Dr Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness
In the aftermath of his multiverse shattering adventure with Spider-Man, Dr Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is pulled back into alternate worlds when he crosses paths with America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a young girl with the power to open portals between dimensions. When Strange discovers that America is being hunted by Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), who wants to use Chavez’ ability to reach her family in another world, he embarks on a desperate mission to save her from the immense power of the Scarlet Witch.
You have to hand it to Sam Raimi. I don’t know of many directors who could convince the people behind arguably the biggest film/TV franchise in history to let him take one of their tentpoles, after 2016’s Doctor Strange, and create what I will abbreviate to Multiverse: something that rejoices in rejecting large parts of the established MCU formula in favour of something more akin to Evil Dead. Yes, you couldn’t mistake this for something outside of the MCU too easily but the macabre humour, the occasional gore and the sense of fun somehow mixing with the bleakness and horror, these are traits that really make this Sam Raimi’s Multiverse. This genre has tried to mix the superhero and horror genres before, with mixed results: Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four could have been a stunning example of the same but for the production problems, and Brightburn was probably more Stephen King than Stan Lee. Sam Raimi laughs at such stumbles, flicks on the blender and gives us his Multiverse.
At the core of it all is a very simple question: “Are you happy?” Strange is asked it several times in two hours, and never seems rightly sure of the answer. For Multiverse to take this as its thesis statement is fascinating to me, in a world where various superpowered individuals spend their days throwing people through buildings. Through the course of his adventure Strange has to confront demigod-like magic users, different universes, warped versions of himself that have been twisted with evil power, but he also has to confront something much more innate: the possibility that it is impossible for him to be happy with the life that he is leading. The best MCU films are the ones that find the balance between spectacular action and a real-beating heart: watching Strange keep that question at the back of his mind, evaluating his life even as he takes on hell-demons, is that beating heart.
What unfolds is a well-paced, very entertaining adventure, with Multiverse grasping the needed balance between combat with Lovecraftian monsters, character interaction and quips very well. It’s actually very clever how Raimi is able to switch from superhero to character drama to pursuit horror at the drop of a hat, and not have Multiverse feel like it is tonally all over the place. Maybe that’s because the throughlines of Strange, Chavez and Maximoff are so strong, with all three having their own well-constructed arcs, and all being followable in their own way. The film zips through its two hour running time, stopping for the requisite moments and never letting action or horror sequences outstay their welcome.
The other aspect of it that is very much to the film’s favour is the inventiveness of it. The nature of the Dr Strange comics is that there is always something new around the corner – a new spell, a new monster, a new plain of existence – and Multiverse takes that advantage and runs with it. At times it might seem like Raimi is burying you under a multitude of terms, MacGuffins and characters, but it helps to keep Multiverse fresh and the audience on their toes. The film opens with a cosmic battle against something I can only describe as a cross between a dragon and a bunch of snakes and concludes with a combat that involves zombie sorcerers, armoured trolls and a multiverse-spanning revelation of parental responsibilities: what other film in this larger continuity can claim a similar level of depth in terms of what it can present?
Cumberbatch is decent here, having relaxed more into the role since 2016. The accent is still a bit of problem, being as it is that strange mix of studied and parody, where the actor is opening his mouth just a little too wide for certain syllables: one legitimately wonders if American’s realise this is how the rest of the word thinks they actually talk. But once you leave that aside you can enjoy Cumberbatch’s performance, where in he taps into a different kind of vulnerability in the character than was the case in 2016. Then it was about a man crushed physically finding his way back to being the elite in something, here it’s that question of happiness and dealing with the internal battle of wanting to do good but frequently resorting to not-so-great methods of doing it. And the classic battle between ego and reality. Cumberbatch carries that well, even exults in it, and insures that Stephen Strange remains fundamentally likable.
I hope people won’t be too annoyed by my Scarlet Witch-related revelation in the above synopsis, but when this come out the film will have been in theatres for the better part of a month. Besides, it’s a plot point that comes up in the first 20 minutes, and it’s been coming since the conclusion of Wandavision. I was torn by that show: I enjoyed nearly all of it, but was severely let down by the humdrum reversion to type of its conclusion. But at least it set-up this heel turn, giving the villain of Multiverse a believable motivation tied to an apocalyptic amount of power. Olsen has always been good as Maximoff and while Multiverse is not her absolutely best effort – that probably has to remain as Wandavision even with its flaws – I did enjoy her a lot here. She’s got the horror antagonist thing down pat, turning Maximoff into a relentless, demonic force in Multiverse, but one that still has a wounded heart at her core. Elements of the films finale and how the issue with the character is resolved irk me a bit with their convenience, but overall it’s another fine villain effort for the MCU, a franchise that I think has shed the problems it was having in that department very well over the last few years.
Multiverse is otherwise overloaded with characters, and perhaps just about avoids the sense that it is a bit too stuffed. This seems to be more and more the case for the MCU, that every film needs to feel like it is fully inhabiting this grand shared universe, and given the premise of this one you shouldn’t be surprised to see lots of characters showing up you might not be expecting. Stand-outs are, of course, Benedict Wong as Wong, an able counter-part to Strange, Rachel McAdams as a returning Christine and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Mordo, the last slumming it a little bit in what amounts to an extended cameo and a fight scene, but still decent. The real person to note is Gomez as the debuting America Chavez/Ms America, and she brings a needed teenage energy and drive to the plot, in a character that you could certainly stand to watch more of.
As you would expect from this property and this director, the film is awash with references to Hitchcock and B-movie pans and zooms, along with visual trickery that has to be seen to fully understand. The first film leaned in hard to a kaleidoscopic theme, but this one tries to be a bit more varied in what it wants to showcase, and triumphs repeatedly. There are so many sequences here worthy of note that I could spend half of this review talking about them: Dr Strange and Chavez leaping through universes that run the gambit from horror-esque to being filled with liquid paint: a fight using musical notes as weapons that briefly turns the film into an avante-garde showpiece of competing compositions; and the entire finale, which involves zombies, hellspawn demons appropriated as erstwhile wings, armoured trolls and a good few examples of jumping from one word to the next. Raimi is delighting in having the budget and the technology to bring these concepts and these landscapes to life, having been limited in some of his past endeavours. His Multiverse sets out to astound your eyes in every scene, and does it from an opening set in the space between dimensions all the way through to that confrontation on an icy peak. It’s different from much of the MCU fare, and unlike many of the other 27 films in this series, one suspects that Multiverse will continue to stand-out in years to come. The same can be said for the score, probably because Raimi was able to get Danny Elfman onboard, and he brings just what the film needs.
This is a fun one. Multiverse takes the MCU and goes more inventive with it than many other entries recently, and all on the back of allowing Sam Raimi the chance to bring what he can bring to this kind of tentpole. It has a great cast, amazing visuals, a good score. It does really interesting things with its characters, and asks questions that you would not expect to get asked in a MCU movie. One suspects that the larger franchise is now in a position where it will just keep going until the Sun burns out. If so, it needs things like Multiverse, that prove there is life, variety and interesting things about the MCU yet. At the end of the day, it’s Sam Raimi and I’ll always be in line for him. You should too. Highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures).