I really enjoyed Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and I liked too much about it to be able to pick just one thing. It’s big, loud, and overstuffed, but for every criticism I have, I’m even more amazed that it works at all.
It works as a blockbuster franchise movie that must’ve had to answer to dozens of different stakeholders, but still has enough flourishes to make it unmistakably a Sam Raimi-directed movie. Like Captain America: Civil War, it works as a big super-hero team-up movie and a tentpole entry in the MCU, but it’s also a surprisingly good sequel to the first Doctor Strange. And I’d say that even more than Infinity War and Endgame, it shows what can happen when you’ve got all the various parts of the MCU laying the groundwork to culminate in a huge, weird story.
First: the Sam Raimi effect. As somebody who always liked the Evil Dead movies but couldn’t really love them, my two favorite sequences in Raimi-directed movies are:
- In Darkman, the shot of Frances McDormand looking at the explosion in disbelief that perfectly cross-fades to her at a funeral.
- In Spider-Man 2, the sequence of Doctor Octopus coming to life on the operating room table.1For whoever’s keeping track of these things: number 3 is the seance/summoning/exorcism sequence in Drag Me To Hell.
The thing that both of those have in common is that they’re perfect translations of comic book aesthetics to filmmaking. Plenty of filmmakers have tried to translate comics to movies, either getting the “spirit” of comics or doing a too-literal direct interpretation, but nobody’s ever been as successful at it as Raimi.
So I had a blast seeing Raimi getting the reins of the full power of the MCU dreadnaught, but still be able to make enough of it in his own style. There aren’t any sequences that quite reach the level of that Doc Octopus scene in Spider-Man 2 — although a scene with a character getting caught in a prison of reflections and busting their way out was gloriously creepy — but there were so many camera spins, zooms, and stylistic flourishes that you could probably recognize it as his work even before Bruce Campbell showed up.
It’s funny that the sequence of Strange and America Chavez sailing through different universes is the one that made it into the trailer as an indicator of how weird the movie gets, because at this point, it’s almost tame and predictable. The bar for CG has been raised so high at this point that I just assume that effects houses are capable of doing anything a filmmaker can think of, so the effect in the movie kind of ends up feeling just like a demo reel. The shots in Multiverse of Madness that really stood out to me were the ones that felt old-school, teetering on the edge of cheesiness: there’s at least one shot of characters’ heads superimposed over the frame that actually reminded me of The Night of the Hunter more than anything else. These movies have to check off so many boxes that it’s nice to see filmmakers like Raimi and Taika Waititi getting to have some real fun with it.
But the entire movie was thoroughly and gloriously a comic book movie in subject matter, tone, and frequently aesthetics. More than anything else in the MCU, this seemed to embrace its comic origins even more than its cinematic origins, or even broader “genre fiction” origins. It’s the first that didn’t seem to be bringing comic book source material to a movie-going audience, but rather making movies for comic book audiences. There’s a background character who’s a sorcerer and a talking bull, for instance, and nobody comments on it or even seems to think it’s that remarkable.
As a result, there’s a kind of respect for the audience throughout, and I loved it. A tone of “you get this, you understand why it’s cool, we don’t need to spell it out for you or have characters spending too long gawking at the spectacle of it.” When a cameo happens — and there are several, one of which actually had me spontaneously yelling out “Yaaaayyyy!” in the middle of a packed theater, against my more reserved impulses — it’s not milked for surprise, but treated more like, “Yeah, you all knew this was coming, but it’s cool as hell anyway.”2Contrast it with Moon Knight, which frustratingly seemed to be operating with no awareness of how the rest of the MCU works. One of its big reveals in the finale was of a character who’d been conspicuously absent the entire series, not just to fans of the comics (which I’m not), but to anyone who’d seen a “Who is Moon Knight, anyway?” explainer video (which I am).
Which isn’t to say that it didn’t surprise me; even though most of the surprises were of the “satisfying reassurance of something I already suspected” variety, the whole story went in a direction that I hadn’t suspected at all. (More on that in the spoiler section below).
And even though it was so relentless that I kept finding myself thinking, “Anyone who isn’t exactly me would be exhausted by all of this,” it actually managed to give its major characters genuine character arcs. I compared it to Civil War, but I’d say it works even better as a sequel to Stephen Strange’s story than Civil War was for Steve Rogers. It’s not as surprisingly funny as Doctor Strange was, but it did further the story of Stephen Strange becoming a better person. The arc from the first movie had only gotten him part of the way there.
Since I’d expected it to be all spectacle with little substance, I was actually surprised that Strange’s storyline had essentially the same overall message as Everything Everywhere All at Once: instead of obsessing over what could have been or even what could be, learn to accept with gratitude and humility everything that is. I don’t think it was anywhere near as insightful or as moving as Everything Everywhere, but then, that wasn’t what it was aiming for. It was more focused on super-hero fights and less on the personal implications of the multiverse.
