Director: Sam Raimi
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, Xochitl Gomez, Michael Stuhlbarg, Rachel McAdams
Run Time: 126 mins
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is the latest in the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe. It principally follows the events of Spider-Man: No Way Home and the Disney+ television series WandaVision. Although this is the officially Doctor Strange’s second solo film, the Sorcerer Supreme has featured in many Marvel films now, a key figure of Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, as well as a brief appearance in Thor: Ragnarok.
His first solo outing, Doctor Strange, was one of the best entries in the Marvel canon, a thoroughly entertaining self-contained film directed by Scott Derrickson. Derrickson is most famous for his horror films such as The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Sinister and was able to put his own distinctive stamp on the material.
Derrickson was slated to write and direct this sequel but unfortunately joins an ever-increasing group of directors who leave a project due to creative differences. It is always difficult for a distinguished director to be granted their own voice in the Marvel juggernaut and the studio have received repeated criticism for having a ‘house’ style. Luckily, Sam Raimi stepped in, another horror auteur, who found fame through his Evil Dead trilogy and the overrated and silly Drag Me To Hell. Raimi is also no stranger to the superhero genre, having directed the original Tobey Maguire Spider-Man trilogy.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a well-directed and generally entertaining sequel that takes ambitious risks in its narrative with its characters. From a directorial standpoint, Raimi mostly succeeds with putting his signature stamp on the material such as the exploration of the themes of possession, witchcraft and apparitions. There are a handful of jump scares too, which is novel for a Marvel entry, although they are relatively tame for a mature audience.
The film is often visually arresting and the cinematography by John Mathieson is interesting. Like his work on Logan, Mathieson prefers to hold onto a shot than resort to quick cuts and the camera movement is often disorienting and kaleidoscopic.
There are also some strong performances. Benedict Cumberbatch is effortless as the Sorcerer Supreme and the film offers him a natural character progression. Elizabeth Olsen is also excellent as Wanda Maximoff and the film offers her an ambitious but satisfying arc, although it is likely to draw controversy amongst some fans. Newcomer Xochitl Gomez makes a strong impression as America Chavez, a teenager who has the ability to change between ‘Multiverses’ (universes) when she is afraid, who is being hunted by an individual and Doctor Strange is forced to team up and protect her.
There is also an interesting score by Danny Elfman, who regularly collaborates with Raimi, that has a domineering presence throughout the film. Some cues really gel with the material, although some doesn’t and it is disappointing that Elfman doesn’t revisit Michael Giacchino’s original and very memorable theme. In fact, it is quite hypocritical as Elfman controversially chose to ignore Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL’s themes for the theatrical edition of Justice League, citing that the best way to justice the characters was to to revisit their original themes.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’ most significant downfall is its ramshackle construction. It is all over the place narratively and not everything sticks. For every bold choice, there is a regressive counterpart and the film isn’t paced particularly well. It comes in at a reasonable 126 minute run time but there is a lot of narrative to get through and some scenes race through character beats whilst others are tiresome. The film opens rather wonkily, with a silly first-act action sequences between Strange, Chavez and a creature but luckily finds its feet soon afterward. At least Raimi doesn’t fall into the frequent trap of comic-book films overdoing the third act with an uninteresting and overlong CGI-heavy battle, which has hurt many a Marvel film.
Although Marvel are hell-bent on developing a Multiverse, the notion is always a difficult concept as it feels like a cheap way of rectifying a narrative which lessens the stakes for the characters. That said, it’s not Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’ fault specifically, as it’s a running theme throughout the canon.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is ultimately a hodgepodge of a sequel, but an often entertaining ride and Raimi is able to put his personal stamp on the material to a degree. I wish Raimi was allowed even more free rein and leaned harder into the horror angle, as that feels like a natural tone for the material. There will always be a part of me that wonders what Scott Derrickson had in mind, as he also wanted to head down the horror route. Had he been able to deliver the film that he envisaged, it could have been very special. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness isn’t top-tier Marvel or Sam Raimi fare, but it’s an ambitious and for the most part, an exciting if flawed sequel.