Review: Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)

Preamble

To reverse engineer a famous Shakespearean quote, (sorry William) “O {Raimi, Raimi}, where art thou {Raimi}.” The sequel to Doctor Strange represents a return for the American auteur- Sam Raimi. His directorial efforts have been as influential in horror cinema as much the comic book movie sub-genre (with his Spider-Man trilogy). Is his return to mainstream filmmaking a success? You can find out after the drop. In the meantime, what did you think of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness? Let me know in the comments below.

Review

Doctor Strange’s solo outing in 2016 was quite a frustrating experience. While there was a fundamental understanding of the title character (in the screenplay), there was also a timidness to the movie’s visuals. Scott Derrickson’s Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) effort played like a beginner’s course in surrealism with bland post Inception imagery and a muted colour palette; a far cry from the nightmarish Steve Ditko comic art of yore. It comes as something of a surprise that Multiverse of Madness is equally a mixed blessing as the first film.

Acting as a sequel to WandaVision and Doctor Strange’s various MCU appearances, the Multiverse of Madness is about Stephen Strange’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) mission to protect America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez). The young girl has the power to travel through the Multiverse and is being hunted by numerous creatures to extract her powers. The mastermind behind these attacks is Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) who hopes to kill America so she can travel to another dimension to be with her children.

Aside from arguably being the MCU’s first foray into horror, Multiverse of Madness does shine with its film-making. Featuring whip pans to reveal characters and frenetic demon point of view shots, Raimi’s style engulfs the 2022 sequel with an exciting sense of carefreeness. However, the moments of film-making that stood out were the ones where Raimi was attempting to top sequences from his previous movies.

There’s one protracted slow-motion sequence where America and Stephen are travelling through the Multiverse that plays like a series of splash pages in motion. The sequence imbues Strange with a much needed beguiling sense of surrealism that the first film lacked. It also has this “Hold my beer” quality insofar as comparing it to a similarly staged scene in Spider-Man 3, where Peter Parker attempts to reach for his engagement ring amid a fight with the New Goblin.

Likewise, there’s a sense of fun to Raimi’s horror sequences whether it’s seeing zombified versions of characters or simple scenes of tension such as a moment where two kids get scared from the lights going out. This aspect is also reflected in the music. There’s confrontation at the tail end of the film that involves musical notes. The scene slyly plays on Danny Elfman’s score becoming a source of diegetic music. The scene also mirrors the moment where Spider-Man dodges Green Goblin’s sharp blades in Raimi’s 2002 comic book movie. It reminds the viewer of the sense of play and weight that the director has in his comic book adaptations.

Alas, much like an annoying series of record scratches, Multiverse of Madness suffers from instances of its writing. Chief among them is the film’s handling of Wanda. The series WandaVision was a fascinating outlier for the MCU insofar as its depth was concerned. It used the pretence of Americana (via the nostalgia from various sitcom shows) to illustrate some emotionally resonating themes about trauma and loss. At the same time, the pathos for Wanda’s journey from emotional manipulator to someone who has to make a terrible personal choice for the livelihood of a whole community was powerful.

In Multiverse of Madness, this is undermined by a heel turn, which seeks to undermine and make the character incredibly one-note. To compound matters, the character’s agency is also lost due to a plot point of Wanda turning rogue due to exposure to an evil book called “The Dark Hold.” This also creates a split personality between Wanda (the good side) and The Scarlett Witch (the malicious side). Unfortunately, this rich vein of a premise is hardly explored.

I can see that part of this choice was to contrast Wanda with Stephen insofar as both are powerful beings who are willing to break the fabric of reality as a means to an end (for selfish and human reasons). However, there’s very little sense of the latter grappling with his reality-bending choices. It mostly feels like lip service and a prelude to a far more interesting film.

This is a shame as Elizabeth Olsen commits to the Raimi generated horror. This is particularly apparent in the third act where she has to play a version of herself that’s a cross between Samara (from the Ring) and the other female demonic presences that have graced the director’s work. In these scenes, Olsen’s sense of inhuman callousness was fun to watch despite the problematic way her character was set up. Benedict Cumberbatch gives his most emotional performance as the title character. There’s an often asked question that’s directed at Strange throughout the film- “Are you happy?” Cumberbatch’s performance during these times when he answers that question are the most impressive. He puts on a brave face to hide the sense of loss he feels. These are the moments that marry Raimi’s genuine appreciation for heroic pathos and the appeal of Doctor Strange as a comic book character insofar as being quite vulnerable despite the great power he wields.

Walking out of the Multiverse of Madness, I was reminded of The Monkey’s Paw. I got a Sam Raimi directed comic book movie (one in which he does not compromise on the emotions of his heroes and a gleeful sense of play to the horror elements). However, it came at the price of a show and character that I love. Sadly the old proverb- “Be careful what you wish for” still holds true.

About Sartaj Govind Singh

Notes from a distant observer: “Sartaj is a very eccentric fellow with a penchant for hats. He likes watching films and writes about them in great analytical detail. He has an MA degree in Philosophy and has been known to wear Mickey Mouse ears on his birthday.”
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