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The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has expanded exponentially to the point where devotees require not only a familiarity with every film under its banner, but also with the spin-off television series. Whilst this is fine for people with access to Disney+, those without will be scratching their heads at this latest instalment. Requiring an audience to have seen and be familiar with so many properties reeks of the hubris of Disney owned Marvel – however, for the people keen to see Doctor Strange in The Multiverse of Madness it probably isn’t unreasonable to expect that they have invested deeply into the MCU and have the monthly subscription.
Helmed by renowned horror and comic book movie director, Sam Raimi, Doctor Strange in The Multiverse of Madness blends his flair for both genres. What starts as a fairly standard Marvel film soon develops a personality of its own that can be attributed to Raimi. Although the MCU can be seen as an indistinguishable mass entity, there is a valid argument that individual directors do matter. Iron Man 3 is very much a Shane Black film just as Thor: Ragnarok is recognisably Taika Waititi’s work. Much of the pleasure derived from Multiverse of Madness comes from Raimi’s direction, which admittedly is still limited to an extent by the MCU machine.
It’s difficult to write about Multiverse of Madness without giving away crucial plot details that double as spoilers, so a vague work around is necessary. Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) awakens from a nightmare wherein a version of himself and a young woman are being chased by a demonic kind of squid monster whilst in search of a sacred text. On becoming aware that he is unable to defeat said monster this version of Strange decides that it would be best to sacrifice the life of the young woman to stop her power from being taken by whoever is controlling the monster.
The Strange the audiences know awakens and dresses to attend the wedding of his ex-girlfriend, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). The post nuptial party is interrupted by the arrival of the squid monster who is still chasing the young woman from Strange’s dream. A fairly spectacular fight ensues with Wong (Benedict Wong) lending more than an assist. The young woman introduces herself as America Chavez (AKA Miss America) played by Xochitl Gomez. She is being chased because she possesses the power to jump through the multiverse but as yet hasn’t fully realised how to control and utilise her powers.
Being somewhat familiar with the multiverse after his spellcasting in Spiderman: No Way Home, Strange decides it is his duty to protect America and stop possible incursions happening. Realising that the monster was powered by a form of witchcraft, Strange enlists the help of Wanda Maximoff/The Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) who is living a solitary life post her Westview exploits in WandaVision.
Strange takes America to Kamar-Taj with Wong to protect her. After an epic battle which they lose America opens a portal to the multiverse and takes Strange with her. Raimi makes the most of the journey through multiple universes which include one where they are two dimensional cartoons. This segment is his love letter to Stan Lee and Steve Ditko and all the comic book artists who created the Marvel Universe. Sadly it is relatively brief and Strange and America are deposited in a variant NYC in which their version of Strange has died assumedly in an heroic battle with Thanos. Here we meet a version of Mordo (Chiwetel Ejifor) and one of Christine. In this universe incursions from the multiverse have happened before and they are prepared to deal with them.
Most of the action takes place in this universe with an eventual hop to another where Strange has lost his mind. In each universe it is clear that Strange’s arrogance has led to dreadful repercussions. Script writer Michael Waldron (who penned the Loki series) is as concerned with big action spectacle as he is with character development. Our Doctor Strange needs to realise how close he is to his multiversal counterparts and decide how he needs to proceed to avoid replicating their fates.
As much as this is a film about Doctor Strange it is also about Wanda Maximoff. Her character arc is fascinating and melancholy. Elizabeth Olsen gets to explore the effects of her great grief in a manner that proves the character has come a long way from her inception back in The Age of Ultron.
Raimi and Waldron don’t shy away from some fan service, but the cameos in the film are exactly that. This is the story of Strange and Wanda and it stays close to the characters.
The main strength of the film rests in Raimi’s roots in horror. It is a bloody and brutal piece for a Marvel film and perhaps the closest the studio has come to making a traditional horror. For all that it is also laced with absurdity like a showdown between two characters using musical notes for weapons. Raimi’s sense of humour also permeates the movie. Waldron’s script is at times quite funny and Cumberbatch relishes the chance to play into a more comedic version of the character.
Like many Marvel films there are sections that are bloated, and the pacing is at times questionable. The dialogue isn’t always the best either. Some repeated motifs will frustrate. There is a sense that so much more could have been done with the concept, but in true Marvel fashion the audience is expected to wait until the next instalment.
Doctor Strange in The Multiverse of Madness isn’t a perfect film even by the metric of MCU films, but it is broadly entertaining, and it is good to see Raimi working again after his last and not particularly interesting film in 2013 (Oz the Great and Powerful). If any director deserves to take on the weirder aspects of the MCU it is most certainly Raimi. His reverence to the genre is clear and proven, but also his magnificent work in horror and horror/comedy makes him the ideal person to reinvigorate the big screen MCU. Making Doctor Strange in The Multiverse of Madness a genre mash was a risk but for the most part it paid off. Strange is a more interesting character now and the possibilities going forward for his story are something unbound.
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