(This is a spoiler-FREE review)
Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been slowly building its way to a more multiversal storyline in a post-Infinity Saga world. Loki and Spider-Man: No Way Home gave us wonderful treats and teases into what this new direction can look like, where the story is heading, and how much fun it can be to see different variations of beloved characters. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness was believed to be a full deep dive into this concept, highlighting more of the inner machinations of what the big picture will look like and setting the stage for next 10 years of Marvel. What the film does present however is more along the lines of a tease of the multiverse supplemented by some great character development for both Doctor Strange and Wanda Maximoff and a horror background the likes the MCU has never delved into. The result leaves an entertaining and often emotionally touching journey, albeit one that could have used a little more work on its story and utilizing its titular concepts more effectively.
One of the things that stands out from the get go is that this is a uniquely directed Marvel movie helmed by famous horror and superhero director Sam Raimi. He directed the original Tobey Maguire Spider-Man trilogy and has dipped his hands in other frightening projects with both of those styles on display here. The film has many horror elements to it with creepy imagery, suspenseful sequences, stunning visuals, darker themes, and pretty gruesome carnage. Multiverse of Madness is one of the darkest MCU movies and stands apart from the rest of the pack on that fact alone. It never goes into full blown out horror territory for too long and still remains its fun and entertaining superhero roots, especially in its opening sequence where Doctor Strange leaps into action to protect civilians (something reminiscent of the early Spider-Man films). I felt the horror elements absolutely worked for this movie and gave it a distinct flavor I will remember for the years to come. While I don’t see the MCU ever fully committing to that bit for a full movie, it was refreshing to have that tone throughout. Some younger audiences may be more frightened than usual.
While our three main characters and the supporting cast all do a great job in their respective roles, it is Elizabeth Olson’s Wanda Maximoff/Scarlett Witch that really sold this movie for me. The character arc that she goes through on this film makes her one of the most rich and complex MCU characters ever put on to the screen. You understand her struggles and her mission in this film, and can empathize with the urgency. A lot of setup for her character arc was present in the Disney+ show WandaVision back in January of last year, so if you hadn’t had a chance to watch it I would highly recommend it (I’m serious it’s great). Those same threads that made her interesting in that show are carried through here, making it an absolutely rewarding experience. While some fans may not be a fan of the directions taken with her character, it absolutely made the movie for me and is another reason I will hold it so highly.
Doctor Strange also goes through an interesting arc for himself as he reflects on his morals and regrets. Strange has always been the one to make the hard calls, most notably turning the Time Stone over to Thanos sacrificing half of the world in the process. While it all worked out in the end, the movie has Strange examine himself especially when encountering various alternate versions of characters he knew to determine whether he is truly happy. The attempt at depth is appreciated, however I would have wished it evolved a little bit more and showed more complexity similar to how Wanda’s arc was. Granted Wanda did have an entire show that provided great backstory to her development in this film, but Strange’s character could have had a little more nuance in my opinion. His relationship with America Chavez (who is a wonderful new addition to the MCU) is fun as her powers are more mystical in nature, so seeing him take her under his wing for protection serves as an interesting dynamic from the first film where Strange is the student. Benedict Cumberbatch is still excellent in the role and I’m excited to see where they take him in the future, especially given how involved he has been already in Phase 4.
With the film having multiverse in its title, many fans including myself are expecting a big deep dive into alternate realities and a big set up for what’s to come in the future of the MCU. However, fans should temper back their expectations as we don’t get as big of a deep dive as one might expect. The multiverse elements of the film are admittedly underwhelming in the grand scheme of things and given that some TV spots and trailers have already spoiled some of the fun cameos, it didn’t feel this film had much to offer in that department. While I certainly respect the decision to keep this film a little more focused on the characters of Doctor Strange, America Chavez, and Wanda Maximoff, having “multiverse” in the title felt as if the film was mis-marketed.
This begs an interesting question of whether the MCU should be building to bigger things as they did with the Infinity Saga, or whether a focus on solo and more personal heroic stories is the move (i.e. Shang-Chi and Hawkeye)? The more expansive the universe becomes, the harder it is to keep audiences engaged and welcome in new fans especially when dealing with more complicated aspects such as the multiverse. Maybe this film should have been called Doctor Strange: Witchcraft and Sorcery and have the multiverse aspects be more of a surprise rather than spoiled in the trailers. In the end, I felt the multiverse part of the film was underwhelming.
That wouldn’t be much of a problem if the story maintained itself and the writing was tight and succinct, but sadly the film does a drag in certain areas. While the central conflict is interesting and the character work carries us through, the script could have used one final work through to keep audiences engaged. The film is introducing some new concepts related to the multiverse that require some lofty exposition, but it is never as interesting as the visual spectacle of seeing those concepts put into play. Our characters go from place to place searching for some magical artifacts, but it never feels truly urgent and compelling especially in the grand scheme of things. The film feels as if it is pulled in two different directions in its story, one aspect wants to be character studies of Doctor Strange and Wanda Maximoff while the other wants to be this grand multiverse adventure. You can tell which one Sam Raimi clearly wanted to make which is why the multiverse feels underutilized and the story drags along without having much else to supplement it. The characters certainly carry this movie and it is a wildly entertaining ride, but leaves room to be desired.
The score is certainly haunting and Danny Elfman’s work adds to the horror ambience the film employs. It’s a good mix of heroic and valiant music when Doctor Strange is saving civilians and eerie chords played when entering a visual spectacle of magic. There’s even a sequence that has a musical duel of sorts that was both a visual and audiological treat to behold. If for nothing else, the movie is worth the price of admission for the score alone.
Where the film goes next is certainly exciting especially seeing how our central characters are developed throughout. Wanda Maximoff’s character arc is easily the best part of the film especially for those who watched WandaVision. The multiverse elements of the film are fun, but aren’t as utilized to the full potential as one may think. Sam Raimi was certainly more interested in creating a horror-esque character film than expanding the wider multiverse story which will both please and disappoint fans. No matter what, no one can say that this film didn’t bring a new flavor and style the MCU the likes we have never seen before.
(B -) Haunting