Producer: Kevin Feige Director: Sam Raimi Screenplay: Michael Waldron Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, Xochitl Gomez, Rachel McAdams, Michael Stuhlbarg, Julian Hilliard and Jett Klyne Distributor: Walt Disney Studios
There’s a difference between a fan and a fanatic, and you really have to be the latter to enjoy—or even fully understand—this sequel to 2016’s Doctor Strange standalone origin movie in the MCU. Unlike the recent smash “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” or “The Batman,” where a passing familiarity with the characters and their earlier screen incarnations was enough background to get what was going on, “Multiverse of Madness” expects a great deal more.
First, of course, “Multiverse of Madness” presumes a viewer will have a basic background in the Marvel comics and the cinematic “universe” they’ve spawned, up to and including “No Way Home.” But it also requires acquaintance with spin-off Disney+ series, most particularly “WandaVision,” on which the key point of conflict in this sorcery-and-witchcraft mash-up depends. Wanda, the villainess here played by Elizabeth Olsen, made supporting appearances in several earlier MCU features, but her Mommy Dearest persona, on which Michael Waldron’s entire plot depends, is predicated on the exclusively steaming series. One’s appreciation—or even recognition—of other figures who pop up in the course of the action is similarly based on a knowledge of Marvel arcana that casual viewers won’t possess: a group called the Illuminati appear, for instance, but you’re the one who needs to be enlightened to know who they are—and not by a history book.
All of which is to suggest that the MCU juggernaut has become a haven for obsessives who apparently spend every waking hour gobbling up all the movies, comics and Disney series that Kevin Feige’s assembly-line operation can dream up. They may whoop and holler as they catch every obscure reference and recognize each new character as the story Waldron (whose work was until now exclusively in pay-to-watch streaming stuff) has fashioned plods on. Others may simply be baffled. But Feige’s operative principle seems to be that eventually all the viewers in the world will become fanatics, utterly devoted to immersing themselves in the MU as a perpetual, ever-expanding narrative they just can’t resist. Sadly, maybe he’s right. (Or to put it crassly, the movie is like a coercive commercial for Disney+.)
In any event, what is “Multiverse of Madness” about? Well, it’s about Strange—or the various Stranges of different universes (all played by Benedict Cumberbatch)—trying to save a young girl named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) from CGI beasties that are in the service of Wanda Maximoff, aka The Scarlet Witch (Olsen). The reason is that Chavez possesses the power to skip among the various universes, an ability Maximoff desires to possess in order to take up permanent residence in the one where she has a blissful life as single mother to her two adorable and adoring children Billy and Tommy (Julian Hilliard and Jett Klyne). She is willing to use all her powers ruthlessly to achieve this maternal goal.
Barely escaping from Wanda in one of the universes, where its Strange perishes, Chavez winds up in the streets of New York pursued by a combination of Cyclops and giant octopus (sort of a CGI updating of the creature from the 1958 Forrest Tucker British sci-fi camp classic “The Crawling Eye”), which Strange, interrupted while attending the wedding reception of Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), the woman he loves despite rejecting her, and his colleague Wong (Benedict Wong) kill, though with difficulty.
They first try to protect the girl by taking her to Wong’s fortress-monastery, where they and Wong’s army of warriors, one of them a creature whose literal bull-headedness is never explained, try to fend off Wanda’s menacing red clouds, to no avail. That failure sends Strange and Chavez off to different universes where they encounter friends, foes and Strange near-doubles. The most important is one where Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), or more accurately his doppelgänger, is a member of a hero council whose other participants won’t be named here to avoid spoilers and Christine is a master scientist. Meanwhile Wong is busy back home fighting Wanda’s monsters in some sort of mystical mountaintop tower, in which Chavez and Strange, or more properly a zombie version of the doctor, ultimately find themselves for the inevitable final confrontation.
Like all tales of time and dimension travel, this one raises a great many questions it simply ignores. There are different Stranges in the various universes he and Chavez visit, and different Christines, but only the one America, and Wanda, except for an early establishing sequence when Strange makes the mistake of asking for her help but merely rouses her to action, appears in only two guises—as the Scarlet Witch, stalking her foes, or the desperate mother, weepily dreaming of her sons and brutally going after anyone who stands in the way of her draining Chavez of her universe-jumping ability. There’s nary a second Wong, either.
But it was probably a mercy that Waldron didn’t further clutter up a narrative that will already be—except to the Marvel fanatics—well-nigh impenetrable. And despite the rigidities imposed on any director by the Marvel playbook, the screenplay does give Raimi some chance to occasionally exhibit his old schlocky roots—the ones he last indulged in with “Drag Me to Hell” (the lamentable “Oz the Great and Powerful” being mere pabulum). There’s enough blood and violence to make one wonder whether the PG-13 rating is really appropriate, though of course it is of the cartoonish sort. But it’s not sufficient to make this a Sam Raimi film. It’s a Marvel movie he oversaw for hire.
And not a particularly impressive one visually. This is, even more than most MCU entries, a pretty much wall-to-wall effects extravaganza. Some of them are good, even very good. But the magic light-fight sequences, of which there are many, no longer carry any thrill, and many of the more tactile visuals, like building collapses, have a rather cheesy look. While Charles Woods’ production design, Graham Churchyard’s costumes (with Strange’s cape again a standout) and John Mathieson’s cinematography are all slick, they set no new standards. Bob Murawski and Tia Nolan’s editing isn’t exactly seamless, either. Even the score by Danny Elfman, who can usually be expected to offer something distinctive, is purely functional.
Investing comic book characters with real human qualities is a herculean task for even the best actors, and those here don’t try very hard. Cumberbatch hits all the right poses as Strange’s various iterations, and perhaps it was fun for him to do the zombie version, with its grotesquely deformed face, but “The Power of the Dog” this is not, and the sinister and maternal sides of Wanda do not require much of Olsen but stock attitudes. As for Gomez, it seems we’re expected to find her endearing, but she proves such a bland damsel in distress that if she’s meant to become yet another part of the Marvel repertory troupe, more work will need to be done. (The brief flashback to her family background, though it has a few undercurrents that ensure it will need to be edited for distribution in some territories, is certainly insufficient.) Everybody else does what’s demanded of them, no more; even as fine an actor as Michael Stuhlbarg is limited to a morosely one-note cameo.
Advance sales predict that “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” will be a smash. But when the second obligatory post-credits clips ends with a feeble joke that was done far better in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” even the MCU’s most ardent followers may sigh with relief rather than rushing out to buy a ticket for the next screening. Despite Raimi’s involvement, this muddled mess rivals the weakest of the entries in the MCU.