The overall success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe can be partly credited to the fact that its movies’ predictable narratives and formulas are arguably key to their consistency in terms of entertainment. Audiences at this point know what to expect from these interconnected stories featuring heroes and villains. Though they’re also greeted with just enough surprise via each installment to stay engaged. The whole thing still works and it’s really a good bit of fun. But there is a finite number of effective variations these directors and producers can take on a single formula, as well as superhero movies at large, which is probably why many of these films inside and outside of the MCU have been starting to blend into one another. What was once familiar and comforting in its own spectacular fashion is in danger of being more repetitive and hollow. Perhaps a doctor can cure what ails the genre?
Sam Raimi’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is, at least in some ways, a defiant, bold swing against the same-y Marvel films of old. It’s one of the rare times a Marvel film fully incorporates the director’s signature style far more than it compromises, and this is in true regard to Raimi’s prolific contribution to the horror genre. Not just horror, but the weird Evil Dead franchise horror that helped reinvent cult films in the last century, triumphantly showcasing in the big May superhero release from Disney. The problem is that some of these weird places the film goes to aren’t exactly the ideal ones.
Yes, the movie is technically a sequel to 2016’s Doctor Strange (Scott Derrickson also returns, this time as an executive producer). But as expected, this is a film doing double duty as both a follow-up to Strange’s narrative thread from his origin story and all the recent event films, from the era-defining Avengers sequels to the more recent Spider-Man: No Way Home. In fact, it does triple duty in that respect by essentially picking up where WandaVision left off, solidifying the studio’s commitment to actual weight being lended to its Disney+ shows. Like its unwieldy title, this is a complicated time to be had at the movies.
Unlike a film like Captain America: Civil War, it wouldn’t be fair or accurate to label this an unofficial “Avengers” movie. This is still very much a movie grounded on its titular character, first and foremost, presenting Stephen Strange with the unexpected moral consequences of his actions to protect humanity in the previous Avengers films. Like Tony Stark was haunted by his decisions in Age of Ultron, Strange is perpetually conflicted about his role in Infinity War. His moral crisis is put to the test even further when he collides with America Chávez (Xochitl Gómez), a mysterious multiversal traveler who is on the run from a great evil trying to extract her power.
Benedict Cumberbatch continues to relish his smug, yet even-keeled take on the comic book character, while Gómez makes a charming debut in the MCU as a promising new character with intriguing potential. But the film is truly anchored by Elizabeth Olsen’s stellar performance as Wanda Maximoff, AKA the Scarlet Witch, one of the most striking in her career. As expected from the multiversal nature of the movie, there are plenty of too-crucial-to-spoil surprises the plot has to offer, however, the biggest surprise in Multiverse of Madness is in how it fully embraces Sam Raimi’s dynamic, dramatic tone as a filmmaker.
Giving creative liberties to directors is not new for the MCU. The franchise is familiar with honing the irreverence of James Gunn and the cheekiness of Taika Waititi. Chloe Zhao’s trademarks can be seen all over Eternals, for better or worse. But these auteur flourishes are often sidelined by the standard MCU traits brought forward. Until now. Raimi’s trademarks are everywhere in Multiverse of Madness, from the quick cuts and facial close-ups to the tilted cameras and blurred motion transitions.
The film is probably at its best on a technical level when infusing horror elements into the narrative using strange creatures, weird practical effects, and a brutal level of gore and violence the MCU has never been this fearless to touch. The film didn’t feel like Raimi adapting to the MCU, but the MCU adapting to Raimi. This level of creative liberty is a welcomed one, and it opens the door to different, inventive storytellers who might be able to more thoroughly add their own flair to the genre, which is exciting in and of itself.
Much like its predecessor, the film is a visual spectacle machine. This installment rightfully moves on from the kaleidoscopic set pieces that were the signature of Doctor Strange, evolving with the addition of surrealist paintings, Rorschach inkblots, and even solarpunk comic books. The film, as the title implies, gets to show off multiple universes, lending unique identities to each one, hinting at even more stories to come.
However, all of this visual wonder is often undermined by the awkwardly structured script. Some of the dialogue, especially the humor, clashes wildly with the otherwise fresh tone. Light and witty banter has always been an MCU staple, but the weight of the multiverse balanced against monster movie violence just doesn’t match this approach as gracefully as hoped.
The added lore, of which there are volumes, is mostly under-explained and easy to roll an eye at. But the relentless pacing is really where this film threatens to lose its audience, opting for a constantly engaging film on one hand, but sacrificing effective development for the characters and their relationships to one another, as well as the overall stakes. It’s quite odd for an event film with threats this existentially extreme to often seem small. Additionally, even Marvel super fans might have a hard time getting invested into all the small details and references the film throws at the wall, hoping something is going to stick.
Still, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is one of Marvel’s boldest gambles yet. Probably because it’s one of the first of these MCU movies to confidently proclaim itself as something it isn’t really for everyone, especially younger audiences. That’s good news for a narrow portion of the fandom that has been craving something far riskier from the studio, especially at this level of visual style. It’s just a shame that there’s not as much substance to be found underneath it.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness opens in theaters May 6. Watch the trailer here.