In a Marvel Cinematic Universe where Iron Man and Captain America are both gone, and newer, younger stars appear to be coming to take their place, Doctor Strange seems like a character a bit in limbo. Not recent enough for the arc of Phase One, but a bit hackneyed to realistically be a part of Phase Four. The first Doctor Strange film was in 2016, and since then, the character has been secondary in Thor: Ragnarok and Spider-Man: No Way Home, as well as the last two Avengers features. There’s something a disconcerting about how crucial Strange has been to the plot of those movies while tonally feeling like a complete outlier. You can’t help but feel like the film’s star, Benedict Cumberbatch, is very aware that there is much better material that he could be chewing into.
So it makes sense that Multiverse of Madness has almost no participation from outside Avengers. The one exception is Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), who is called upon as a friend but turns into the film’s main villain. Their fight is over America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a teenager who has the ability to travel in between alternate universes but lacks the ability to control it. This is classic MCU plotting, close the loop on one character, extend it on another, while introducing yet another that will move into the next cycle in upcoming stories. It’s a carrot-and-stick formula that has made Disney ungodly amounts of money and has led to the producing of less and less interesting movies. The payoff no longer hinges on creativity or narrative panache, but what you can promise us in the next installment.
At this point, Marvel is not a production company but an overstuffed TV studio producing feature length episodes, and Kevin Feige is the showrunner. Even when talented filmmakers are brought aboard (Taika Waititi, Chloé Zhao), their style is often boxed into the needs and demands of Feige’s empire. Stories abound of reshoots required because of plot adjustments in other movies. The project is undeniably successful in and of itself, but it has transformed the way we consume movies and has monopolized screens and eyeballs in a way that puts no pressure on Feige and his directors to make anything substantial. Multiverse of Madness brings on director Sam Raimi, a veteran filmmaker whose Spider-Man films of the 00s predates MCU but spiritually relates to them, and while he finds room to have some fun, even he becomes consumed.
Raimi was a successful director for decades before his 2002 Spider-Man, and his films (Evil Dead, Darkman, The Quick and the Dead) have a near-camp goofiness that Marvel has all but abandoned for treacly sincerity. You’ll be surprised by how much Multiverse of Madness allows Raimi to channel his comedy-horror schtick, but it’s only in shimmers that do little but remind you what these films could be like if their directors were allowed to take real chances. As it stands, what we have here is a movie that uses cameos from other minor Marvel characters as a crutch for a not-very-compelling story. I’ll leave this spoiler free (though I’m sure everyone has already seen it), but the hook of this movie seems to be that it will make Marvel fans jump out of their seat and point at the screen like the Leonardo DiCaprio meme.
America Chavez – a character meant to eventually become Miss America – is the crux of the plot here. Her power to hop through the multiverse is coveted by many, but mostly by Wanda, who wants to harvest it to transfer herself into a world of domestic bliss, with two sons in an idyllic suburban home. In her universe, she is the malevolent Scarlett Witch but she dreams of the universe she wants to exist in, one she tried and failed to create for herself with magic. Strange wants to protect America from Wanda and everyone else who wishes to get her, but he also has his own personal hangups to deal with, including his former love, Christine (Rachel McAdams), marrying another man. It’s at Christine’s wedding that Strange discovers America Chavez when she is fighting off a giant one-eyed, eight-tentacled monster in the middle of Manhattan. With the help of his friend and mentor, Wong (Benedict Wong), Strange attempts to fight off Wanda before falling into a separate universe where they hope to buy time until she strikes again.
Olsen’s Wanda/Scarlett Witch is easily the film’s star, creating a villain that is more legitimately scary than most MCU baddies while still able to keep Wanda’s sympathetic background story intact. This is a continuation of the limited Disney+ series Wandavision (which I have not seen because there is not enough time in the day to commit so much of it to Marvel), a massive hit which contextualized the character’s grief and trauma. Multiverse of Madness‘s decision to use that to further entrench Wanda as a villain outside of the show is the movie’s best narrative feature. Olsen is an actress whose brilliance was apparent since her breakout in 2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene. I will openly quibble that her role in the Marvel films are the best thing for her and her career, but she does have the goods to make this part much more than it could have been in less talented hands.
I’m a big Cumberbatch fan. His performance in last year’s The Power of the Dog reached depths I didn’t know he could reach, and I was already a great admirer. He doesn’t seem to be having much fun here, entrapped in contractual purgatory when he’s already proven to be viable in other vehicles. That may be why Multiverse of Madness feels so flat despite Raimi putting forth a good effort and his co-star, Olsen, proving her movie star bonafides. The MCU is becoming more and more isolated, rewarding only the audiences who consume every minute of their expansive library. Its an arrogant assumption and one that’s depressing if you’re interested in a varied, diverse movie landscape.
Directed by Sam Raimi