Generally speaking, I find myself more excited for superhero sequels than origin films. Being a lifelong comic book fan, I am familiar with how most of the major characters gained their special abilities, and that’s the material typically covered faithfully in any big screen debut for a gifted, costumed vigilante. The follow-up movies, on the other hand, don’t have that burden. With introductions and key exposition out of the way, what remains is the opportunity for filmmakers to tell an original story that best utilizes the main protagonist and develops themes that move them forward.
Sam Raimi’s Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness had all the potential to do exactly that, but, as executed, it sees its major successes undermined by its faults: The blockbuster has a lot of fun with the multiverse as a concept, but those hoping to experience a lot of reality hopping “madness” may feel mislead by the promise in the title (the number of alternate timelines can be counted on a single hand). Benedict Cumberbatch’s magical eponymous hero is obviously well qualified for the spotlight in the sci-fi plot, and his abilities generate plenty of spectacle, but the film doesn’t ultimately provide the character with any kind of substantial arc or cover new ground emotionally. And while the movie finds a smart and fitting way to continue the story of Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda Maximoff a.k.a. Scarlet Witch after the events of WandaVision, it ends up fumbling her story significantly with a key narrative choice in the third act.
The Doctor Strange sequel is kick started with an introduction to America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a 14-year-old with the unique ability to open star-shaped portals that allow her to travel between layers of the multiverse. It’s a power that a dangerous and mysterious villain wishes to control, and America is continually hunted by giant monsters that have been sent to capture her.
Arriving in the world fans know as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, she is saved by Doctor Strange and Wong (Benedict Wong) from a one-eyed, tentacled goliath – and the two sorcerers become dedicated to helping her as soon as she tells them her story. Understanding what is at stake should a malevolent force be able to willfully travel through the multiverse, Strange realizes that Wanda Maximoff could be a vital asset in protecting America Chavez… but what he is unaware of is that she is still fragile following the death of Vision and the disappearance of the twin boys (Julian Hilliard, Jett Klyne) she magically conjured while in a state of extreme grief.
It's a wonderful thing to have Sam Raimi back in a director's chair.
What's unequivocally the best thing about Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness is that it's a comic book movie that has Sam Raimi's fingerprints all over it – which is evidenced right from the start with the gory conclusion to the alluded-to battle with the cyclops-esque octopus creature. Not only are the director’s gonzo sensibilities on full display, the movie taking delightful excursions into the macabre, but there are also his iconic flourishes in the cinematography and editing. When a door slams and the camera performs the signature simultaneous zoom and tilt, it’s cinematic magic that only Raimi can conjure.
There are unavoidable Marvel house style elements, particularly in the visual effects and costume design, but it’s not a detriment to Sam Raimi’s vision, and more than anything it just grounds the movie in the familiar Marvel Cinematic Universe and makes the director’s special touches pop to a greater extent. This is particularly effective when it comes to some excellent jump scares – which won’t give anyone nightmares, but will make you attain liftoff from your seat a few times.
Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness is neither as big nor as intimate as it feels it wants to be.
As much fun as Sam Raimi is having, however, Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness is frustrating when it comes to scale. It sets its stakes incredibly high, with the central antagonist threatening to destroy every iteration of reality – but that’s only something that is told to us and never really shown to us. It’s an issue that stems from the fact that the action in the movie is exclusively contained to two alternate universes outside the normal MCU timeline, never providing audiences with a proper, comprehensive exploration of the extreme variation in its central sci-fi concept.
There is one all-too-brief montage while America Chavez and Doctor Strange are hurtling through the multiverse that brilliantly illustrates the insanity that is possible… but then they land in a world where the principal aesthetic differences from our own are traffic lights being reversed (green means stop, red means go) and pizza being sold in balls instead of slices. This isn’t to say that this universe isn’t without surprises – as it actually packs many that will stun fans – but it’s also a bummer that the blockbuster spends so much time there after acknowledging that there exists a universe where everything is paint.
Xochitl Gomez’s America Chavez is a delight, and Elizabeth Olsen's Scarlet Witch steals the show.
The story being as contained as it is would feel less like wasted potential if there were more to the movie in the realm of character development for Doctor Strange, but that isn’t really accomplished. Not only does it repeat the same moral lesson for the hero from his first film (understanding that he isn’t the center of the universe), but there isn’t much perceptible change in him from the start of the narrative to the end. Benedict Cumberbatch remains an impressive and charismatic presence in the role, but his profile maintains a status quo as in the aftermath of Avengers: Endgame.
This leaves the door wide open for the ladies to steal the show from the eponymous lead. Thanks in large part to Xochitl Gomez’s plucky magnetism, America Chavez is a character destined for fan-favorite status, as her energy flows off the screen and stellar powers are matched with an emotional backstory.
Scarlet Witch, meanwhile, is given the terrific storyline she deserves in the wake of the events of WandaVision (a must-watch prior to Doctor Strange 2). It’s a powerful performance that is evoked from complex and passionate motivations from the character, and audiences around the world are going to drop their jaws when they witness the awesome extent of her powers. A disappointing story development at the end of the film does hamper what is otherwise brilliant material – but this spoiler-free review is not a proper forum for the commentary.
Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness is a movie that was still being written as it was in production, and you sense it when taking in the entire experience. It’s a cool collection of characters assembled in a plot that creates excellent opportunities for surprises – but it lacks cohesive themes that would elevate the material to being more than a fun ride. It’s an exciting new addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe canon, but not an exceptional one.
NJ native who calls LA home; lives in a Dreamatorium. A decade-plus CinemaBlend veteran; endlessly enthusiastic about the career he’s dreamt of since seventh grade.
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