Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know that Doctor Strange 2 has been on everyone’s minds for the past year. From the startling return of Sam Raimi to the superhero genre, promising to crank his iconic flavour of horror, to the continual rumours and possible leaks of a cavalcade of cameos, there has been a constant news cycle. With Cumberbatch facing off against Olsen, a most tantalising proposition, Multiverse of Madness seemed poised to give us a darker chapter of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
There is undoubtedly a tiny turn to Marvel’s dark side, in no small part from the influence of Raimi, but it’s nothing that justifies the conversations around a potential 15 rating. The horror found in Multiverse of Madness is similar in tone to that of Joe Dante’s Gremlins or James Watkins’ The Woman in Black. There’s more implicit dread than there is explicit gore or grotesque imagery. In fact, I could argue that Infinity War takes the crown for the most violent chapter, given the blunt violence of Loki’s snapped neck and the cranial mutilation of Vision.
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There has been a long-standing concern of the MCU taking visually distinct directors and blending them into their factory-style production, but fortunately, Sam Raimi’s aesthetic is all over Multiverse of Madness. Chaotic whip-pans and extreme zoom-ins into bloody eyes and fractured glass embody the iconic cinematic frenzy that the director is known for on Evil Dead and Drag Me to Hell. It’s Raimi’s understanding of horror that provides this multiversal sequel with its greatest associations to the genre. Without sounding too cliché, from an aesthetic point of view, this certainly feels like a Marvel Studios film with a Sam Raimi coat of paint.
However, the same can’t be said for its script. While Raimi has clearly designed this train, he doesn’t have much say in where it’s going. Despite continuing the Scarlet Witch’s story of loss and desperation from WandaVision, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness feels somewhat toothless and overly compromised in how it deals with one of its more pronounced heroes-turned-villains. It’s eminently clear that Strange, and perhaps no one else, is a match for the chaotic power of the Scarlet Witch. Thus writer Michael Waldron appears to have tangled himself up in providing a cathartic conclusion or even continuation of her story. Their lack of commitment to elevating Wanda to the tragically villainous powerhouse she could be is heavily disappointing, building up this jagged tale of how the self-destructive nature of grief can turn us wicked, without us even knowing, only to bring it crashing down around her.
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Likewise, it’s difficult to say what the story arc is for many of its characters, including Strange himself. Multiverse of Madness suffers from the paradox of feeling both far too big and yet too small at the same time. The overly simplistic story is ironic considering the chaotic instability of its promised multiversal madness. The brief multiversal encounters feel like pandering fan service, and while some have applauded Raimi’s “middle finger to fan service,” how is this a middle finger? Given that one of the cameos is a literal surrender from Marvel Studios to the desires of fan-casting, it’s confusing to see how this is a willful subversion. Given Sam Raimi’s lack of prior knowledge of the MCU, having only seen six films – and I don’t blame you, Sam – do people genuinely believe the Illuminati sequence is anything but a studio mandate?
This isn’t to completely debase the merits of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Xochitl Gomez’s introduction as America Chavez is darling, an absolute sweetheart to the MCU who will undoubtedly become an adored character, just like the actress herself. Meanwhile, Gomez’s Chavez is one of the few characters to get a clear story arc as she learns to traverse the multiverse with Strange as her impromptu teacher, learning to trust despite her past. Likewise, Elizabeth Olsen is the undeniable powerhouse of this film, consolidating the richly nuanced, emotionally complicated Wanda we saw at the end of WandaVision. Olsen is genuinely one of the best players in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Her ability to tap into the tortured psyche of Wanda, defending her corner so passionately, shines through Multiverse of Madness, and her dedication to the character is evident.
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Ultimately, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness doesn’t feel all that mad, nor is it incredibly multiversal. Instead, we find ourselves with a somewhat simplistic script saved by the two-hander of a brilliantly creative director and a dazzlingly magnificent actress. Without Raimi and Olsen, it’s possible that Multiverse of Madness would have been one of Marvel’s first significant missteps – fortunately, their movie magic saves the Multiverse of Madness from mediocrity.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness doesn’t feel all that mad, nor is it incredibly multiversal. Instead, we find ourselves with a somewhat simplistic script saved by the two-hander of a brilliantly creative director and a dazzlingly magnificent actress.