Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)
One of the major reasons I don't read comic books is because I really don't know where to start. When there are only a few volumes that tell a story, like Watchmen, I am fine. Long running sagas from the 1940s until the present with major and minor characters, numerous universes and multiple reboots are another thing. I know that there are some major storylines that pop up, but I have no idea how one follows who is who and who did what without at some point just giving up. Then again, my brain is full of deadwax matrices, catalog numbers and label variations for a century and a half of sound recording; it may be it just doesn't have room to shove more in.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is getting about as complicated as the comic books. It's not just a movie series evolving directly from Iron Man anymore. Rather, it has grown to annex two different Spider-Man series and, in a roundabout way, the X-Men movies. To make matters even more confusing there are the Marvel television shows, some being canon, some not. One of the biggest canon series in recent years was Wandavision, where Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), aka the Scarlet Witch, has a mental breakdown and tries to deal with the death of Vision by using her powers to bring an entire small town under her control and play out a fantasy in which Vision is still alive and the two live an idyllic sit-com life.
That, more than the original Doctor Strange, is what leads into Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Another witch by the name of Agatha Harkness had invaded Wanda's fantasy using spells from a book called the Darkhold, and by the end of Wandavision Maximoff has come into possession of it after defeating her rival and returning Westview to normal. The problem is in the process she did not just lose Vision a second time but also lost the family she had created - a family that she desperately wants back.
America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) is a teenage girl who has a power seemingly no one else does in any universe: she can travel the length of the multiverse. Because of this she is being pursued by various demons trying to take the power from her. While she can travel she is unable to control when it happens or where she goes, but in various universes she has been aided by versions of Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). This again happens when she arrives in the prime Marvel universe. Realizing that they are dealing with witchcraft and not sorcery, Strange has Wong (Benedict Wong) take America to Kamar Taj for protection while he departs to speak with Wanda Maximoff.
Unfortunately, it turns out that she is the one behind America's pursuit. Realizing that her children actually exist in another universe, but lacking the power to travel there, she intends to take America's power and, with her own powers and the spells from the Darkhold, destroy anything that gets in her way. Fleeing to another universe with America, Strange attempts to protect her the best that he can as well as find the Book of Vishanti, which provides the user any spell they need to defeat the power of the Darkhold.
Spider-Man: No Way Home pretty much officially introduced the Multiverse (although the Loki television series and What If... animated series delved into it, with the latter briefly tying into this movie) and brought back the Peter Parkers played by Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield. I don't know if presenting an older version of Maguire's Spider-Man was incentive to get Sam Raimi out of semi-retirement to direct another movie, but his involvement was a large selling point for Multiverse of Madness. For me, as much as I love the majority of his films, I was concerned about this being a director-for-hire situation. After all, Oz the Great and Powerful was a lifeless exercise in updating a classic tale with modern Hollywood "magic". Marvel films also seem to often be better in the hands of directors who have no personal style as they tend to do what they are told and churn out the product as requested.
Surprisingly it looks like they let Raimi have at it, and that may be part of why there was a divided reception. As much as audiences constantly clamor for "something different", the moment they get it they throw a fit, and the fact that Multiverse of Madness is practically a horror film and that Doctor Strange is not necessarily the central character allowed for many to be thrown. Raimi himself didn't want the movie to be too much like The Evil Dead, but it has an evil book, demons and a zombie version of the main character, all thanks to Michael Waldron writing the movie with Raimi in mind. Same with the effects department, as the zombie version of Strange looks quite similar to the resurrected version of Ash's evil twin in Army of Darkness.
Raimi also up to his usual directing tricks. He has some interesting pans and fades, all trademarks of his style, and he takes things about as far as his Marvel and Disney overlords will allow him. Unfortunately, because of many of his stylistic choices not gelling with the more mainstream audiences, this movie will probably just give Disney more room to say that it's dangerous to take chances with these movies, despite the fact that Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings proved otherwise. In fact, if there is any movie in the canon this approaches in tone and style, it would be that one, as there is little here that feels like a direct sequel to Doctor Strange.
I felt it was a further step in the right direction, particularly since Doctor Strange was a dull, rehashed origin story with an unmemorable villain. Multiverse of Madness is barely over two hours, manages to tell a full story and also completes a character arc for one of the more popular Marvel characters. It does a lot, both in being entertaining and being one of the few Phase 4 movies so far that has managed to move whatever story they want to tell forward. It is also no surprise that this was much more popular with people who do not necessarily like many of the Marvel films. The special effects have improved immensely at this point, leaving the video game graphics and rubbery monsters behind. And, speaking of consistent, there are the required appearances by both Bruce Campbell and the Oldsmobile.
A legitimate criticism of the movie, however, is that it is called Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. While his first trip through realities with America does present glimpses of a number of interesting worlds the majority the movie takes place in the prime universe, a secondary universe where the Illuminati hold the place the Avengers do in the prime and a third universe which is dying due to the actions of its Doctor Strange. Not necessarily the varied universes proposed - definitely not up to Sliders standards, although they seemingly borrow some ideas from the early part of the show - but rather just a small sampling, and not really a lot of madness. With the giant eyeball creature in the beginning one would hope for a lot more, but it was either budget or just having enough story between America and Wanda that Waldron thought doing more would be too much.
Also, if Disney and Marvel are going to continue to try to score political points with their attempts at "inclusion", they need to put some real stories behind it. It is revealed that America Chavez was raised by two moms in a same-sex relationship, but the universe she comes from looks completely unrelated to any of the others shown. It seems like it was thrown in because either Raimi or Waldron got a production note from the powers-that-be to make sure an LGBTQ+ character or two was included. It's one of the worst examples so far of including characters just to be there, since just the glimpse of their world leads to so many questions. Are all children in that world raised by a pair of women? Is there a completely different family structure that includes the men? Is this truly a same-sex couple, or are women paired and forced to raise children in what appears to be an idyllic paradise when it's really a dystopian nightmare? A little bit more elaboration could have helped further develop America Chavez.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness may be far from perfect, but it does show an improvement over past Marvel films, in particular the first Doctor Strange, and provides a solid bit of entertainment. It is also a nice return to form for Sam Raimi who, if he returns to retirement, at least won't have Oz the Great and Powerful sitting there as a disappointing whimper of a final film.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)
Time: 126 minutes
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen, Xochitl Gomez, Benedict Wong
Director: Sam Raimi