By John Schilling
Disclaimer: Minor spoilers ahead
Long gone are the days where Marvel Studios could seamlessly release filler movies and sustain the franchise with the occasional blockbuster. In recent years, Marvel has set the bar too high with releases like “Avengers: Infinity War,” “Avengers: Endgame,” and most recently, “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” Not to mention, the endless amount of Marvel’s Disney+ content, making the superhero genre as omnipresent as ever before.
It is no wonder why “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” a sequel, comes nearly six years after the protagonist’s first introduction into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) in “Doctor Strange,” but the neurosurgeon turned sorcerer (Benedict Cumberbatch) has still appeared in four other films between his own two stories.
Since its release last week, the film has proven to be divisive with some praising its darkness and others criticizing it as underwhelming or for its pacing, among other things. These two perspectives, however, are both valid and not mutually exclusive.
The best things about “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” have much to do with the individual puzzle pieces of the story, some of them being bigger than others. The worst thing about the film, however, is the bigger picture that those puzzle pieces create.
For a Marvel film, the acting is particularly praiseworthy with solid performances from Benedict Cumberbatch as the film’s main hero, Benedict Wong returning as Wong, and newcomer Xochitl Gomez as America Chavez. The main standout, however, is Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff in her best acting performance yet.
For years, Olsen has taken a backseat to many of the Avengers and only rose to real prominence last year in WandaVision, the Disney+ show that precedes this film. That show made clear there was more to Wanda than meets the eye, and her character was less of a hero and more of someone who existed in the gray area of right versus wrong or good versus evil.
This feels like it should be referred to as Wanda’s character growth, but I suspect it has more to do with Marvel’s many directors passing the characters around from film to film like action figures they now get a turn to play with. “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” certainly makes this feel true and in more ways than one.
Since joining the MCU, Cumberbatch has worked under five different directors (six if you separate the Russo Brothers) as Doctor Strange, and in every film, he feels different than before. In this film, Cumberbatch is a scarred man, burdened by his past decisions both as a superhero and in his personal life. In “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” however, he is no more than a laid-back, sometimes goofy plot device.
It’s not productive nor reasonable to dissect differing directions or expect Cumberbatch to offer an identical performance every time, but it becomes hard to ignore when key moments seemingly conflict with the character’s past actions or emotions.
The same is true although slightly different for Olsen’s Wanda, who feels like the character she has always been, but it’s slightly jarring seeing her as the villain of the film when you consider where she was when WandaVision ended. In that series, Wanda’s grief drove her to essentially take an entire town hostage before realizing what she was doing was wrong. That was too far, but in this film, Wanda is perfectly fine with killing others to get what she wants.
Wanda’s sudden spark of pure evil is accredited to her being brainwashed by the Darkhold, a book of spells, and something that was teased at the end of WandaVision. However, it still comes across as something forced into “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” for the sake of the plot.
This is not unique to Wanda, however, as the film also incorporates whatever the MCU-film cookie cutter deems appropriate, including a few surprise appearances, some light humor, and a complete suspension of disbelief.
These surprise appearances are sure to please as many of them are famous characters that fans have been waiting for the MCU to introduce, but these characters are shuffled away as quickly as they are introduced and with complete ease.
It is almost as if Marvel Studios required director Sam Raimi to incorporate these characters and Raimi obliged but not without sending them on their merry way before they could have any real impact. This is where the suspension of disbelief comes into play.
The film expects us to believe that an overpowered Wanda can easily dispose of superheroes and sorcerers around her with little to no effort. Yet when it comes to her fights against the main protagonists in Strange, Wong, or Chavez, she may gain the upperhand but either opts not to finish them off or can’t follow through with it for some reason. It seems silly to talk about suspension of disbelief in a Marvel movie, but even if the logic is far-fetched, it should still be consistent.
This is not the fault of Raimi, whose direction comes across as insanely crippled by the Marvel overlords. Despite having his name attached to it, the film only feels like it is truly his during brief, horror-esque sequences and with a cameo from his good friend Bruce Campbell. These dark, intense moments are the highlight of the film and showcase some of Raimi’s best work but much of it comes in waves instead of it existing throughout, undoing much of the film’s tension and causing it to drag during some parts.
Ultimately, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” feels like two different visions morphed into a lackluster final product that leaves much to be desired despite some redeeming qualities. Still, the film is a typical enjoyable watch for any Marvel fan or moviegoer, but it would be wise to curb your expectations and try to enjoy the experience of the puzzle if not the actual puzzle itself.