Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a wild ride and visual triumph from director Sam Raimi, who returns to Marvel characters with the film after helming the original Spider Man trilogy. While Raimi thrives in the multiverse sandbox and the cast is clearly having fun, there’s a disappointing element to the film’s storyline that keeps him from the upper echelons of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Multiverse of Madness surprises Stephen Strange on a bad day, attending the wedding of his former lover Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) as a guest. His soul-searching is turned upside down by the arrival of America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a reality-hopping teenager on the run from a nefarious force that wants to steal her ability to cross the multiverse. Strange, Wong (Benedict Wong) and their magical allies swear to protect her, but Strange’s attempts to recruit former Avenger Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) reveal that She is the nefarious force in question. Wanda seeks to take over America to find a reality where she can be reunited with the Sons who ceased to exist at the end of Wanda Visionthe consequences be cursed.
Breaking down the plot any further would spoil a movie that relies on surprise to great effect. Multiverse of Madness is, in essence, the MCU’s first official horror film – with Sam Raimi pulling out all the stops, especially in an extended second-act sequence that genuinely pushes the PG-13 rating at times. This is the part of the film that Raimi excels at, imbuing Strange and America’s journey with a mix of schlock horror movie techniques and psychedelic imagery straight from the comics that easily elevate this film visually. at the top of the MCU. There’s a looseness to Raimi’s version of the magic that embraces a weird, infectious sense of fun – with literal musical combat that’s arguably a highlight of the genre, let alone franchise.
The problems with Multiverse of Madness aren’t with the direction – and it’s not the acting either, although there are some highlights. While Cumberbatch and Wong are fun enough, the movie really thrives on Gomez and Olsen. The former is fun and instantly endearing, even though the character of America herself transitions from period to period being a standard “young person discovering the true strength was within them from the start” archetype and a McGuffin, thanks to his absolute power. Meanwhile, Olsen is a powerhouse, going from terrifying to tragic and back again in moments. He’s a really interesting figure in the film, committing monstrous acts and never seeking redemption or understanding, but with an emphatic pain and fury that Olsen does a wonderful job with.
The problem is that Wanda’s character arc – and several other character arcs, for that matter – are ultimately rushed. The movie finds time to insert plenty of deep comic book references and tease important potential future storylines, and it even does a solid job of justifying all those Easter eggs. This comes at the cost of valuable emotional beats for the characters, however. Strange’s attempts to juggle his responsibilities with his own emotional state, the American arc and particularly Wanda’s transformation from Avenger to grieving wife to villain is glossed over at times. The film is almost commendable for jumping straight into the action and engaging with an idea of Wanda and what she has become, but it lacks steps along the way that could have fleshed it out a bit more. and help him land better.
The film’s screenwriter, Michael Waldron, who also wrote the screenplays for Loki, moves the story forward at a fast and thrilling pace, and the film is just over two hours long. While the individual moments all work, there’s a lack of cohesion in the emotional lines, and that means some characters end up being pulled from the plot for long stretches (especially America) or not getting the full emotional development to make their biggest decisions really land as hard as they could. It gives the film more room for Sam Raimi’s brand of bonkers Marvel imagery to become the selling point, and it does a very solid job, but it’s disappointing, given Waldron’s strong emotional work in Loki and other properties like heels.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness isn’t a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination, and in the somewhat mixed bag that is Phase 4, it manages to hold its own well. It’s easily one of the most colorful, mature, and interesting MCU films, and goes a long way in setting up stories for the next decade. There’s real ambition here — but the script (as with Eternals) can’t quite parse out all the bizarre action to keep the character’s drama as the film’s beating heart.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness hits theaters on May 6.
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