At the risk of being a hypocrite, the timing seems off for Sam Raimi’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Marvel Studios, and through no small feat of maneuvering, Sony, have seen fit to include Dr. Steven Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) in several films recently; almost as if the character has a recurring supporting role in a multi-character arc. Seeing Doctor Strange in this film felt as if the character means more to this universe than was originally implied when the character was introduced in 2016’s Doctor Strange.
It is, however, true. Marvel Studios is meticulous when threading its characters throughout the films and television series. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness finds itself centered as a Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) movie than Doctor Strange. Now, I confess to being a bit lost in her character’s motives in this film because I haven’t tuned into WandaVision. However, there is enough in the story for me to have empathy with Wanda’s primary motivation – that of connecting with family, a theme that strangely seems to be a commonality throughout the MCU. Here, it somehow manages to ring hollow.
Michael Waldron’s script is bumpy as Doctor Strange becomes involved in protecting the multiverse-hopping America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) from Wanda. Cumberbatch and Gomez are a strong pair on screen from the opening frame. Cumberbatch’s gift as an actor is that his child-like qualities make him relatable, while his foreboding nature intimates danger. The pre-title act exemplifies this. Sure, a colorful cacophony creates a distraction from a ponytailed Doctor Strange and the young America Chavez. It is with purpose, but that cacophony is over-amplified.
Sam Raimi returns to the super-hero director’s chair for the first time since Spider-Man 3 in 2007 and his first feature since Oz the Great and Powerful in 2013. Throughout the film, Raimi’s horror influence is felt with homages to Evil Dead and Darkman amongst others. (Do try to stay through all of the credits.) The film is dark and stretches the limit of its PG-13 rating, so it is not entirely for the young or perhaps even the young at heart. Tonally, the story competes with Marvel and even Disney’s legacy-making for an uneven pace to the story.
Along with the relationship between Strange and America, Waldron and Raimi dot the film with moments that even put a smile on my face, aided by Danny Elfman’s terrific score. Wanda is intent on obtaining Darkhold, becoming the Scarlet Witch. Olsen is menacing but hardly threatening; as mentioned earlier, the motives rob her of a threatening posture. Still, the story frames her as the film’s centerpiece rather than Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness being its lead character.
Benedict Wong returns as Wong, Strange’s mentor. Wong, the actor, has a unique range about him. He can be enigmatic in one moment and fierce in the next, but the actor and the character always have a smile on their respective faces, giving a sense of positivity in an oppressive story.
Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness’s story is littered with connective dots throughout the Marvel Universe. I felt like I was watching a bridge story between WandaVision and whatever comes next and that I needed a Ph.D. in Marvel-ese to truly appreciate the story. I don’t want to put it down entirely, though. Raimi has some nice hat tricks up his sleeve, Cumberbatch reminds us why he’s worthy of this role, and America Chavez’s story resonated with me. There are cameos galore that I appreciated, and while welcome, overstuff the story. You could say that the story elements ripple like the consequences of the characters’ actions and that in itself is problematic.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
Directed by Sam Raimi
Written by Michael Waldron, based on ‘Marvel Comics’
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen, Chiwetel Eijofor, Benedict Wong, Xochitl Gomez, Michael Stuhlbarg, Rachel McAdams
PG-13/126 mins/Walt Disney, Marvel Studios