With Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, horror maestro Sam Raimi (Evil Dead, Drag to Hell) delivers what is easily the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s (MCU) darkest entry. Building on the first Doctor Strange film’s trippy occultism, Multiverse of Madness continues from No Way Home and Disney+’s Wandavision TV series to put everyone’s favorite snarky surgeon/sorcerer (Benedict Cumberbatch, TV’s Sherlock) through the ringer (and then some).
Interacting with the cast via a virtual press conference last Monday, we saw that the people behind the Multiverse of Madness had no end of fun in making what’s been described as the single most challenging MCU film of all. For his part, coming so soon after the success of No Way Home and his Academy Award-nominated turn in Power of the Dog, Cumberbatch was effusive about being able to balance making smaller films while maintaining his MCU presence: “I get Marvel Cinematic Universe fans coming up to me, saying, ‘I loved you in Power of the Dog.’ And that’s just what it should all be about,” he shared.
“This is a very wonderful broad spectrum of culture that I get to occupy, and it’s proof, living proof, that there is room enough in our culture for both [kinds of] fare at any side, or end, or middle, of a spectrum that requires all of it — all of it. And it is all nourishing. If Spider-Man gets people back into movie theaters to see The Power of the Dog, great.”
While Multiverse of Madness may not go in the same dramatic direction as Power of the Dog, it nevertheless proved to be an enjoyable trip to the dark side of the MCU. Read on to find out why!
In the director’s chair for the first time since 2013’s Oz The Great and Powerful, Raimi loses no time in showing that he hasn’t lost a step, opening in media res with a breathless sequence featuring Strange (Cumberbatch) and America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez, Netflix’s The Baby-Sitter’s Club) fleeing from a Lovecraftian beast.
America is blessed with the ability to traverse the multiverse, which leads her to the MCU, where the teenager hopes to escape the malevolent forces seeking to exploit her powers. Realizing he’s in over his head, Strange enlists the aid of Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen), the Scarlet Witch herself, to battle the forces of the multiverse. Still reeling from the loss of her loved ones in Infinity War and — more recently — Wandavision, Wanda is less than enthused about joining the cause.
When Kamar-Taj falls to dark magic, America and Strange go on the run across the Multiverse in a frantic, twisted journey that will lead them down a rabbit hole of danger and self-discovery.
The return of Raimi
At the press conference, it was clear that everybody had a blast making the film, with the actors all singing their director’s praises. Raimi, of course, is known for helping kickstart the pre-MCU age of modern superhero flicks (alongside 1998’s Blade and 2000’s X-Men) with 2001’s Spider-Man, where none other than current Marvel movie head honcho Kevin Feige served as a junior producer.
Now in charge of the biggest franchise of all time, Feige called the experience of being reunited with his former director, “Surreal,” saying, “It’s full circle with Mr. Raimi. I was a young producer who just felt lucky to be in the same room with him, and now I’m an old producer that just feels lucky to be in the same room with him!”
The director’s cult horror origins are on full display here, decimating the popular perception that MCU creatives are restricted to some sort of family-friendly template. Raimi’s signature kinetic camera moves, gore, and commitment to demonic mayhem are on full display — this is a decidedly darker, more disturbing vision of the MCU, and parents will need to decide for themselves if their kids can handle it. But for those who know what they’re in for, this film goes above and beyond a simple superhero story, and is ultimately more entertaining for the genre shift.
Raimi attacks the fight scenes and intra-universal hijinks with verve – this is the largest budget he’s ever had to play with, and he makes every cent count, like a kid let loose in his favorite toy store (wait till you see the musical battle). The fact that he’s been allowed to add his brand of irreverent horror to the proceedings makes the experience all the richer.
Simply put — if Sam Raimi is the cure for the common blockbuster (*cough* Morbius *cough), then one sincerely hopes he’s signed on for Doctor Strange 3.
Pride and the doctor
Carrying the bulk of the film, Cumberbatch is more comfortable as Strange than we’ve ever seen him, while also being more emotionally nuanced. Gone is the cartoonishly-flippant sorcerer from No Way Home, replaced with an individual contending with not being in complete control for the first time since learning the mystical arts. As former girlfriend Christine (Rachel McAdams, Mean Girls, The Notebook) chides him (at her wedding, no less), “You always have to be the one holding the knife.”
