Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
Benedict Cumberbatch returns as Doctor Strange in a goofy, inventive but unwieldy sequel directed by Sam Raimi
Not all superheroes in the MCU are born equal. Some are gods who can wield lightning or geniuses who fly around in tanked-up armour; others are grunts who throw around a large metal frisbee or are simply pretty good at archery. Certainly the most cinematic of the roster is Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). His ability to cast spells, reconfigure time and enter different planes of reality made Scott Derrickson's 2016 Doctor Strange one of the more visually arresting of the Marvel movies, and we’re pleased to report things have only gotten trippier and more cosmic with Sam Raimi behind the camera for this bigger, if more unwieldy, sequel.
The Evil Dead director’s take on Benedict Cumberbatch’s wizard is totally goofy, endlessly inventive and often makes no sense. The film's opening set piece involves a giant squid having its singular eyeball gouged out, and the B-movie nuttiness continues from there. The overstuffed plot involves Doctor Strange being taken on a kaleidoscopic adventure through the multiverse by young newcomer America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez). The teen has a propensity to tumble haphazardly into alternative universes whenever she’s under stress; she must have been a nightmare during her universe’s equivalent of GCSEs. For Chavez it’s a curse, which is explained in a tragic backstory that will surely be explored further in some other Marvel product. It’s an ability that others covet, however. After all, those who’ve suffered pain and disappointment in their reality can simply move on to one of the infinite others where things have gone more smoothly.
That’s certainly the feeling of Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda Maximoff (aka the Scarlet Witch), who’s suffered more heartbreak than your average Avenger, although you’ll need to have seen Disney+ show WandaVision as well as several other MCU films to piece together exactly why she’s hell-bent on getting hold of America's powers. Wanda’s own excuse for her rapid about-face in personality and temperament is “I’m not a monster, I’m a mother”. As excuses for murderous rampages go, it’s pretty weak.
The good news is that Raimi doesn’t give you a second to take in how deeply flawed and offensive it is to turn a woman's childless existence into a supervillain origin story. He’s more interested in moving on to the next wild setpiece, many of which riff on his own back catalogue (particularly the gonzo horror-slapstick of the Evil Dead trilogy and Drag Me to Hell). Raimi’s talismanic favourite actor also makes a delightful appearance.
Unlike the labyrinth of plot points and character arcs of the MCU, viewers don’t have to have seen every Sam Raimi film to enjoy the carnage he puts on screen, but doing the homework would certainly enhance the experience. On a purely visual level, the Multiverse of Madness is a delight. A glimpse of a universe where people are rendered as dancing swirls of paint, a shot of a teacup in which a typhoon is raging and an unholy union between a decaying corpse and a gaggle of demons are among the standout images.
Martin Scorsese once contentiously described Marvel films as fairground rides, rather than cinema. That would be a fair description of Multiverse of Madness. For all the moral, metaphysical and existential questioning the film throws into the mix, there’s little to mull over as the credits roll. MCU-heads will more likely be excitedly discussing the litany of fan-service cameos by Marvel heroes from the past, present and possibly future that Doctor Strange and America encounter on their jumps between universes. For others, it’ll be Raimi’s sharp visual sense that lingers longest. In an alternative reality, maybe Raimi is making an original blockbuster feature, rather than crowbarring his wild style into the Marvel machine. But as the characters in Multiverse of Madness discover, sometimes you have to make the best of your current reality.