Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness : Review
There’s no question: Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man trilogy laid the groundwork for what is now the unstoppable Marvel Cinematic Universe. He firmly established the aesthetic of the likable, flawed hero and the journey undertaken which teaches valuable lessons about who they are, even if those lessons come at a cost. Up to 2002, much of what we saw in the way of filmed comic book adaptations consisted mostly of righteous, hard-bodied men dishing out justice as they saw fit.
Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy showed that we didn’t need rippling biceps, vast technology, or gobs of disposable cash to be a hero. All you needed was the will to do the right thing… and having secret superpowers didn’t hurt, either. 20 years since Tobey Maguire starred in Spider-Man and 15 years after the concluding chapter in the trilogy was released, Raimi once again comes back to the Marvel fold with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, a film that could ask for no finer director.
Michael Waldron’s script plays right into Raimi’s wheelhouse, and the result is a mind-blowing visual powerhouse bearing his own inimitable style. Fast zooms punching in on their subjects, Dutch camera angles filling the viewer with unsettling dread, and – of course – mirthfully making his lead actors endure all manner of physical abuse (like the kind he inflicted on Bruce Campbell in the Evil Dead films)… this movie was made for Raimi, and he for it.
He also brings in frequent collaborator and prolific composer Danny Elfman for their collective first entry into the MCU. (Let’s not forget that he did the scores for Raimi’s Spider-Man and its first sequel, along with Ang Lee’s Hulk and other comic book adaptations, most notably Tim Burton’s Batman.) Elfman’s recognizable leitmotifs and instrumental arrangements effectively swirl around the onscreen action and meld with it to become its own character, adding elegant and muscular oomph to battle sequences or eeriness to the film’s more horror-esque passages.
Make no mistake – some of the imagery Raimi brings to bear upon his unique MCU installment is right out of his older oeuvre (read: some of the visual effects might be too intense for younger viewers). Waldron’s script goes further into the world of magic and all the things it can touch, including astral mind control, gigantic monstrosities, and necromancy. This is where Raimi’s seated comfortably, controlling the marionette strings and flinging characters with reckless abandon from one side of the frame to the other.
It’s a perfect film for this Raimi staple, seeing how nothing and no one are bound by laws of physics or reality. When a film opens up in the space between alternate realities and two humans are escaping from a tentacled beast, the only thing you can do is hold onto your theater armrests, ‘cause it’s gonna be quite a ride. The film rarely stops to let us catch our breath by plying us with relentless action and pivotal dialogue which doesn’t leave room for banalities or throwaway moments.
Anchoring this spectacular fantasy is the ever-reliable Benedict Cumberbatch, returning for his sixth outing (but his only his second eponymous film) as Dr. Stephen Strange. The character is still in his nascent stage, no matter how advanced in the magical arts he might be; he has a head full of knowledge but still has trouble navigating the human soul. He’s still learning, and Cumberbatch gives Strange a role-defining characterization by mixing fear, indifference, bravado, and a broad swath of cheekiness to tie everything together.
For this film and his previous appearance in Spider–Man: No Way Home, he has been saddled with helping a teenager become who they’re meant to be. Both are meant to bump him up a level in understanding the vulnerability of the human psyche, providing more of a balance to his calculating mind. Peter Parker was Strange’s lesson in the value of mistakes and making amends; here, America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) is his lesson in true helplessness, either by not being able to control her multiverse-skipping powers or trying to keep them away from someone who wants to take them… and thus, kill her.
Xochitl Gomez plays America as someone who’s seen it all, jaded and worn. She’s grown up moving between alternate universes, with the place she calls home a distant, frightful memory due to the trauma of losing her mothers in a freak accident. She’s the only one with this ability, and there’s absolutely no stopping the villain coming for her, so Strange turns to the one person whose magical powers might be strong enough to help – Wanda “Scarlet Witch” Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), last seen in Disney+’s “WandaVision” reading a book full of dark magic.
It is here where the story’s themes of wishes vs. reality take hold, exemplified in duplicate by Wanda’s desire to see her children again and Strange’s reckoning with how his lack of humanity has alienated him from Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), once the love of his life. These and other examples littered throughout show the heartbreak and pain that erupt in the pursuit of perfection, happiness, and what we cannot have. Stripped back to its core, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is about not getting what we want, but what we need.
And, y’know, superhero big booms. C’mon, did you really think we were going to leave it on that note? Sam Raimi knows precisely how to mix his brand of camp into the high-octane MCU, combining Waldron’s carefully-written plot and themes with battles that feel organic and necessary, not just checking off boxes. This film is dressed to thrill; there’s an exciting moment around every corner, from the impossibility of catapulting through strange universes (the liquid one is better seen than described) to a rather pitched early battle at Kamar-Taj to a breathtaking tunnel chase.
As much of the film takes place in several alternate universes, there’s a certain feeling of being let off the hook with the stakes and the importance the action bears upon the fates of certain characters. But Raimi keeps us grounded with one of the most plot-focused Marvel films yet. When we take off running with Strange and America in the opening seconds, we’re running right alongside them for the entirety of the film without any time for a break. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a Marvel-size knockout, especially for Sam Raimi fans, who will definitely appreciate the appearance of one of his mainstay actors… and the Raimi-appropriate fate that befalls him.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, frightening images and some language.
As per usual, there be mid- and post-credits scenes here.
Running time: 126 minutes.
Released by Marvel Studios and Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.