave birth to in the 1960s, and - unlike so many other MCU solo features - it felt rewardingly self-contained as a origin film while having its feet firmly entrenched in the larger franchise around it.  

Its long awaited sequel is arguably one of the most refreshingly weird MCU installments and takes many calculated chances with the underlining material, which is largely thanks to an injection of director Sam Raimi's quirky energy.  However, one thing that definitely holds this sequel back is that it's so awash with CG sound and fury that it all but drowns out the intriguing characters and the human (and not so human) element.  It's a shame, because Benedict Cumberbatch's titular surgeon turned super hero is easily the most compelling MCU character this side of Tony Stark, but here he seems sidelined by all of the ostentatious spectacle happening around him. 

It should be noted too that DOCTOR STRANGE 1's director in the highly capable Scott Derrickson stepped down from his position behind the camera for this second outing (citing creative differences with Disney) and in his place is Raimi, who's obviously no stranger whatsoever to both the super hero genre and Disney pictures (he made the original Sony-verse SPIDER-MAN trilogy of the 2000s as well as helming more family fare for the House of Mouse like OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL).  DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS is Raimi's first film in nearly a decade, and it's pretty clear early on that his penchant and love for both comic books and horror (remember, this is the same man that quarterbacked the immortal EVIL DEAD films) has been injected into this follow-up's DNA.  Raimi is opting to make this DOCTOR STRANGE a far kookier and more macabre affair, which hones in on his core strengths as a darkly eccentric director (this might be as close as the MCU has come to an outright horror film).  I admired the frequent and rampant depravity of some of the choices here, and it's a welcome thing to see Raimi not simply mining from the increasingly stale book of MCU contrivances and formulas.  DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS is a Sam Raimi film in look and mood throughout, but even his infectious stylistic trappings can only go so far to save a film that's a victim of trying to do too many things at once, and often to distracting effect. 

When we last met Strange he was guilty of some would say a criminal lack of proper leadership and judgment in SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME, during which time he granted a fairly selfish minded Peter Parker's wish to cast a spell that would make the world forget he was Spider-Man (yup, it didn't go at all as planned).  It appears that this ordeal - on top of the galaxy spanning implications of helping the Avengers thwart Thanos beforehand - has left their mark on Strange; he's definitely in need of some downtime.  Of course, no super hero's life can ever go to a place of normalcy, and Strange's momentary attempts at R & R are turned upside down with the appearance of America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a young woman with abilities well beyond any other Marvel hero.  She has the capabilities to zap herself from one universe to another, but she can only do so when scared or emotionally prompted to (sort of like the Hulk, I guess).  In the opening sections of the film she is pursued into Strange's universe by a gigantic one-eyed monster, which the former has to take down before it ravages the city.  Two things popped up in my mind during this sequence: (a) The VFX are as top notch here as they are in any MCU entry and (b) in terms of one-eyed monsters wreaking havoc in a crowded metropolis, DC's THE SUICIDE SQUAD did this already and much better.   

Aided by the newly anointed Sorcerer Supreme in Wong (the film's other Benedict, Wong), Strange attempts to help the very frazzled America while trying to come to grips with the uneasy realization that this woman is unbelievably powerful and could be exploited by evil forces for the wrong reasons.  Strange feels that he needs some help in sorting this all out, so he seeks out Wanda "Scarlet Witch" Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), but he learns to his horror that she wants to kidnap the poor multiverse hopping girl and steal her powers so she can travel to another universe and be with her doppelganger's children (this would also involve the murder of not only America, but this other universe's Wanda).  Fully comprehending the limitless danger that he's now in with a being as powerful as Wanda going full-on bad, Strange decides to leave his universe with America by his side and sneaks into multiple other universes to stave off Wanda's obsessive stalking.  Predictably enough, this leads to the Master of the Mystic Arts coming in contact with...well...other iterations of himself on top of other iconic MCU heroes. 

 

 

Raimi seems like the pitch perfect candidate to helm the unrelenting weirdness of DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS, and I think that it's impossible for him at this stage in his illustrious career to make a bad looking film.  This sequel is ripe with astounding visual flourishes, which gives Raimi the highly unique opportunity to not only put his distinctive stamp on Strange's world, but also allows for him to imagine all of the various other realties that Strange and America zip in and out of through their adventure.  In one of the film's most technically bravura moments, we see the pair career from one universe to the next: In one reality, their forms look like jigsaw puzzle-like bricks, whereas in another they take the shape of sinewy globes of expressionistic paint.  There's also one indescribably nifty fight sequence pitting Strange against another opponent (whom I shall not spoil); let's just say that in the latter's reality they're able to use musical notes as projectile weapons.  Hell, at one point we even get a ghastly undead and multiple-armed version of Strange dominating the story (yeah, too complicated to explain here) that many die hard fans of Raimi's early horror films will drink in with nostalgic reverence (there's even a disturbing looking spell book - the MacGuffun of the film - that looks an awful lot like the Necronomicon from EVIL DEAD).  The chaotic imagery on display in DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS is, to be fair, deliriously glorious to behold at times; you can really sense Raimi's enthusiasm in leaping into this film's bizarre sandbox. 

