What Could Have Been – Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)

Hype is a dangerous drug. I initially sat down to write this review yesterday after catching the movie on Sunday afternoon, but I wanted to sit with it a little longer and see if I felt any differently. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a dazzling visual feast and there are moments where it’s a lot of fun along the way, but it bit off more than it could chew with the story and left its most important characters holding the bag. 

—– I will do my absolute best to maneuver around Spoilers but it’s going to be difficult, so proceed with caution —–

It is pretty funny that the summary on IMDB is so inaccurate, but I’m curious if that was a way to keep things close to the chest, story-wise. Anyway, don’t listen to that. Following Spider-Man: No Way Home and WandaVision, Doctor Stephen Strange meets a new character who arrives in the MCU to break open the doors to the Multiverse.

Sam Raimi doing some red carpet duties for his newest film

I will start by saying that I love Sam Raimi as a filmmaker. From Evil Dead to Darkman to his original Spider-Man trilogy, I hold a lot of his work in high regard and enjoy it thoroughly to this day. The Quick and the Dead is one of my favorite westerns and I still had a blast rewatching it just recently. So, I was thrilled to see the MCU include him 15-years after his Wall Crawler trilogy was put to bed. However, I spent much of this sequel’s 2h 6m runtime wondering if he was the right choice at the right time for this film. 

In fairness, I ask the same of Michael Waldron who wrote the screenplay. This was his first produced feature script but he wrote an episode of Rick and Morty and was the creator and writer of the Loki series on Disney+, both of which I enjoyed very much, so he’s had success exploring the idea of the Multiverse in other settings. However, the tone for Strange 2 is much different than Loki and the rest of what Disney/Marvel had laid out over the previous year and, as a result, it feels out of sync with where the expanded MCU last left off. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but something felt off right from the beginning.

Introductions can be so awkward

The opening of Multiverse of Madness felt like I was watching a parody. You are just thrown right into the middle of an action scene, with no context, that’s only being used as a plot mechanism, and I was fully expecting that scene to end with a pullback shot of an audience watching an awkward “Doctor Strange” movie that got made in the fictional MCU world, sort of how they included “Rogers: The Musical in the Hawkeye series. That wasn’t the case. There is a reason for it but it just started off on the wrong foot and, by the time you get just a little beyond that, it’s apparent that it really wasn’t necessary. You still get the explanation, character introduction, and a lot of exposition to go with it a few minutes after the opening sequence anyway. So, it winds up as an excuse to show off some flashy effects and leave some bread crumbs that are brushed away almost immediately. The film shows its cards surprisingly quickly after that (like in the first 30-min) but, despite being pretty action-packed from bell to bell, it still felt long. That’s typically not a good thing.  

The first Doctor Strange already had a very distinct visual signature and adding the Multiverse only upped the ante in terms of VFX and, yes, they are spectacular. On the other hand, Raimi’s tonal style doesn’t exactly fit within the established MCU which makes it even more confusing as to why you would go with a director who is famous for his expertise with practical effects for this project. There are several moments where it’s very much a classic Raimi flick, complete with prop effects and the kinds of shot techniques used in Evil Dead with great effectiveness. It actually finds a unique identity in those moments but, when the movie is at its Raimiest, the tone is furthest away from the established MCU. That is a great thing in terms of filmmaking, especially as fatigue over superhero/comic book movies is growing, but it’s an issue when stepping into the sequel for an established franchise that exists within a larger cinematic universe. I sat there wondering if Disney/Marvel would actually allow him to take the movie there with full reign. The short answer is no. 

The visual presentation is certainly one of the movie’s biggest strengths. It’s outright dizzying at times but it also borrows from some other multiverse movies we’ve seen. There was a very interesting idea mentioned during the character introductions that could have been something unique. It was teased in the trailer when Stephen mentions dreams and nightmares but, unfortunately, it only serves as a cursory piece of exposition and then fizzles. I would have liked to see that angle explored more because it really could have tapped into the notion of perception and reality in a much more cerebral manner and carved out a distinct Multiverse identity. Additionally, it would have felt more in lockstep with where the other titles under the brand umbrella had previously brought us as an audience. Instead, it’s a much more brute force approach. That didn’t allow for finesse and as a result, it struggles to incorporate all of the different elements that were introduced as part of the Multiversal expansion, leaving it feeling a bit gimmicky on numerous occasions. 

All that stuff aside, the primary issues for me came in terms of the handling of the main characters and their arcs. I am going to have to be especially careful here with spoilers, so again, be warned. 

