Review: 'Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness' (2022) Dir. Sam Raimi
Not just a mooted concept, but a full-blown plot point! The multiverse is back for chapter 28 in the MCU, and it brings all sorts of heroes and villains together for a nightmarish adventure...
Plagued by dreams of the multiverse, Doctor Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) comes to learn that the notion is far wider reaching than he imagined with the arrival of young America Chavez (Gomez), a girl being hunted by demonic forces for her power to travel the multiverse itself.
With the help of Supreme Sorcerer Wong (Wong), Strange seeks the rogue Wanda Maximoff (Olsen) to help him battle magic with magic. But it turns out the darker side to Wanda - her alter ego Scarlet Witch - is also seeking the power to travel through the multiverse.
Vowing to protect America and also keep Scarlet Witch at bay, Strange must navigate through the multiverse itself to find those able to help him destroy the Darkhold, a book of dark magic that is fuelling the nightmare and threatens to tear all known universes apart forever...
Director Sam Raimi is beloved to many film fans worldwide for either one or two movie genres – horror and superhero. Raimi introduced us to the 1981 cult classic ‘The Evil Dead’ which spawned numerous sequels, adaptations and pop culture influences. He also helmed one of the first major superhero movies back in 2002 with ‘Spider-Man’, leading to a successful trilogy, years before the Marvel Cinematic Universe was a twinkle in Kevin Feige’s eye. Now, Raimi is back to blend both of his key genres in helming the return of Doctor Steven Strange exploring the multiverse, a notion that captured mainstream audiences thanks to Spider-Man in both ‘Into the Spider-Verse’, ‘No Way Home’ and the Marvel animated series ‘What If...?’
We launch straight into an intergalactic / dimensional battle that throws the multiverse concept at us in a far more drastic way than ever before. A walking MacGuffin, America Chavez, in the shape of newcomer Xochitl Gomez, shows what future potential lies for her in the MCU and her reason for being introduced here. Gomez is likeable, channelling that spunky, fish-out-of-water self-assurance seen from Awkwafina in ‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’, but there’s something under-cooked from America as a character, and she often feels shoe-horned in to be the under current for the film’s plot point.
A strong supporting cast of returning faces include Benedict Wong as Supreme Sorcerer Wong, kicking much more intergalactic ass this time around, Chiwetel Ejiofor as a mysterious multiverse Mordo and the lovely Rachel McAdams as Christine.
McAdams feels more of a key-player this time around and develops both her core character and that of Doctor Strange himself. In fact, most of the supporting cast are given much to do, with higher stakes and great on/off scenes with Strange for a barrage of emotional and often amusing connections. Among these strands of interweaving relationships lies the story, one about preventing not just this universe, but all universes, from utter chaos and collapse. That point is never lost, and sacrifice / redemption is a key factor in this narrative. References to ‘Infinity War’ still linger and what has happened to the world since. It also is carried along by self-belief, self-confidence and self-appreciation, something we expect in the superhero genre, but still effective with characters we’ve followed for years.
Yet, there feels a slight of hand in marketing this sequel, because if you go in expecting a multiverse of madness, you may be a little disappointed. The action takes place mostly in places we’ve seen before, or with no real push of imagination. A New York City, but a little different (twice). A mountain peaking through the mist. That’s really it. Bar a few seconds of multiverse madness when Strange is sent through the portal, we never get to see the teases of dinosaur universes, human/paint hybrid universes, hell universes, underwater universes…we are still playing it on solid ground. For those invested in the concept of the multiverse and, coupled with the visual beauty and kaleidoscope of effects seen in 2016s ‘Doctor Strange’, this outing feels lacklustre. Some of the action dazzles with magic and is often relentless, ticking boxes for what you expect from an MCU affair, but there are no real wow factors, and nothing regarding the multiverse you will remember or take away. Well, I say that. A host of soon-to-be memorable cameo appearances may well make up for the lack of “madness” in this multiverse!
Leading this multiverse fight is Benedict Cumberbatch, once again proving he was a solid casting choice as Strange. He adds to both his self-assurance and smug attitude, but also his fragility and loneliness. More times than not we see the real Strange who has made sacrifices in helping save the world more times than he’d have liked, and still never feels truly happy. Cumberbatch looks the part, conjuring up spells and wizardry with conviction, but he also acts the part with strength and hope, balanced with fear and desperation. It’s also wonderful to see Elizabeth Olsen break away from the small screen and return to the big screen where her Wanda Maximoff truly belongs. She does hold back here as Wanda and her alter-ego, Scarlet Witch. As a note, it will help those unfamiliar with ‘WandaVision’ to do their research on what has led her here.
Olsen acts for all she’s worth, making this outing a really powerful one in terms of connecting with audiences as a hero and a mother. As Scarlet Witch however, Raimi manages to use her character and moniker as “the most powerful Avenger” to bring out the scares and nasty surprises he is known far, adding a very unique stamp to the often kiddie friendly superhero universe. Raimi has Olsen channel as much horror as possible when she is unleashed, harkening back to such classic horror moments that will remind you of ‘The Terminator’, ‘Carrie’ and ‘Alien’, for all the right reasons without being a gimmick. She's a powerful, scary and genuinely sinister presence to see unfurl on screen.
There are jump-scares, demonic ghouls, zombies, grizzly deaths, blood-curdling cries, wild storms, possessions….you name it, Raimi throws it in. Twisted camera angles, distorted visual effects and editing - it's Marvel, but not as we know it! The horror element is a very off-kilter offering that works because it’s daring, bold and fresh in a genre we often know what to expect. This is the winning aspect to an otherwise standard MCU action-adventure.
Not quite as mind-bending or innovate as the 2016 debut, Sam Raimi still creates a unique nightmare for our heroes and villains, with enough magic and mayhem to always be entertaining, led by key players Cumberbatch and Olsen.
'Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness' is a Marvel Studios production.