As for the thing that most surprised me — and is in my opinion the strongest example yet of how the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe is paying off in storytelling terms, not just box office — that requires me to spoil the whole story. I think not everybody’s going to like it as much as I did, but it’s still a lot of fun and one of the best entries in the MCU.
The thing that surprised me was that they went all in on making Wanda (or at least Scarlet Witch) the villain. Obviously, it wasn’t a total surprise: it has been the most likely version of the story for as long as they’ve announced she was a character in the movie, it was shown outright in the trailers, and it was set up at the end of WandaVision.
But I’d been 100% convinced that this was going to follow the usual Marvel template where the good guys fight for the first half of the story, and then team up to beat the bigger bad guy. I kept waiting for them to introduce the “real” villain, and give Wanda her redemption arc, but the movie just kept refusing to do that. Several characters, at several points in the story, explicitly ask her to stop being the villain, and she just keeps on blowing stuff up and murdering people.
The result was that the overall story was as straightforward as a story about magical super-heroes traveling through multiverses can possibly be, but I can’t recall ever being as genuinely invested in the characters in a story like this.
In retrospect, making Wanda the no-for-real-she’s-the-villain wasn’t just unsurprising, but inevitable. The movie is over-full as it is, and any more twist betrayals or act 3 reveals would’ve probably made the whole thing fall apart. But because of all of the setup that the MCU has been able to do, and because the actual execution of the relatively straightforward overall plot was so well done, it played out in my head more like a genuine tragedy than a super-hero beat-em-up.
Again with the comparison to Civil War, every time I watch that movie, I’m certain of two things: 1) It’s clearly all Tony Stark’s fault, and 2) There will be no lasting repercussions from any of this. As a result, it felt like a comic book movie, although a well-executed one in which everyone understood what they were making. They took the time to establish everybody’s motivation, and they had characters acknowledge that they shouldn’t be fighting, and they set up Baron Zemo as the instigator to absolve Tony Stark of fault. But it still feels like an elaborate set-up for “who would win?” style fights in which nothing happened that was irreversible.
Multiverse of Madness avoids both of those by making it clear from the start who would win — there was never any question that Wanda was the most powerful character (which is why so much of it felt like a horror movie) — and every scene that established the stakes was handled more like a total impasse than a conflict drummed up for drama.
I especially loved the scene between Strange and Wanda in her apple orchard. Her “heel turn” isn’t stretched out; she instantly realizes where she slipped up, says “You never told me her name, did you?” and then has a calm conversation with Strange that actually felt like two really smart people talking to each other. It suggested a level of familiarity and even intimacy (or at least mutual respect) between the two characters that implied a whole series of adventures between big film installments. And more than any other case of Marvel trying to make sympathetic villains, it showed that Wanda actually had a point: she’s had loads of trauma and loss heaped onto her, she’s got these powers that she never asked for, and everyone else seems to be able to use their powers to get what they want. It really isn’t fair.
Obviously, the reason I was so invested in her character was because i was so invested in WandaVision. That series was able to develop characters in a way that nothing pre-Disney+ was able to do; if these were just the same characters from Infinity War and Endgame, I would’ve appreciated the story on the surface level but wouldn’t have been really affected by it. But WandaVision did such a great job of establishing empathy for these characters. It was a disaster, and everybody in Westview ended up afraid of her if not outright hating her, but they also spent the entire time inside her head, so they knew exactly what she was going through. I’ve seen people complaining that WandaVision ended without her being punished for anything, but I thought the finale handled it perfectly.
But Multiverse of Madness took her to the line of being irredeemable, and then crossed it. Of course, nobody stays dead in comics, but I don’t think they can bring that version of Wanda back after this movie. Or at least, if they can, they absolutely shouldn’t. That created two types of tension for me: first, hoping that they didn’t turn her irredeemably bad, and then hoping that they didn’t try to cop out with a redemption that felt artificial.
Obviously, I’d like to seem some alternate version of the character come back, but I hope they don’t too much to cheapen this version of the story as a tragic horror story. (And it’s tough to imagine how to keep a franchise going when there’s a character who can actually alter reality on that scale). Her life really sucked, and she had too many people trying to corrupt her and take advantage of her power, and none of it was fair. That type of story isn’t that unusual in comics or in horror movies, but after over 10 years of feature movies and a briliiant TV series, it might be the first time I’ve actually cared about it.
- 1For whoever’s keeping track of these things: number 3 is the seance/summoning/exorcism sequence in Drag Me To Hell.
- 2Contrast it with Moon Knight, which frustratingly seemed to be operating with no awareness of how the rest of the MCU works. One of its big reveals in the finale was of a character who’d been conspicuously absent the entire series, not just to fans of the comics (which I’m not), but to anyone who’d seen a “Who is Moon Knight, anyway?” explainer video (which I am).