What can one even say about Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness? This is the 28th movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and going forward, the MCU should really be called the MCM since it becomes the Marvel Cinematic Multiverse with this disappointing sequel.
While Benedict Cumberbatch, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Michael Stuhlbarg return from the first film, there’s a new director at the helm of this horror-tinged sequel — Sam Raimi, who hasn’t directed a movie since 2013’s Oz the Great and Powerful and seems to have allowed his finger to slip off the pulse of late. Raimi’s first two Spider-Man movies are among the better examples of this genre, and I’ll always love the Liam Neeson movie Darkman, which is the property that the filmmaker should really be revisiting, but his work feels a bit creaky here.
Of course, a director can only shoot the script he’s given, and this one is dumb beyond words. The first film was written by director Scott Derrickson and his close collaborator C. Robert Cargill, but this asinine sequel hails from TV writer Michael Waldron (Loki), whose lack of feature experience shows a bit here. You can tell this script was rushed and pieced together after going through multiple writers’ hands, which is why more extensive reshoots were eventually required.
One big problem, for starters, is that audiences really need to enter the theater having already done their homework, i.e. watch WandaVision on Disney+. Just about every other critic has mentioned this, but I want to quote one in particular who is much smarter than I.
Vulture’s Angelica Jade Bastién wrote that you “would need to watch [WandaVision] to get what the hell is going on here.” Well, I never finished watching WandaVision, and she’s right — I had no idea what the hell was going on here. What is this movie ostensibly about? Motherhood. See, in WandaVision, Olsen’s Wanda Maximoff uses her Scarlet Witch powers to create an artificial reality in which Vision survives and the two of them live together in a sitcom-perfect suburb with their twin boys. So this movie is just about a Mom wanting to spend time with her kids. Isn’t that sweet?
What else does Wanda want? To steal the power of America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a young girl who has the ability to travel through the multiverse, though she lacks any ability to control it. As for Doctor Strange, he wants to prevent Wanda from destroying the multiverse in her quest to get her hands on some ancient glowing book of sinful spells called the Darkhold. I can’t even pretend that I don’t find all of this incredibly stupid… and worse, not remotely scary.
There are some inspired ideas here — in one universe, Strange and Chavez exist simply as colorful paint — and I appreciated both the cinematography from John Mathieson and the inventive visual effects, but there simply isn’t enough “madness” on display here, and like nearly every recent comic book movie besides The Batman, this one is chock-full of bright lights and things that glow. Glowing hands, glowing eyes, glowing books. This movie truly has it all, so if you love glowing lights, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness can’t be beat.
On the acting front, Cumberbatch and Olsen are two of the MCU’s most unlikely stars, in the sense that both of them are proper thespians. Olsen has thrived in thoughtful indie movies such as Martha Marcy May Marlene, Ingrid Goes West, and Wind River, while Cumberbatch is a gifted character actor who has been thrust into the role of a commercial leading man due to a shortage throughout the industry. Both of them look so bored and bewildered here, you can almost see them imagining the new vacation home they’re going to buy while they wave their hands around and scowl at each other. Even 12 Years a Slave star Ejiofor, another proper thespian, feels like he’s phoning it in.
As for McAdams, she’s saddled with an unfortunate red dye job for the bulk of the running time, during which she’s also given the short end of the stick with Olsen’s Wanda being positioned as the sequel’s female lead. There is something of a love story that exists between her and Strange, but it serves as the C-plot of this movie and gets lost (along with anything resembling human emotions) in a sea of VFX wizardry. Elsewhere among legacy characters, the lively Wong gets some fun screen time, while Stuhlbarg is thoroughly wasted in what amounts to a cameo appearance.
Meanwhile, Gomez delivers a couple of decent one-liners, but America Chavez simply did not cut it for me as a character. This movie should’ve started with an introduction of her character considering how important America is to this film, and, I imagine, the future of the MCU. Black Panther had a great framing device that invested you in its characters. This movie opens with America and Doctor Strange in the middle of an action sequence and it’s a poor decision, as not everything has to start with a bang.
Regarding the cameos you’ve surely heard about if you’re clicking on this review, I actually perked up during the film’s Illuminati sequence. I won’t give away any spoilers in this space, but suffice to say, Marvel is paying attention to Twitter and the MCU’s fan service has officially gotten out of hand.
One cameo I don’t mind discussing, though, since it was surely expected by Raimi fans, is that of the director’s Evil Dead hero Bruce Campbell. While it’s always great to see Campbell on the big screen, the nature of his cameo is a good example of how the tone of this movie is all over the place. Regardless of what genre Multiverse of Madness is going for, be it horror, comedy, or action, all of it is — and I can’t believe I’m saying this given the admittedly impressive visuals — incredibly generic. How many times can the camera zoom in and out of someone’s eyeball? I don’t know if there are more eyeballs in this movie or Everything Everywhere All at Once, which, I should add, did the whole multiverse thing about 100 times better and for a fraction of the cost.
Honestly, this might be the beginning of the end for the MCU, or maybe it was Eternals. Sure, every few years a movie like Iron Man or The Avengers or Guardians of the Galaxy or Black Panther or Spider-Man: No Way Home will come along, but this stuff is getting s-t-a-l-e. And I think Kevin Feige knows it, too. How long is he going to keep doing this? I mean, are we really excited for a fourth Thor movie and a Black Panther sequel without the real Black Panther? I think once Feige gets Blade, Fantastic Four, and X-Men off the ground, he’ll walk off into the sunset. Maybe around Year 20.
You may be asking yourself, why would he? After all, Marvel is beyond criticism given its unprecedented box office success. He has the best job in Hollywood. But I suspect that Feige is getting ready for a new challenge, as this movie is just another link in an endless chain. Some links are stronger than others and next to Thor: The Dark World, this is the weakest link. I wish it was “goodbye,” but alas, “Doctor Strange Will Return.” Whether that’s a promise or a threat is in the Eye of Agamotto. I just wish Feige would hire someone to make a Marvel movie who didn’t read a single Marvel comic book growing up, and was simply focused on making a good movie first and a good comic book movie second, rather than the other way around. Because the magic of these movies is wearing thin, and Marvel’s upcoming flood of Disney+ shows will only exacerbate that growing problem.
Naturally, stay through the credits for two bonus scenes, one that comes mid-credits and sees a major star joining the MCU, and another that features a callback to something earlier in the film. It’s a strange button to end on, but then again, that’s what you signed up for.
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