REVIEW: Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness [2022]

Rating: 6 out of 10.
  • Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 126 minutes
    Release Date: May 6th, 2022 (USA)
    Studio: Marvel Studios / Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
    Director(s): Sam Raimi
    Writer(s): Michael Waldron

Go on red.

**Potential Spoilers**

I admittedly found myself uncertain when deciding which entry of the Marvel Cinematic Universe I should watch in preparation for the franchise’s latest, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Should I go all the way back before Infinity War and refresh myself with the original film considering this one is technically its sequel by name? Or should I revisit the most recent chapter from just a few months ago in Spider-Man: No Way Home considering titular hero Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) played a major role throughout its narrative? Good money was on the latter, so that’s what I chose. Little did I know that nothing the character did in that film would matter this time around (beyond his ignorance towards Spidey’s identity). The jackpot was conversely television.

The reason is simple: Kevin Feige and company are treading fresh water. Unless it’s something like Shang-Chi delivering the wholesale introduction of a yet unknown hero, the studio is tying up more loose ends from the previous arc than creating new ones to push forward into the forthcoming years. So, none of that multiverse action in No Way Home comes into play here beyond the simple reality that a multiverse exists. The same goes with everything that occurred during “Loki” and its tease of a new big bad courtesy of Jonathan Majors‘ He Who Remains. This is the window dressing phase. It’s about moving pieces on the board for future use with Iron Man, Captain America, and Black Widow removed. Screenwriter Michael Waldron is cauterizing more open wounds.

As such, the only piece of the puzzle you really need to worry about before sitting down for Sam Raimi‘s first foray into this sandbox (replacing Doctor Strange director Scott Derrickson and bringing along his mainstay cameo-machine in Bruce Campbell) is “WandaVision”. Above being the second Strange film and the chronological follow-up to No Way Home, Multiverse of Madness is ultimately episode ten of the acclaimed series depicting Wanda Maximoff’s (Elizabeth Olsen) unbridled grief in the face of husband Vision’s (Paul Bettany) death. How far does Wanda descend into the chaos of the ancient and powerful grimoire known as the Darkhold? Can human nature and the love for the family she hoped to build be enough to save the world from her blossoming alter ego The Scarlet Witch?

That question won’t be answered until the very end and, even as it does, what it means for the character by way of sacrifice can just as easily be about redemption as justice. Everything depends on whether she recognizes the cost of her actions and opens her eyes to the reality that what she craves isn’t feasible in the aftermath of what she’s willing to do to achieve it. Whether you want to say Wanda or the Scarlet Witch entity as something independent from her body is to blame proves inconsequential because you cannot stop the latter without first stopping the former. That is the task set at Strange’s feet, making this less about his heroic journey and more about getting in the way of her tragic fall.

The result is less a fully realized story than a stopgap turning pages to bridge past and future. The sad reality to the current machinery of the MCU is that this seems to be the norm now. Whereas the original Iron Man and Captain America trilogies possessed self-contained arcs for their heroes that transcended the connective tissues leading towards Avengers meet-ups, we’re now seeing a shift to a strictly episodic nature. While Strange does learn a lesson about happiness, albeit superficially, that isn’t the main thrust. Bringing in a new hero with America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) and her universe hopping ability isn’t either. They are merely cogs in the Wanda gears—a means to an end to deliver her arc’s end because nine episodes of television wasn’t enough.

This is fact, not slight. The days of enjoying this series’ parts above the whole are over. You’re either on-board for everything or you’re collateral damage beneath a freight-train of product spanning big screen and small for what now appears like a full three-sixty-five cycle. There are no breaks and, frankly, there are no relevant plot points either … yet. He Who Remains looms above like a foreboding promise much like Thanos originally did and the writers attempt to shove an overabundance of characters into the massive void left by those few who’ve departed. Will it all work out? Who knows at this point? The MCU is virtually starting from scratch as evidenced by No Way Home giving Peter Parker (Tom Holland) his origin story five films late.

The fun is thus had from tone and style. It’s about the rapport shared by new (Chavez) and old (Stranger and Benedict Wong’s Wong, who earns his most substantial screentime thus far). It’s about a guy like Raimi embracing the mathematical visual quandaries Derrickson set in motion while injecting his own horror influences atop them courtesy of damned souls, necromancy, and a formidable foe who doesn’t shy away from admitting bodies are going to fall regardless of whether they surrender or fight. There are as many gnarly images as there are imaginatively surreal ones once Chavez’s star-shaped windows transport her and Strange through colorfully absurd universes. You almost forget how simple the story is due to how convoluted the path becomes. It’s a chase pitting morality against righteousness.

I guess that’s why this is Strange’s film. He’s the most righteous of them all as every Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) in the multiverse can attest. The parallels between what Wanda is doing her and what Strange did in “What If …?” are not a coincidence. How Feige handles their independent journeys may be more about who is signed to a longer deal than anything else, but the idea that “magic” proves the most corruptibly evil of all the superpowers in play does make sense. Wanda and Strange are both characters that have wrestled with the reality that the decisions they make have a much graver effect on the world than the others (especially considering Tony Stark’s arms dealing is generally glossed over). One mistake creates genocide.

The difference is that one has everything she needs to stay grounded taken away while the other finds someone able to supply that stability just as it seemed he lost everything too. The MCU is leaning heavily into the lone hero thread and whether each can claw his/her way out. Spider-Man must search for his. Thor seems to be on his way via Love and Thunder. Hawkeye found Kate Bishop. And Strange meets Chavez. Is the latter’s bond reductively written as fuel for Wanda’s rage inferno? Sure. It creates some genuine emotional beats too, though. As easter egg cameos arrive to shame Strange for what they believe he is, Chavez’s growing trust provides room to reveal a more complex truth. We must still wait and see.

[1] Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Stephen Strange, Xochitl Gomez as America Chavez, and Rachel McAdams as Dr. Christine Palmer in Marvel Studios’ DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2022. All Rights Reserved. Copyright ©Marvel Studios 2022. All Rights Reserved.
[2] Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff in Marvel Studios’ DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2022. All Rights Reserved. Copyright ©Marvel Studios 2022. All Rights Reserved.
[3] (L-R): Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Stephen Strange and Benedict Wong as Wong in Marvel Studios’ DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2022. All Rights Reserved. Copyright ©Marvel Studios 2022. All Rights Reserved.

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