Only a few weeks ago I used a review of Marvel Studios’ Spider-Man: No Way Home to make the argument that their broad interconnected franchise of superhero films represented a major shift from traditional film narrative, and deserved – indeed, needed – to be judged on their own merits. Now, with the release of Sam Raimi’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, we can put my proposed rules to the test.
Multiverse of Madness picks up some years after the original Doctor Strange (2016). It may seem like a long time between instalments, but Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) has been seemingly omnipresent in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU): a Thor: Ragnarok appearance here, a major role in Avengers: Infinity War there, and most recently a key appearance in 2021’s mega-hit Spider-Man: No Way Home. That last film saw Strange discover the “multiverse”, a vast assemblage of parallel universes existing in a fragile alignment with one another. When a young woman named America Chavez arrives in New York, pursued by some giant tentacled demon, Strange is confronted by the multiverse once again – and must seek the help of Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) to keep America safe.
In my No Way Home review, I hypothesised that the interconnectedness of the MCU should really be seen as a strength. Each film rewards the hard-core fandom with references and continuity links to other works in the MCU. It is interesting to see Multiverse of Madness test that hypothesis with possibly the most interconnected feature yet. For fans that have bought deeply into the MCU it is a joy to watch. For anyone that dips in and out of the MCU it may feel a little like inside baseball. One of the pleasures of the film is seeing the links and references as they happen; as such it’s difficult to list what specific texts are referenced, as each title risks spoiling the surprise. For the more casual viewer, I suspect the film remains very watchable – although if, like me, you bounced off Disney+ serial WandaVision in its first few episodes, you may find Wanda’s story arc a little confusing at first.
In fact, it is remarkable how carefully Raimi’s film works to be as easy to follow as possible. The premise of discovering an array of alternative universes suggests all manner of potential weirdness and diversity, yet Multiverse of Madness is unexpectedly conservative in how Strange’s universe-hopping adventure plays out. Visually it is a marvel – no pun intended – but narratively it has a clean, worker-like construction that is satisfying but familiar.
The film’s visual aesthetic is remarkably distinct. After musing over No Way Home on how the visual texture of Marvel Studios’ films is an inevitable by-product of an inter-connected franchise, I was surprised to see just how much of director Sam Raimi’s own style permeated across the film. This is the pulpiest that the MCU has ever been: hand-held photography, unexpectedly gory violence, and a genuinely gleeful approach to the overall absurdity of the piece. It has been nine years since Raimi last helmed a movie, and it is such a pleasure to have him back. Perhaps Marvel can afford to let their directors stretch the format further than they think. It is worth noting that this a significantly darker and more violent take than the MCU usually allows – there is a real chance younger viewers may find it a bit much, although I always believe in stretching horizons. If your kids have never seen a horror movie, Multiverse of Madness is actually a pretty decent introduction to the genre.
Benedict Cumberbatch seems at ease for the first time. There was a stiffness to his earlier turns as Strange, but gifted with strong material (the screenplay is credited to Loki‘s Michael Waldron) and some well-placed humour he actually excels. Many of the other returning cast members do equally solid work: Benedict Wong plays solid support with a good line in banter, while Rachel McAdams gets some proper stuff to do this time around – in the original Doctor Strange she seemed woefully under-used.
Highlight among the new cast is Xochitl Gomez as the dimension-hopping America Chavez. She is a great character in the comic books, and is translated beautifully here – in large part due to Gomez’s bright, engaging performance. I really hope Marvel Studios exploit the character well in future: the idea of teaming her up with Hailee Steinfield’s Kate Bishop or Iman Vellani’s Ms Marvel just seems too full of potential to ignore.
The hardcore fans will likely have a ball with this one, and it absolutely serves them best to see the film before all of the various surprises and twists are spoiled. General viewers will still have a good time, albeit with just a small sense of not being in on a joke. This is a solid film with some absolutely stunning ideas and creations peppered throughout. It is a definite improvement on Strange’s first screen adventure, and an entertaining contribution to the ever-expanding MCU.