Elizabeth Olsen is great even though the movie doesn’t do her justice

The biggest issue was how the filmmakers and the studio handled Wanda/The Scarlet Witch. Around the 30-minute mark, I’m sitting there thinking that it should have just been her stand-alone movie. I get that the wheels were already in motion and she flew in to start filming two days after WandaVision wrapped, but that series changed things. Maybe the film had to simplify things for people who maybe didn’t watch the Disney+ show but, by the end of that series, her footprint in the MCU was substantially bigger. I am not even talking about the scope of her power, which we got a comprehensive look at, but rather Wanda’s place as the emotional center of the larger Marvel universe. Elizabeth Olsen showed everyone the range of her abilities as the grieving widow, trapped in an illusion spawned from her own pain, and over the course of those nine episodes, she became the heart of more than just that show. More importantly, she earned it (similar to how Robert Downey Jr. earned his moment for Tony in Endgame). When we meet her again in Strange 2, that’s kind of gone she feels disconnected from where we last saw her. Olsen is such a strong performer, that of course she still has her moments, but I can’t help but feel that the movie didn’t do her or Wanda justice. I won’t get into it any further.

Stephen can’t risk getting too far from Wong

Unrelated to her, this is Stephen Strange’s second titular feature and he is still not a compelling character in the MCU. Benedict Cumberbatch isn’t the problem. He is a highly skilled actor and, while charismatic, it’s still a struggle to make Stephen likable or even sympathetic. The decision-makers understand that, which is why Wong is there. Strange works best when he’s opposite the most beloved MCU characters, like Iron Man or Spider-Man, and that’s because he isn’t one of them. He needs that dynamic to balance out his arrogance and there isn’t enough of that this time around. There are some glimpses of the new character, who is central to the narrative, in the trailer and the filmmakers try to replicate the push-and-pull mentor relationship that the MCU has relied on heavily in several other instances, but it feels less authentic because it’s going back to that same well yet again. Talent isn’t the issue, the cast has plenty of it. For me, it comes down to character motivation. The “why” of Strange’s actions that aren’t fleshed out. He just does what he does because he’s Doctor Strange and he does things. That’s not good enough. By comparison, the animated What If…? series on Disney+ actually did a great job of conveying the “why” of Stephen’s story and it makes him a much more sympathetic figure. However, as is the case with Wanda, the connective tissue from those series doesn’t make its way to this movie. 

Remember what I was saying about tone? That’s even more pronounced with the music. I love Danny Elfman’s work. He’s a great composer, but I keep coming back to this question of whether or not it was the right place and the right time. In a vacuum, Elfman’s original music is impressive and robust, with a lot of the familiar hallmarks of his most iconic film scores. If you were to play it without the images on screen, it would take you back to those other films. Unfortunately, it felt out of sync with the MCU brand. Beyond that, it’s just sort of relentless and doesn’t give the on-screen moments the appropriate breathing room. It’s like the score was trying way too hard to get the point across. He has worked with Raimi in the past and his music for Spider-Man fit the tone of that film, but that wasn’t the case so much here. 

With all that in mind, I should clarify that Multiverse of Madness isn’t a bad movie. The floor is always pretty high when it comes to Disney/Marvel products because they spend a ton to make sure their stuff looks the part. That gets them further than a lot of other movies and it is ultimately the film “business”, so profitability is important, and looking the part is a piece of that. Its massive $187-million domestic opening is good for 11th all-time, which probably won’t get beat this year, and it’s almost at half a billion globally already (at the time of publishing). However, financial success isn’t exactly a barometer of quality. 

I didn’t particularly care for the first Doctor Strange movie. It was alright but I had no desire to go back and watch it a second time, so it probably says something that I am at least considering watching this one again. Strangely enough (wink), the MetaCritic and RottenTomatoes critic scores are both noticeably higher for the first film (by double digits) while the user and audience scores are on par for both. That says a lot about both the appetite of a fervent fanbase and where the expectation bar is set, but it also shows that it’s not just me who sees the obvious issues. 

You can watch it and have a good time like a lot of people clearly have, myself included. I don’t even know that it’s ultimately fair to finger Raimi and Waldron when they have such a gargantuan juggernaut of a studio at their back either, but that doesn’t erase the problems. As it stands, Multiverse of Madness is not the best Marvel-branded multiverse film. It’s not the best Multiverse project within the expanded MCU either. Hell, realistically, it’s not even the best “multiverse” movie this year. This film could have and should have been better…been more…for its characters, its fans, and the larger MCU.

Recommendation: See it for its place in the larger MCU and for the impressive visual display, but don’t set your expectations too high when it comes to the characters you might actually care about. 

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