The modern marvel sequel is as multi-armed as Doctor Strange casting a spell, and it’s just as complicated. Consider how many franchises are being continued in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.” It’s a sequel to “Doctor Strange,” albeit only barely if you haven’t seen the film. In that it alludes to action from both films and extrapolates somewhat on the universe-saving decision made by the title character in Endgame, it’s a sequel to “Avengers: Endgame” and “Spider-Man: No Way Home.”
With the exception of 2020, when it will be replaced by a new live action series called “Cloak & Dagger,” “WandaVision” is set to air on Disney+ for the next four years. It’s actually a sequel to “WandaVision,” Marvel’s first television show that explored greater aspects of the MCU. It may also be viewed as a prequel to Sam Raimi’s reign as one of the most awesome filmmakers ever. Perhaps because of these loyalties, “Multiverse of Madness” never establishes its own personality and depth.
It’s a Frankenmovie, a blockbuster made up of bits and pieces of other films, comic books, and television shows with the energy of a Marvel budget. After a tortuously long build-up, “Doctor Strange 2” gets some steam thanks to Raimi’s visual flair, but it quickly runs out. You can’t return to where you came from.
Dr. Stephen Strange is at Christine Palmer’s (Rachel McAdams) wedding when the street outside erupts in violence (although the fact that Michael Stuhlbarg’s name is on the poster for his single, early-movie scene at the wedding feels like an agent’s coup). America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) is being chased across dimensions by a huge octopus-like beast, causing havoc along the way.
Strange and Wong (Benedict Wong) rush to help the girl and learn that America is being sought for her ability to travel between alternate dimensions, but she can’t really control when she does so. Strange thinks witchcraft might be involved, which leads him to seek Wanda’s (Elizabeth Olsen) guidance, who is still reeling from the loss of her children on The End of Disney+ Show and under the spell of Raimi’s evil Darkhold book of malevolent spells that looks a lot like Necronomicon.
Wanda is willing to go to any extent necessary to live in a universe where she still has her children, which unleashes pandemonium for Strange, Wong, and America (although Vision’s presence isn’t mentioned) that involves Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a few classic characters, and well… some new faces with unfamiliar names.
There’s a sequence in “Multiverse of Madness” early on where Strange and America fly through alternate universes, including one that appears to be animated and another with their bodies made of paint. I was ecstatic. I thought Raimi and his crew were going to demolish the Marvel formula machine and create a live-action film that felt like “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” which seems impossible. Imagine if someone created a visual artist like Raimi with a modern MCU budget and complete creative freedom?
This movie isn’t interested in that sort of potential, so you’ll have to imagine it. “Multiverse of Madness” is a film that consistently resists its own possibilities. It has a story full of opportunities for creatively surprising viewers with new variations on the idea of a world with heroes in it and a director eager to explore those possibilities.
But it’s a clear example of a content machine fighting against its own self-interests because it’s afraid to alienate millions of potential viewers. Because these movies only pretend to be interested in being “weird” when they’re actually quite conventional, I find them all the more aggravating. Both “WandaVision” and “Loki” took greater creative risks. Significantly so.
That being said, the double-edged sword nature of this monster is made even more severe by the Sam Raimi who directed “Spider-Man 2” and “Evil Dead 2.” The final act begins with a character claiming he’s been ripped from his own multiverse, which implies there will be zombies involved.
There are a handful of creatively staged and carried out fight sequences in “Multiverse of Madness” that could only have been produced by the director of “Drag Me to Hell,” and they almost rescue the film from its own negligence. One simply wishes they weren’t so far apart, and that they weren’t trapped to a film that too often doesn’t know what to do with all that enthusiasm.
Rather of letting “Multiverse of Madness” take creative flight, the narrative obsesses over incredibly superficial character traits like Wanda’s grief, Strange’s unspoken love for Christine, or America’s uncertainty about her own abilities. These are not to be believed. The character arcs in this film are so incredibly flimsy that the performances suffer as a result.
While Cumberbatch is fine, he’s a victim of a film that is so plot-driven that he’s mostly just running from one CGI sequence to the next. And I’m looking forward to seeing what the alluring Gomez can do with a stronger character. Listen, I know MCU films aren’t always places for extensive character development—I’m just saying it’s even more limited here than usual, especially given how well Olsen performed in her last appearance. It’s disappointing to see her and the character take a step backwards rather than diving into themes about the show that bore her name.
By the time “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” was revealing its universe-bending sequences, I started to wonder if these CGI orgies are reaching their limit. There have been complaints about MCU characters who appear to exist simply for the sake of promoting the next film or TV series, but it feels like there’s a snake eating its own tail now. For me, at least, the enchantment has worn off.
Now showing in theaters worldwide and on some movie apps like Cinema HD V2
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)
as Dr. Stephen Strange / Sinister Strange / Defender Strange
as Wanda Maximoff / The Scarlet Witch
as Karl Mordo / Master Mordo
as Wong / Defender Wong
as America Chavez
as Dr. Christine Palmer
as Dr. Nicodemus West
as Billy Maximoff
as Tommy Maximoff
Writer (based on the Marvel comics by)
Movie rating: 4/5