Director Sam Raimi brings an invigorating shot of horror to the Marvel universe – but Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness is disappointingly tonally dissonant.
It was a given that by hiring The Evil Dead director Sam Raimi to helm Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness, Marvel was going to get some of his distinct style along with him. Unsurprisingly, the moments of light – and sometimes not so light – horror and gore that he brings to the sequel are some of the best parts of the film. Disappointingly, they can also be the worst.
In this shaky but exciting sequel, Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) comes across America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a girl with multiverse-hopping powers being hunted down by eldritch beings. He needs the help of all of his allies to defend her, including the one person who knows the most about alternate realities – Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), who is still haunted by the false reality and perfect family she created during the course of the WandaVision series.
Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness undoubtedly opens the doors to a whole universe (and many more) of possibilities. In theory, the Marvel Cinematic Universe can now do anything its writers and studio execs can stretch their imagination to. Perhaps that’s the problem. Through America’s powers, we glimpse into many interesting and visually distinct universes (think Spider-Verse, but with the capability for live action), but the ones the characters linger in are generic, futuristic variations of their own universe, similar in most ways except for the fates of familiar characters.
The multiverse allows for infinite possibilities, and yet the writers haven’t yet realised that this could allow them to break out of the formula altogether.
What does present an exciting break from Marvel tradition is Raimi’s horror sensibilities. In one of the opening set pieces, we see Strange defend Chavez against an eldritch and Lovecraftian creature with many tentacles and one huge eye – and it’s worth noting that the special effects are fantastic. This is the first time (at least in the live action MCU) that we’ve seen monsters like this. The closest we’ve come before is the entity Dormammu from the first Dr. Strange.
Sadly, these otherworldly creatures appear less and less, giving way to a more expected big bad. Even more unfortunately, this big bad is much more compelling and nuanced than Strange (whose arc focuses, again, on his unresolved feelings for Rachel McAdams’ Christine) and America Chavez (a walking, talking MacGuffin).
This is what makes the movie so tonally dissonant. It can’t tell if it wants to break the mould and be a Raimi film, or continue the tradition of being a cameo-filled crowd pleaser. It’s at its strongest during moments of pure horror, and there are quite a few surprisingly juicy bits of violence throughout, as reality-bending characters show what it’s like to use the full extent of their powers. But even within these horror-inspired scenes Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness seems unsure of itself. There are as many straight-faced moments of fright as there are of lighthearted pastiche.
But both of these horror-esque aspects are incredibly fun, and as close as a Marvel film has come yet to being truly surprising. Perhaps even shocking depending on the scene. The worst comes when this is combined with the quippy, fan pleasing trademarks of these films, and everything is thrown off-kilter.
That’s not to say that fans – especially those who are knowledgeable on Marvel, including pre-MCU and its less popular entries – won’t appreciate the choice of cameos. But didn’t we already do this in Spider-Man: No Way Home? It’s great to see some well-loved faces in a packed cinema screening, with the fans cheering. But from my own experience, the pleasure found in these appearances is limited when it comes time for a rewatch.
In short, it’s disappointing that Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness doesn’t choose a direction and commit to it. It would have been a breath of fresh air to see an MCU film that tackled an entirely different genre. Alas, this isn’t that, and it ends up being somewhat predictable.
As with all Marvel films, though, there is always some enjoyment to be found in the predictable elements. Stephen Strange is the same as ever, with the exception that his sentient cape is just slightly more tattered, and America Chavez is basically likeable. Wanda is by far the most nuanced character here, though, and Elizabeth Olsen steals the entire show in the role. It helps that she also has the absolute best costume (in a film full of great costumes, as nearly everyone’s a sorcerer of some kind).
The action jumps all over the place as much as the tone, but that brings with it a reliable supply of set pieces. When it’s not a fight against an eldritch horror, it’s a sorcerer battle at Kamar Taj, or freefalling through various multiverses, or Strange versus Strange, and it’s all engaging, and set to Danny Elfman’s creative and fittingly varied and fluctuating score.
Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness winds up being an exciting sequel with some genuinely innovative aspects coming from Raimi. But ultimately it’s not as much of a break from tradition as we were led to expect, or hope for. It does, however, leave you excited for a day that Marvel does decide to properly experiment with genre, and maybe, hopefully, this a step in the direction of the franchise trying to be something more.
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