In spite of my love of art house films, it should be no surprise that I am also a big fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films. I especially have a soft spot for Doctor Strange who I cosplayed as for the opening night of his first movie way back in 2016 (I’ve got pics somewhere if proof is needed) So, of course, I was ecstatic to get to review Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, especially knowing it was also Sam Raimi’s first film in nearly a decade. So, with this film already hitting a lot of the right buttons for me, I had to go in as blind as our connected world would let me, and it was certainly a journey I’m excited to share with you.
We find our hero Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), no longer the Sorcerer Supreme of Earth (thanks Thanos) and attending the wedding of the woman he loves…as she marries someone else. That is, until it is interrupted by a mystical tentacle monster chasing a teenager he saw in his dreams. Upon saving her, with help of the current Sorcerer Supreme Wong (Benedict Wong), he meets America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) who can travel through different dimensions due to her power she can’t control. Turns out that dream was actually his alternate self, trying to help her as well, and dying in the process. Sensing some powerful dark magics afoot he seeks the help of Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) to fight off this force, and protect America and her power. From there, I would need to get into spoilers to describe more, and this evil force…and its gonna be hard to get into this without it, so bear with me. The source of the evil and the way it plays out due to that I think is some of the biggest strengths of the story.
So let me get into what I can, which first of all has to be the direction. This film had some production hell as the writer/director team from the first film of C. Robert Cargill and Scott Derrickson were supposed to return for this movie and got far in the planning…until they found they weren’t on the same page as Marvel and stepped down. But their interest in a horror focused Doctor Strange lived on, and Marvel brought in horror legend Sam Raimi, and I gotta say in a lot of ways that is the best thing for this movie. There are a lot of people that like to say all Marvel Movies look and sound the same. This one doesn’t. This one feels so much like Raimi, and that is in all the very best ways. We get the great dutch angels, the crazy tracking shots, the extreme close ups, and some of the best horror atmosphere this side of a purely horror focused movie. One scene in particular stands out to me that is something of a possesion scene, but the way it is shot, and the effects used, just make it feel as wild and jarring to you as it is to the character. Mix that with some of the most creative uses of magic in the the Marvel Universe (the Sanctum Sanctorum fight in the 3rd act is just amazing) and I’m still thinking about it as I write this 4 days later. This is all brought together also with one of the best Marvel soundtracks thanks to Danny Elfman just going ham on it and knocking it out of the park. If nothing else it is a visually and audibly stunning adventure into worlds unknown.
But that does also lead to some flaws here. Biggest is that with these changes to creative team, evidently the script was still being finished as it was being made, and a lot of times that shows. There are big rumored, if not confirmed, cameos totally absent here. Even if some really fun, and well used ones, are still here, those omitted ones are noticed. And some scenes feel very jarring in how they transition from one segment to the next. Even if that next scene is stellar, it still takes a moment to adjust to it being where we are now before you can get into it. There is also some mixed use of America’s character as she can be quite good at humanizing Strange, but she also frequently is just there to be a mcuffin that someone has to try to keep from the bad guy. Its a shame with them being such an interesting character in the comics, but I also don’t know if it hurt the movie all that bad for me. Overall though, it does end up feeling rather uneven as a movie thanks to all this. I mean, we only seem to really go to a couple different multiverses, and there is just so much more that we could do with that. But I guess Marvel still has plenty of other characters we can explore those with later.
The performances though are generally good, but a few stand out. I think Cumberbatch does well with what he’s given, though it is clear he has Doctor Strange down and settles into his quips well. But when Strange gets to actually have to confront his flaws, and his failings in his life, Cumberbatch does bring a lot to the performance and we see him longing for what he’s lacking, and softening. I think America is big for that, and while I know some other colleagues disagree, I think they really are an important addition for that. Xochitl Gomez is an actress I didn’t know before this, and I think she brings all she can to this character. I hope we get more from her in the MCU because the character is so great in the comics, and this is just an average level introduction to them. Another character that humanizes Strange is his love interest Christine (Rachel McAdams) who we get to see in a few universes as the woman he an never be with. McAdams really brings it this time, and the script lets her actually get to do a lot for the first time, and I really loved getting that extra time with her here. The most important woman to the script though is of course Olsen as Wanda Maximoff, you don’t bring another Avenger in without making them critical. And I gotta say, what they did with her still hurting Endgame, and the further trauma of making and losing her family in Wandavision gives Olsen the most to work with as a performer here. She really shines here showing a mentally and emotionally broken woman who wants her children, and feels abandoned and lost to the world she inhabits. It is undoubtedly the best performance here and I think it drives the narrative with America and the Multiverse to have so much more body to it, and really makes for a conclusion that makes the movie. For its flaws, the character pieces work well, and hold together some of the weaker parts of the movie.
You know, I really want to rate this higher in my heart, because I had such a great time with it, and it is a solid film that I do really want to watch again. But it is also seriously flawed in a lot of ways, so I can’t really give it much higher than this 7.5. But that is to say that you still should really see it. It is probably better than any other Marvel character’s 2nd solo film, and it is a real breath of fresh air in style and concept.