The latest instalment in the monolithic Marvel Cinematic Universe, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is given the self-effacing task of heralding a new age for the superhero franchise. When it comes to its recent cinematic outings, the MCU has been treading water ever since the poetic finality of Endgame: Chloe Zhao’s Eternals was a shallow disappointment; Black Widow served as thinly disguised damage control. And though Shang-Chi was (for the most part) a joyful surprise, the best post-2019 entry was the wonderfully fun, feelgood, but backwards-looking Spider-Man: No Way Home. In short, the powers that be are clearly counting on this Doctor Strange sequel to get things moving again. Unfortunately for all involved, Multiverse of Madness is a lazy, hollow vehicle with less life than Zombie Strange.
Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is sullenly attending Christine Palmer’s (Rachel McAdams) wedding to another man – forget the fact that she’s not been mentioned since the first Doctor Strange film and just accept that the goateed sorcerer is heartbroken – when a gigantic, single-eyed, tentacled creature (less Lovecraft and more Monsters Inc.) crashes its way through the streets below. The interdimensional creature is in pursuit of teenager America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez, sadly more McGuffin than person), who’s been sent to this universe by an alt-Strange.
America has the ability to move between parallel universes, a power she can’t yet control but which makes her a rather hot commodity for anyone keen to threaten the fabric of space-time. Strange then decides it’s his destiny to protect her and goes to enlist the help of former Avenger Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen). Unfortunately for him, there’s nothing that the Scarlet Witch wants more than to be reunited with her children in a parallel universe, and America is her ticket there.
It’s a shame that an exciting premise – the Multiverse – has none of the madness it promised. There’s a single sequence that teases some fun (though uglily rendered) ideas, where Strange and America tumble through portal after portal and briefly pass through various universes: there’s one with dinosaurs, one that’s animated, another where people are made up of garish paint splatters. But where do they land? The same New York City street from which they came, except for some extra CGI flowers on buildings – oh, and in this truly unhinged and barrier-pushing world, red means go and green means stop. Unlike Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, this is one dull traipse through the universes.
The screenplay is somehow both too busy and too straightforward. The pace of exposition is incessant and suffocating, while the story jumps from one thing to the next without emotional drive nor narrative momentum. There are two spell books, one good and one evil, which the characters chase for a while; there’s the Illuminati’s introduction, which is frankly just an excuse to throw in some underwhelming and inconsequential cameos in the hope they might elicit a few cheers in the audience.
The stakes are too great to be convincing (of course things will be resolved by the time the credits roll!). The dialogue is unbelievably clunky, with lines like “There might be another, other, other me” or “I’m not a monster, I’m a mother”. The exposition is fundamentally lazy – all we need to know of America’s past is shown thanks to a paving slab in another reality that causes pedestrians’ memories to holographically appear in front of them. How convenient. Meanwhile, the characters are flattened to singular traits: Strange pines for Christine, and America is fearful of her power.
The gravest slight of all however, is against Wanda. While prior movie screen time entailed having nothing but tragedy inflicted on her, WandaVision (essential viewing if you hope to follow what’s going on) finally granted her the depth of character and emotional complexity she deserved. That is, until Multiverse of Madness discarded all that progress in favour of the sexist, archetypal mad woman. Screenwriter Michael Waldron takes a powerful and complex character and cuts her down to the single trait of ‘desperate mother’ – a point that’s made ad nauseum. As a special bonus, she also serves as the hysterical and monstrous antithesis to Strange’s cool and collected persona. Women are unstable and men are level-headed, remember?
Even when Waldron pretends to call out these double standards (“You break the rules and become a hero,” Wanda tells Strange. “I do it and I become the enemy.”), he continually reinforces the trope that men can wield power responsibly, but women are made insane and dangerous by it. And somehow, despite the narrative injustices, Olsen still manages to pull out an honest and compelling performance – it’s arguably the film’s greatest magic trick.
Amidst all this, there’s a handful of hints at what Multiverse of Madness could have been. There’s gore, violence, some light horror, some more brightness and colour. Auteur director Sam Raimi stages some creative and well-executed sequences, like in one scene involving mirrors (no spoilers!) and the inclusion of animated corpses, but such instances are purely decorative; the film ultimately belongs to Kevin Feige and the interests of the Disney machine.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness has little substance of its own. It exists to tie up any remaining loose ends from what came before, and to lay the foundations for the next phase of the MCU franchise but in itself, it’s perfunctory. The characters are done a disservice, the potential of the Multiverse is squandered, and even the finale proves anticlimactic. Our only solace is that, in some faraway universe, Sam Raimi was given complete creative control to make a good film.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness releases in cinemas from Thursday 5th May.