** out of ****
(for intense sequences of violence and action, frightening images and some language)
Released: May 6, 2022
Runtime: 126 minutes
Directed by: Sam Raimi
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen, Xochitl Gomez, Benedict Wong, Rachel McAdams, Chiwetel Ejiofor
After various tears were breached in the Marvel multiverse – from Spider-Man: No Way Home to various streaming series on Disney+ – Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness held the promise of ripping it wide open. It does…kinda sorta…but not really.
More of an inconsequential tangent than a post-Avengers Phase 4 redefining moment, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness lives up to its title with a lot of spectacle and borderline horror (its scares and shocks could disturb and haunt younger viewers), but if you decided to skip this latest Marvel entry, well, you really wouldn’t be missing much in the grander scheme of the MCU.
There’s something refreshing about a having a largely stand-alone effort (at least in theory), and it’s nice to know that if you haven’t invested any time into the litany of Disney+ Marvel series you won’t be lost (I haven’t, so I can speak from experience). Indeed, everything here is cleanly contextualized so that even the most casual fans won’t miss a beat.
Nevertheless, outside of serving as a feature-length coda for WandaVision (from what I gather), this Multiverse of Madness is absolutely pointless.
You know how soap operas have their own language, tone, and dialed-up sensibility? Comics do, too, and it’s hard to take either seriously. Some comic book movies have transcended those extravagant absurdities with admirable, sophisticated ambition, but most don’t.
Multiverse of Madness embraces the genre’s tropes unapologetically, playing out like a superhero melodrama that talks in overly-serious or dramatically heightened tones about destructive mystical powers (i.e. dream-walks and incursions), magical artifacts (like the Book of Vishanti and Darkholds) and a bunch of sorcery mumbo jumbo – all while dressed in silly costumes, delivering one-liners, and making the occasional wisecrack. If that’s your thing (and for many, it is), then great. If not, this madness won’t win you over.
Sure enough, there’s applause-triggering fan service, too, but it’s not nearly as meaningful as what fans experienced in Spider-Man: No Way Home, which was about as thoughtful and rewarding as audience-pandering gets. Here, the Marvel morsels being handed out are cheap, even cynical, especially when you see what they do with them.
Director Sam Raimi (who helmed the original Spider-Man trilogy and now makes his first foray into the MCU) gives it all a clarity of vision that elevates the material, all while leaning gleefully into his own horror roots (Evil Dead, and others), but Marvel doesn’t give him the thematic or narrative freedom granted other auteurs like Ryan Coogler (Black Panther) or Chloe Zhao (Eternals).
The third act climax swings wildly from hokey to demonic and back to hokey again, even as Benedict Cumberbatch continues to do his level-best at selling it. Elizabeth Olsen doesn’t fare as well, though, never quite able to authenticate the required mix of cold psychosis and tragic pathos. She’s too mannered, though that feels by design. This is populist entertainment, not an indie character study.
Then there’s the requisite end-credit bonus that, per its ilk, basically teases you with an unexpected surprise that effectively says, “Hey, you know all that stuff you just watched for two hours? Yeah, well, forget all that and start theorizing about this!”
And on and on the Marvel madness goes.
For all the labyrinth plotting, fandom teasing, and VFX sturm und drang, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness will make its bank and then be quickly forgotten. To the extent that it endures, Strange (or someone else) in a future Marvel movie will probably make some passing quip about what transpired here, and the audience (of course) will have a good chuckle at the reference, but that’ll be about it.