Film: Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

June 24, 2022

The only problem with Doctor Strange as a character is that, well, he just isn’t all that interesting. Fortunately, his powers are interesting, and while previous MCU movies have illustrated that with varying results, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) is the best showcase for them yet, even if it possesses increasingly familiar late-franchise blemishes.

The adventure begins when Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) attends the wedding of his old flame Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), many years (and one Thanos blip) removed from their earlier relationship. The wedding is quickly upstaged by the arrival of America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a teenager with the power to travel between universes, who is being pursued by a giant…Cyclopean octopus? Dr. Strange leaps into action to combat the threat, joined by his mentor and current Sorceror Supreme Wong (Benedict Wong). They learn from America that she is being pursued by a demon seeking to steal her powers. To help her, Dr. Strange seeks the guidance of disgraced Avenger Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), since he believes witchcraft may be involved in the demonic incursion. This turns out to be, well, a bad idea, causing Dr. Strange and America Chavez to flee into the multiverse.

Let’s get the negatives out of the way early.  First, terrible title, and this is not a well written film, especially at the dialogue level. Like many late MCU films, it’s structurally slapdash and handwavey. While I think Elizabeth Olsen does an excellent job as the Scarlet Witch, it still irritates me how poorly this character continues to be handled, bringing canonical problems from the comic books into the filmic universe. Her one-note motivation and ultimate change are not convincing, and at odds with her journey in WandaVision. And yes, while Dr. Strange can do all sorts of cool stuff, he’s a pretty bland protagonist.

Despite all this, I really, really enjoyed Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, one of the MCU’s most cinematically immersive films. Director Sam Raimi infuses the film with both his trademark horror-genre flair and a keen, refreshing eye for letting us actually see the spectacle. This latter point can’t be underestimated, in a franchise plagued by messy, incoherent CGI setpieces. Raimi lets the visuals breathe, giving the viewer a chance to actually appreciate them. This also allows him to fully realize the eyeball-kicky potential of sorcery, witchcraft, and alternate realities. Speaking of which, Multiverse of Madness is much more satisfying in its alternate-universe worldbuilding than the otherwise similar Spider-Man: No Way Home, which felt like a cagey, clever marketing ploy. In contrast, this one delivers us to other timelines that are both utterly gorgeous and full of welcome, even thought-provoking surprises. For the first time in a while, we’re given an MCU property with personality, and Raimi’s auteurial eye – abetted by his frequent collaborator Danny Elfman, who provides what may be the first noticeable MCU soundtrack in the past umpteen years – is the primary reason for that.

Add to those strengths an increased role for the underrated Benedict Wong, the promising arrival of Xochitl Gomez, and plenty of welcome cameos, and there isn’t much to complain about in this latest MCU entry. Frankly, I could take or leave Dr. Strange as a character, but if you’re going to keep making movies about him, this is how you do it.