Review by Mark Walsh
What are our expectations of superheroes and their films in 2022? Before the all-conquering behemoth that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe came along, the finest examples were movies which could combine thrilling action sequences, genuinely earned character development and the moral quandaries inherent with superhuman abilities, possibly even allowing the creative personality of their director to shine through, all neatly wrapped up in a package that didn’t demand the endurance of a long-distance runner. Possibly the finest examples of these qualities are the first two Spider-Man films from Sam Raimi; the third in that trilogy remains a stark reminder of how difficult a balancing act that is to pull off repeatedly, even with a big name at the helm.
While Raimi’s return to the director’s chair seemed appealing to see what a master of gonzo horror and macabre humour could bring to the world of the Sorcerer Supreme, what proves just as valuable is a return to a taut two hours and credits. There might be enough burned down candles, jump scares and decaying faces to keep fans of Evil-Dead-Raimi happy, but Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness has enough kinetic energy to propel itself at entertaining speed through the multiverse and credit is due not only to the director, but to his long-time creative team including co-editor Bob Murawski and composer Danny Elfman, both veterans of Raimi’s Spider-peak.
In fact, the film jets off at such a pace it seems almost desperate to make sure you overlook the main flaw, which is writer Michael Waldron’s spirited but ultimately unsuccessful attempts to explore the duality of those with more than mortal gifts. Those who believe in three act structure might be somewhat surprised to discover that act one here is barely more than fifteen minutes, something which also stymies any attempts to share much of the plot, given Marvel and Disney’s insistence on beginning spoiler-free; if only their marketing had been half as successful, instead of coming off like a small child who got you the best Christmas present ever but let slip too many details before you even got to midnight mass.
What does transpire in the first act is America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), who given her absence of character development may as well been called Carol McGuffin. She brings with her a unique and valuable pair of gifts: an ability to traverse the multiverse that becomes much in demand, and a backstory so thin it’s imparted in less than a single scene. Somewhat disappointingly, she’s a mere prism to shine light on the different facets of Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen). They could be two sides of the same coin, with both Strange in his origin film and Wanda in her TV series unable to have their hearts’ greatest desire to fill the respective voids in their lives, Wanda’s void created by grief and Strange’s by narcissism.
But the madness of this multiverse film is that these rich character backstories are just a delivery mechanism, their previous adventures simply enough to unite the MCU’s foremost magician and witch before launching them on a rollercoaster ride for a couple of hours. The film doesn’t want to waste time on generating character moments or detailing lavish backstories, that’s what its parent company’s subscriber service is for. At the very least, those wanting to get the most from this twenty-eighth interconnected Marvel movie should be recently familiar with the previous Strange film, and also WandaVision. For the first time, a move some might view cynically, to get full value from a cinema entry in the series. previous home viewership is necessary not only not to be left behind, but also to take full value from the film’s limited emotional beats.
It’s a missed opportunity to get to grips with Strange and Maximoff’s similarities, the hypocrisy of the larger world’s attitude to their characters addressed with just a single line of dialogue. But it’s also a trip that will elicit whoops and cheers from its audience as much as the last, Spider-filled MCU outing, both for its willingness to exploit a wealth of existing backstory for more fan service but also for seeing just how far Raimi can push the 12A rating with ghoulish spectres and gruesome deaths. One suspects much less would have been left to the imagination if this were not a studio summer tentpole aimed at all ages, but Raimi still manages to have plenty of fun.
Rachel McAdams and Chiwetel Ejiofor are among those returning, both getting just about enough to do to justify their appearance beyond a healthy pay cheque. Meanwhile poor Benedict Wong continues to be Phase Four’s hardest working actor, doling out exposition and occasionally getting to deliver a zinger or a withering criticism in return for his efforts. Gomez’s Chavez has enough charisma for a film or series of her own, but gets precious little beyond repeated peril to work with here. Cumberbatch and Olsen are the MVPs and always as comfortable and compelling with the drama as they are with the action; the biggest regret by the end is that while our understanding of the multiverse may have further expanded, to mainly satisfying effect, that expansion is not mirrored in the film’s dominant characters.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is at its best when embracing the chaos, and any lack of emotional resonance or depth is mostly compensated for by the sheer bravado of Raimi’s continuing gift for satisfying set pieces, a fight scene which brings new meaning to the phrase “striking the right tone” one of many highlights. It’s safe to say as well (without spoilers) that those waiting in expectation for the full duration of the credits will get their usual return for their trouble. But for those with expectations of a return to the zenith of Sam Raimi’s balance of character and action, alongside the horror and humour, may need to be tempered a little in this diverting but disposable franchise entry.