Here's the thing, though: The first DOCTOR STRANGE entry did a superb job of chronicling the fall and rise of Stephen Strange, who went from a narcisstic a-hole surgeon extraordinaire to a critically injured victim (that shattered his ego forever) and he eventually redeemed himself into a healed and empowered hero that found novel ways to practice the Hippocratic Oath through his new magic abilities.  The major dilemma of DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS is that all of the performance and presence good will of Cumberbatch in this fascinating role are sort of betrayed by the sheer bigness of this sequel.  There's simply too much movie in this movie, and more often than I felt like I was watching a series of remarkably and outlandishly cool vignettes of pure visual pathos (that, again, Raimi can conjure in his sleep) in search of a coherent and engaging story...not to mention a sense of purpose.  Much of DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS is battling multiple divergent tones all at once: Sometimes it's a horror film, other times it's campy, whereas other times it's solemn and grave.  Cumberbatch is indeed as refined as ever in what's becoming a career defining character for him, but Strange and the film he occupies never generates a firm identity of its own or much depth beyond what was established in his last origin entry.  For every small scale and intimately rendered scene with Cumberbatch there are substantially many others with him being green-screened into one LSD tripping environment after another, and the rinse and repeat nature of this gets staler as the film progresses.   

And much like so many of the other recent solo MCU films, this DOCTOR STRANGE sequel feels slavish in its desire to continue on progressively more convoluted MCU story arcs established beforehand, so much so that you're left wondering whether or not you're watching a DOCTOR STRANGE film or another lower scaled AVENGERS entry.  Probably more so than ever now (and perhaps annoyingly to some), watching a big screen MCU adventure requires intimate knowledge of the studio's small screen ancillary properties, more specifically WANDAVISION.  I can categorically state that if you've never seen Scarlet Witch's Disney+ streaming series (and I have not) then you'll probably be hopelessly lost with what's happening in terms of subplots and character motivations in DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS.  To the uninitiated, Wanda's transformation from Avengers do-gooder to a venomously self-interested and mass murdering villain here won't make all that much sense beyond the Cliff Notes-esque referencing to what happened to her in WANDAVISION.  I think that evolving Olson's character in such a way is endlessly enthralling on a conceptual level, but it seems awkwardly shoehorned in here.  That, and viewers will require an intimate knowledge of the past comings and goings of this character in other media to make any sense of what's transpiring in DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS.  This might be the first solo MCU event film that almost requires a dense mythology road map being given out to audiences beforehand. 

Aside from forgetting the main star attraction of DOCTOR STRANGE (namely, Strange himself and his world) and its incessant need to prop up the weight of MCU bloat, the whole concept of a Marvel multiverse (that's being used as interconnective tissue in films as far ranging as SPIDER-MAN to now this) is a highly problematic one.  It gives writers/directors an opportunity to introduce key Marvel characters that have yet to appear in the MCU (granted, in fleeting and obnoxiously fan service-y ways), but it all but reduces the dramatic stakes in these films.  Characters die?  No problem.  Poof!  They can come back (in different forms).  Not happy with the actions of another character and the aftermath?  Bam!  Problem easily solved with multiverse tinkering.  This also has the calamitous effect of jettisoning the established mythology logic of the MCU as a whole and forces fans to ask more questions than they probably should, like, for instance, why didn't Thanos use some multiverse trekking to achieve his end game and secure total victory...and multiple times over?  Why not warn other Thanoses (not sure of the plural on that) of the Avenger's plot to stop him?  You can grow cross eyed at the thorny multiverse arcs to these films unavoidably can alter previous and future story trajectories and render moments of finality null and void.  It's almost like using time travel to easily solve rather complicated plot problems (oh wait, AVENGERS: ENDGAME already did that). 

Maybe I'm getting a tad ahead of myself here in my review of DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS.  I liked the concept here of magic users battling other more powerful magic users (especially ones that were once former allies now turned enemies) and Raimi's untapped imagination often does this sequel great service and makes it so memorably bonkers.  I'm also glad that attempts were made to give female characters something more to do here, albeit in - as mentioned - a misguided and hastily quick character transformation for Wanda (at least Olson gives it her performance all) and (not mentioned) a return for Rachel McAdams in a far meatier role and capacity.  There's also the appealing presence of Gomez as her very special reality segueing hero, but America is more of a plot device here than a fully realized character.  And unlike some of the assembly line aesthetic sameness of far too many MCU projects (which render many solid directors as workers for hire), in DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS you can really feel the filmmaker's sensibilities in the film (much like, say, what James Gunn brought to GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY).  But this DOCTOR STRANGE makes the cardinal mistake of so many tentpole blockbuster sequels in confusing more with better.  Instead of expanding upon the established lore and character trajectory of Strange himself, this sequel seems more obligated to be a MCU content generating machine to continue a mass marketed brand.  Rather mournfully, DOCTOR STRANGE has too many parties casting too many spells for its own good.  

  H O M E