Review: Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
Sam Raimi is no stranger to superhero films, see Darkman and his Spiderman trilogy, but he is new to Marvel. So what does a Raimi Marvel film look like? Well, the answer is complicated. The auteur behind The Evil Dead blends some of his unique style into the MCU but also struggles to balance the clunky and complicated plot.
Raimi has said in interviews that he wanted to make a Marvel film first and then find ways to fit in his style. For the first half of the film, this is true almost to a fault. The film's opening 40 or so minutes is some of the most jarring storytelling in a Marvel movie to date. We are dropped into an action scene from frame one that plays out mostly like a video game level. America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) and an alternative-universe Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) are running from some giant monster. A standard Marvel fight full of CGI bursts ensues until America and a dead Dr. Strange open the multiverse and dive into the Stephen Strange's we know universe. This kicks off a convoluted plot as America has the superpower to jump into any universe she wants, the problem is she can't control it.
One of the issues in this first half is that Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness can't shake that its main purpose is to bridge the gaps between two big Marvel properties, the last Spider-Man film, and Disney Plus's Wandavision. Both of these properties are essential viewing beforehand in order to be able to keep up with this film. Strange is attending the wedding of former love interest Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) when a giant monster interrupts things while chasing after America. The monster is an octopus-like creature that gives us the first glimpse at Raimi's style. The monster is dealt with in a particularly squishy and gross way, something only Raimi would do. From here, Dr. Strange becomes the guardian of America and enlisted Sorcerer Supreme Wong (Benedict Wong) to help. It becomes clear that America's powers would be very dangerous in the wrong hands. Who could that be? None other than Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) whose story from Wandavision is continued. Still consumed by grief and pain, she wants the power so she can live in a universe where she has her two boys. Never mind the consequences of that desire.
It isn't until Wanda goes full Scarlet Witch that Raimi really gets to have fun. While the first half is crowded and formulaic, the second half is full of Raimi's wild camera zooms, campy horror moments, and gory deaths that are uncommon for Marvel. While this may be the closest Marvel has gotten to a horror film, Raimi's style feels muted. He still delivers several fun moments but there is always a sense of restraints on him.
The film is only two hours and it moves quickly, a quality that is both welcomed and exhausting. The film hardly waits for the audience to catch up, assuming at this point that anyone seeing the film is well-versed in Marvel lore. The surprising viciousness of deaths in the film is unique. No one dies quietly in a Sam Raimi film. Eyes are impaled, someone is cut in half, and a head explodes just to scratch the surface. One can feel the film wanting to burst away from the constraints of the MCU but alas, it cannot. The plot has to work so hard to connect things that character beats are all but forgotten about. This is especially true with the character of America. It is 45 minutes into the film before we get a reason to care about her and understand her. That is far too long.
What grounds the film is Olsen. She is magnificent in this role, able to be tortured and sympathetic one moment and then crazed and terrifying in another. Her arc here is often a retread of her's in Wandavision but she sells it again and again. In the end, her story is the most satisfying element of this bloated film. Come for the Raimi touches and stay for Olsen's performance but shouldn't we expect more from this film?