Director: Sam Raimi
Writer: Michael Waldron
Production: Marvel Studios
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Picture International
Platform: Theatrical Release (Reviewed)
Release Date: Out Now!
The concept of the multiverse has recently hit the mainstream film world, such as in Spider-Man: No Way Home and Everything Everywhere All At Once, and the sequel to Doctor Strange (2016) uses it as a central plot device. Since then, surgeon-turned-sorcerer Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) has appeared in numerous ensemble Marvel films; the newfound prominence has led to this sequel becoming more of a group venture, in similar vein to Captain America: Civil War.
Characters such as newly-promoted Sorcerer Supreme Wong (Benedict Wong) have significant roles, with Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) especially key, carrying on their arc from Disney+ show WandaVision. Well, I say that, but we immediately discover aspects of Wanda that rob them of agency and rush new character beats. After WandaVision, where Wanda was developed in a dynamic way, the contrivance that causes their motivations here is an unnecessary and disappointing waste of potential, particularly as Olsen supplies a brilliantly fierce performance.
Strange starts off battling a wedding-crashing monster – a vibrant sequence that’s an early indicator of the creative magic use throughout. Said monster is after new character America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), because they’re capable of crossing between universes. It’s a sought-after ability, so Strange decides to protect America despite being outmatched. That’s essentially the plot, complicated by the pair inadvertently fleeing into the multiverse. It isn’t quite what the film name suggests; mostly, we’re in a small handful of universes, even though we get glimpses of others in one gloriously imaginative, fractured shot.
Going in, my concern was that the story would be diluted by a mishmash of crowd-pleasing multiverse reveals. Sadly, it falls into this trap. One particular scene is blatant fan-service and falls flat; it’s hard to care about characters we have no attachment to yet. Counting on the recognisability of the casting and role feels shallow, and means nothing in-story. For comparison, the returning characters in No Way Home worked because we’ve already developed an understanding of them.
Thankfully, the final act rescues things, suddenly remembering it’s not only a Doctor Strange film, but also one directed by Sam Raimi! We finally see Strange take the initiative and show character growth, which allows the talented Cumberbatch to flex his acting muscles more. Combined with as much Raimi-esque horror that the age rating allows, the film starts to become something distinct. What’s undeniable is the visual spectacle, with inventive and stunning shot compositions. It’s backed up by the soundtrack from Danny Elfman; there’re multiple noticeable instances of how the soundtrack compliments the numerous tone changes.
Multiverse of Madness occasionally delighted but often disappointed me. There’s many instances of plot being prioritised at the expense of character investment. Mainly, this is in regards to decisions on where to take the character of Wanda, and the way certain reveals are handled. The final act starts to address this balance and, along with phenomenal visual styling, left me entertained overall. Ironically though, for a film about the multiverse, I was hoping for so much more.