‘Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’ – A Mixed Bag at Best

With Sam Raimi returning to Marvel Movies for the first time since “Spider-Man 3,” I honestly got really excited. With a title inspired by one of the many H.P. Lovecraft stories out there, and a look which makes this film seem like “The Evil Dead” as if it were produced by Kevin Feige, this “Doctor Strange” adventure looked to be more than the average superhero flick as it ventured into the horror genre, something we have not seen a Marvel movie do recently, if ever before. Plus, I was looking forward to the Bruce Campbell cameo you know is coming and to see where Raimi was going to put his classic 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88 car on display as it has been featured in every one of his films. Come on, you know that car is going to make an appearance at some point.

Well, what stunned me about “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” was how much of Raimi’s visual flair ended up onscreen here. When it comes to Marvel Movies, I assume they are usually made by committee to where the director does have some say, but the producers usually get final cut regardless. But watching this one made me realize how much leeway Feige and company gave this celebrated filmmaker, and that’s even though said leeway only goes so far. As for the screenplay, well, just read on.

I went into this “Doctor Strange” sequel believing it would take place after the events of “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” but some have said this one is actually a prequel to it. Is it? I don’t know and would love it if someone could give me a definitive answer on this. What I can tell you is that it starts off with Stephen Strange and America Chavez (played by Xochitl Gomez) running away from an ever so fierce demon while trying to find the Book of Vishanti, this movie’s answer to the Necronomicon. But it is soon revealed that Stephen was just having a bad dream, or was he?

America then appears to Stephen again while he attends the wedding of his beloved, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), to someone other than him. After defeating an octopus demon with one eye with the help of Sorcerer Supreme Wong (Benedict Wong), they learn America is being hunted by demons because she has the power to travel through the multiverse in a way few others can only hope to.

It should be noted that this “Doctor Strange” sequel went into production without a finished screenplay, and it shows. Trying to explain everything which goes on here is very difficult as the number of universes these characters travel through is endless to where I am surprised no one had totems like those “Inception” did. Surely everyone here would eventually wonder if they were actually in the correct universe, right?

When it comes to the visual effects, I am back and forth on them. The opening featuring a lot of CGI to where I found myself not being the least bit enthralled at the action. As the show went on though, the effects became quite immersive and very clever, and there’s an absolutely brilliant scene in which Stephen and America find themselves flying through different universes which vary in colors, depth and weather. It reminded me of when Cameron Diaz chased after Catherine Keener while traveling through the mind of a celebrated actor in “Being John Malkovich.” With creativity like that, I wonder how far the imagination can stretch.

And yes, the actors are all terrific here as one would expect. I don’t even want to think about what other actors could possible inhabited have inhabited the role of Doctor Strange any better than Cumberbatch. While this is the second film where this Marvel character has the lead, Cumberbatch has already played this doctor in various other MCU adventures to where he can play a role like this in his sleep. With a simple move or inflection of his voice, this Oscar nominated actor can communicate so much even without uttering a single word.

Benedict Wong offers strong support throughout as, like Cumberbatch, is not about to let any of the visual effects upstage him in the slightest. Xochitl Gomez excels at playing a young adult who has more to deal with than the average teenager as she navigates through puberty while being afflicted with a special superpower. Rachel McAdams reminds us of what a pleasing presence she can be as Christine Palmer, the love of Stephen’s life who got away from him because superheroes can’t always have loving relationships. And there’s no leaving out the great Michael Stuhlbarg who portrays surgeon and Stephen’s one-time colleague, Nicodemus West. It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t have a lot of screen time; Stuhlbarg makes every single second he appears onscreen count for all they are worth.

But for me, the best performance in this “Doctor Strange” sequel comes from Elizabeth Olsen who returns as Wanda Maximoff, better known as the Scarlet Witch. While Wanda may have been good in the past, we see here going rogue here as she attempts to reunite with her children, and these are kids who may not actually exist if you know what I mean. While this particular character could have easily turned into a one-dimensional villain whose selfishness comes at everyone else’s expense, Olsen gives Wanda an emotional depth which makes her threat to those around her all the fiercer. If there is one reason to check out this sequel, it is for Olsen.

After writing all of this, I imagine you must wonder why I have such mixed feelings about this MCU film as its screenplay needed another draft or two. I would have liked it if there were some sort of Thomas Guide available for the average audience member as the story is hard to navigate through to where it is difficult to become emotionally involved in everything going on. Perhaps it is best to view the previous events which took place in both the first “Doctor Strange” movie and “Wandavision” before stepping into this latest chapter as it will help ground you in every single event going on here.

Also, the pace drags in ways it should not, and taking this into account is especially frustrating. While many complain about the average movie lasting around two hours and 30 minutes, and this is not counting the half hour or so of commercials we are forced to experience at our local AMC theater, this one only lasts 126 minutes, and yet there were still moments where I found myself almost falling asleep. This should be a sign of when something or anything drags slower than your ordinary snail as we live in an age where we have no choice but to pick up the pace.

When it comes to “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” I cannot help but describe it as a near miss. While there is a lot here to admire, the final cut is undone by a screenplay which needed another draft or two before production began. While some filmmakers can get away with giving us an enthralling motion picture which everyone involved made up along the way, this one does not quite qualify. It really sucks to say this, but there you go.

As for the post credit scenes, one features an Oscar-winning actress who I did not expect to see here, and the other features an actor from many cult films pointing out the bleeding obvious. I hope you enjoy what they have to offer.

* * ½ out of * * * *

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