Review: Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness Is a Chaotic Mix of Tones and Styles

In many ways, director Sam Raimi (the Evil Dead trilogy, the original Spider-Man trilogy) was the absolute perfect choice to take over the reins of the second Doctor Strange film, when original director Scott Derrikson (who directed/co-wrote the first chapter) left early in the pre-production process. People seem to think that the more Raimi’s directorial personality shone through on Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, the better the film would be…and I may have been one of those people not too long ago. Having seen the finished product, I can report that plenty of Raimi’s style, humor and overall vision made it into the film…and that’s a big part of the problem.

That’s not me knocking Raimi in the slightest. I don’t believe for a second that he was manhandled by the powers that be at Marvel Studios; I believe that he was given an approved script (credited to Michael Waldron), and that’s the movie he made to the best of his abilities. But the new Doctor Strange is a patchwork of tones and styles that reveal different points in Raimi’s career (drawing a great deal from his horror background, including the Evil Dead movies and 2009’s great Drag Me to Hell), but also inventing or borrowing from newer references. The end result is somewhat jarring, with a touch of unevenness, but still with enough of what makes the character of Dr. Stephen Strange one of the more conflicted and compelling in the Marvel universe.

I feel like a great deal of the movie’s primary plot is dangerously loaded with spoilers, and I’ll do my best to avoid the big ones (but if it’s in a trailer, I consider it fair game for discussion). Serving as a follow-up to both the Disney+ series “WandaVision” and last year’s Spider-Man: No Way Home (which featured Strange quite prominently disrupting the multiverse), Multiverse of Madness features a handful of alternate-universe Stranges, some misguided, some outright villainous, but all giving Benedict Cumberbatch a great deal to chew on as an actor, with variations that still have to seem like more or less the same person. Cumberbatch clearly digs playing this character, who is still wrestling with feelings of guilt after the events of Avengers: Infinity War, where he willingly handed over the stone Thanos needed to destroy half the life in the universe because doing so “was the only way” to ultimately defeat the mad Titan. He wasn’t wrong, but a great number of people lost quite a lot in the five-year gap between The Snap and everyone returning from right where they disappeared.

He and actual Sorcerer Supreme Wong (Benedict Wong) still occupy and protect their New York residence, and it’s there that they meet a young woman named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), who has the ability to jump between universes in the multiverse. She can’t exactly control her powers, but when she gets scared, a star-shaped portal opens up and whatever is near it gets sucked in. And in the universe she just came from, Doctor Strange tried to kill her in order to take her powers and to undo harm being done to the multiverse by an unseen force controlling an evil book known as the Darkhold, which strangely enough was last seen in the position of Wanda Maximoff’s new magic-infused identity, the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). 

Despite what the trailers may lead you to believe, there’s no getting around that the Scarlet Witch is straight up the villain of this entire movie. She desperately wants America’s powers so that she can travel to a parallel universe where her children Billy (Julian Hilliard) and Tommy (Jeff Klyne), whom she essentially manifested in “WandaVision” are both real and very much alive (unlike in her current universe). She not only wants to jump into a world where the kids exist, but she also wants to be able to jump to another one should one or both of her kids die from illness or anything bad that happens to them. She’s been fully corrupted by the Darkhold, and it makes her the most powerful character in the Marvel universe—and its most dangerous as well. Reasoning with her doesn’t work, so Strange and Wong enlist the entirety of sorcery on earth to fight Wanda, and they are mercilessly defeated, leaving Strange and America to hide in another dimension. And that’s where things get nutty.

The Multiverse of Madness checks in with characters from the first Doctor Strange film, including Michael Stuhlbarg’s Dr. Nicodemus West, who is in one doozy of a sequence; Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Karl Mordo (or at least an alternate universe version of him); and a couple different versions of Rachel McAdams’ Dr. Christine Palmer, whose wedding is one of the kick-off points of the film, but who is shown later in the film as one universe’s multiverse expert, in the employ of a group of super-powered beings known as the Illuminati (whose membership I won’t reveal, even if the trailers have spoiled a few of them). The Illuminati sequence is meant to be jaw-dropping (and it is), but it happens so quickly that we don’t really get to sit with it long enough for its significance to really soak in. In the end, since the scene takes place in a multiverse, the implications of the sequence are debatable, but it’s still a lot of fun and comes across more as a punchy live-action “What If…” episode.

Not surprisingly, some of the best moments in the movie are when Raimi’s influence comes blazing through. There are zombies in this movie, including a zombie Doctor Strange. There are floating demons that seem pulled right out of Raimi’s Army of Darkness, with sinister voices that will seem very familiar to Evil Dead devotees. Perhaps the best sequence in the film involves two versions of Strange fighting using musical notes (don’t ask), which serves as a lovely tribute to composer Danny Elfman (who worked with Raimi on the Spider-Man movies), but is also a wonderfully inventive moment that stands out in a movie filled with familiar portals and flying cloaks and chaos magic.

My biggest issues with the film begin with Wanda, whose grief is supposedly fueling her behavior (juiced by the Darkhold). That doesn’t exactly line up with where we left her in “WandaVision,” in which she seems content knowing that her versions of her children and Vision were pure inventions of her trauma of losing Vision twice because of Thanos. Perhaps a more overriding problem with Multiverse of Madness is that Raimi feels a little off his game. It’s been nearly 10 years since he’s directed a film (the slightly wonky Oz the Great and Powerful), and some of what feels off about his Doctor Strange could just be him shaking off the rust. He’s still a great, singular filmmaker, but when you aren’t working, you aren’t improving.

Weirdly, even the multiverse angle of the story doesn’t tie into what Marvel did in the recent Spider-Man film or the multiverse-heavy “Loki” series. Although perhaps the events of this film couldn’t have happened with the events in that series. If that’s true, there is zero indication of it, which is a shame because that’s supposed to be the unifying thread in upcoming Marvel films as well.

That being said, when he’s on, he’s on. The battle scenes between Scarlet Witch and Strange are spectacular, especially the ones set on a mountaintop shrine to her, accompanied by giant monsters protecting the structure. I also really grew to admire what Gomez does with America Chavez, who is a scared young woman whose powers have hurt those she’s loved, making her scared to trust her powers and her ability to control them. For her, working with Strange is a trust exercise and a means to figuring out the scope of her powers and how the multiverse works.

I think a second viewing of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is required for me to truly understand how I feel about the film. I’m beyond happy to see Raimi working again, and I hope it kicks off a creative streak for him in the years to come (in the superhero realm or not). But there are so many unresolved elements and hollow emotions at play here that I found it increasingly difficult to completely enjoy the experience of watching this movie. My frustration levels were growing even in the scenes that worked, because so much surrounding those moments didn’t match them in tone or quality. I’m still mostly on board with this film, but it was a much closer call than it should have been.

The film is now playing theatrically, including on 35mm at the Music Box Theatre.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

One comment

  1. Steve, regarding Wanda’s seeming “contentment” at the end of WandaVision- no. I fear you may have missed the end-credits stinger (there are two) of the final episode… her headspace is made unsettlingly clear.

    As for the tonal shifts and chaos, their intentions for the film are right there in the title. I think Marvel made exactly the film they intended, for better or worse. I enjoyed it, but would not take young children to see it.

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