As per Cumberbatch, “We haven’t really understood what the cost [of that] is, what it is that’s fueling that. Both him as a person, but also within this, mysterious realm of sorcery and, magic. So, this one is about examining that and finding his flaws, his faults, his humanity, as well as his strengths.”
Indeed, for all his arrogance, Stephen Strange is ultimately human, and is surprisingly relatable in finding it harder to get over his ex than, say, facilitating the death of (literally) half the universe in order to save it (it was the only way). But he’s bold and brash when he needs to be, taking America under his wing without a thought – other universes may have weird, scary, and/or evil variants, but it’s good to know that OUR Strange is a hero through and through.
The Scarlet Witch returns
But Strange isn’t the only one with a chip on his shoulder, as many — from former colleague Dr. West (Michael Stuhlbarg, The Shape of Water) to Wanda herself — are similarly wrestling with life in the post-Thanos world that he helped create. For Wanda, her mix of PTSD and survivor guilt saw her enslave an entire town in a sitcom-based dream world (seen in the brilliant Wandavision), complete with a model family. A heartbreaking exercise in grief and introspection, Olsen builds on her Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning TV performance to singlehandedly trump Cumberbatch as this movie’s MVP.
“They’ve got a vast-a set of experiences that they’re not afraid to pull into their performances,” said Raimi, of his lead actors’ ability to imbue their characters with pathos.
Olsen, like Cumberbatch, is no stranger to dramatic roles, making it doubly entertaining to see them delivering some of their best work dressed as decades-old comic book characters. Though, to be perfectly honest, one wouldn’t have minded if we’d spent more screentime with Wanda, as the film’s attempt to place her PTSD on the same narrative level as Strange getting over his ex are unbalanced, at best. The overarching theme may be one of moving on, but the circumstances of the characters couldn’t be more different, and a bit more focus on either would have been greatly appreciated.
Just kidding, we wouldn’t dream of ruining the fun by revealing who and/or what turns up in this movie, suffice it to say that the Marvel devout will find much to enjoy here, as the continuity nods, references, and cameos are absolutely worth the price of admission. While some may be ultimately superfluous in the grand scheme of things, none of it is ever boring, with one particular appearance backed by an orchestral sting that had the media preview audience cheering.
You need to do your homework
If one had to nitpick, it would be in that, aside from Infinity War and Endgame, no MCU entry has required quite so much foreknowledge as Multiverse of Madness. The film isn’t just a sequel to Doctor Strange, it’s almost a direct continuation of Wandavision, with a touch of What If? and a certain classic animated series thrown in for good measure. As much fun as it may be for longtime viewers, casual fans may find themselves a bit lost.
After all, part of the secret behind the MCU’s decade-long success has been in the way it trimmed the fat from bloated, self-indulgent comic book crossovers, distilling the stories down to their core elements, and making them accessible to a mass audience. Despite 18 films leading up to Infinity War, you could miss one or two, but still largely follow what was going on. But that was before Disney had a streaming platform to manage, and MCU overlord Kevin Feige was correspondingly obligated to help populate it.
We still don’t know what Phase 4 is about
While the cross-media storytelling is compelling in theory, practice is providing us with an MCU Phase 4 that can’t help but seem somewhat scattershot, especially when compared to the well-oiled machines that were Phases 1, 3, and parts of 2.
Back then, we only needed to know that there were six Infinity Stones, and bad things would happen if they were brought together – we’re more than halfway through Phase 4 now, and one STILL has no idea where any of this is headed. Will The Eternals be involved? What about Moon Knight? Are The Falcon and The Winter Soldier still on Bucky’s boat? Did Hawkeye enjoy his Christmas? Who (aside from Kevin Feige) actually knows, and how much of this do we need to watch to understand whatever comes next?
The bottom line
This is a terrifying beautiful movie to look at, and it’s clear that Raimi had a blast directing it. Where the first Doctor Strange enthralled with its psychedelic depictions of sorcery, the sequel throws straight-up nightmare fuel on the fire, in addition to multiple narrative threads and, yes, fan service. Not all of it lands, mind you, and more overall focus would have been appreciated, but the demented creativity at work here means that even if you’re not amused by a particular scene, there’s every chance that the next bonkers sequence will win you over.
Simply put: it’s a Sam Raimi movie, and it’s great to have him back.
You can now catch Doctor Strange and The Multiverse of Madness at cinemas nationwide.