images © Marvel/Disney.
The colossus of the Marvel engine has finally, it would appear, been capsized by its own hype carriage. The Studio that made a cultural staple of mid-credits surprises, internet-breaking cameos and monolithic crossovers a la Avengers: Infinity War and Spiderman: No Way Home seems, when presented with the most obvious opportunity yet to completely freewheel on its smorgasbord of intertextual goodness, to have opted to spin its wheels with formula instead.
There’s probably a fair argument to be made that the relative restraint of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is worth celebrating. This is no kaleidoscope of fan service or flurry of cross-franchise scuttling. Indeed, outside of a second reel vignette that clusters a few twists, turns and surprise faces within itself, Sam Raimi’s long-awaited venture into the MCU is a mostly focused and linear affair.
Still, it seems a trifle anticlimactic given months (years?) of fan hypothesising and Studio hyperbole, that the long-awaited venture into the mythical multiverse of endless opportunities settles on delivering a fairly typical Marvel follow-up. And it’s a flatness only amplified by those hands guiding the project. In Evil Dead and Spider-man supremo Raimi, the sheer creative possibilities for Benedict Cumberbatch’s sophomore adventure as the reality-warping Stephen Strange seemed, much like the multiverse itself, endless.
Let’s be clear, cameos and narrative detours shoehorned in for their own sake add nothing. That Multiverse isn’t the name checking bombardment some expected and hoped for doesn’t, in and of itself, constitute a critique. What does, however, is Raimi and screenwriters Michael Waldron and Jade Bartlett’s seeming reluctance and timidity to explore the dramatic and creative possibilities of their infinitesimal McMuffin. The spectre of No Way Home looms large here, as does the joyously barnstorming trailer (and first reactions) for Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s Everything Everywhere All at Once, both of which seem to offer more fun, impact and invention with their reality-hopping antics.
Instead, Multiverse of Madness is a pretty rote exercise in typical MCU shenanigans, as Strange and Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda Maximoff attempt to unravel the mystery surrounding newcomer Xochitl Gomez, whose America Chavez appears to be jumping through realities, pursued by sinister forces. Cumberbatch is on reliable form here, even if the character gets little to do beyond pining for his yesteryear love in Rachel McAdams’ Christine. Olsen, buoyed by the heavier arcs Marvel flung her way in Infinity War and Wandavision, is perhaps served best by a script that nonetheless mostly undercooks both its characters and, as mentioned, its premise, but even Wanda’s journey is immediately predictable and akin to what we’ve seen from, say, X-Men several times over.
Strange visions – Curiously, given its status as a sequel to Cumberbatch’s debut outing in 2016’s Doctor Strange, perhaps the most valuable piece of Marvel viewing before Multiverse of Madness is arguably last year’s WandaVision, Marvel’s critically acclaimed first foray into TV.
And with Raimi, Marvel look to be trying to have their auteur cake whilst avoiding eating it too much of it, too. Being the director who delivered one of the finest superhero sequels ever in Spider-man 2, Multiverse is an altogether less impressive and consistent beast. Some of the best sequences here are where Raimi leans on his pulp horror sensibilities – an increasingly violent escape from a fortified complex, or a late-game ‘if needs must’ that could have been pulled straight from Army of Darkness or Drag Me To Hell. It’s sprinkled with both fun and fright, and yet under the palpable shackles of the MCU family-friendly totem – and doubtless a PG-13-at-worst edict – these more extreme moments end up feel jarring and even in places a touch silly, embedded as they are within the more neutral and measured Marvel filmmaking around them.
Multiverse of Madness is not a bad film. Nor is it a bad sequel. Throw it on a ranking board of the MCU releases so far, and you’re likely looking somewhere middle of the pack. The problem is, following on from recent juggernauts in the film’s own studio backyard, and some decidedly more original offerings elsewhere, middling feels even more underwhelming than usual. Doubly so given the narrative potential at play, and treble for having one of cinema’s most distinctive and vibrant visionaries at its helm.
Raimi’s long-time collaborator Danny Elfman does a serviceable job of trying to elevate things with a solid score, and visually and aesthetically it’s all bold and dynamic enough – even with some genuinely wobbly CG peppered throughout. Not to mention some fairly trademark Raimi-esque prosthetics that, again, end up feeling downright hammy and out of place amidst the polish and cleanness of Marveldom.
“…the Marvel magic may finally be itself beginning to wear off, or at the very least, thin.”
Spider-man aside, Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe seems to have struggled to gain much of its former traction. Accusations of formula fatigue were levied at Black Widow, Eternals and even (unfairly), Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings pretty much instantly. And, whilst there remain strong contenders coming up to hopefully jolt some life back into Kevin Feige’s own multiverse of possibility and profit (see: Taika Waititi’s Thor: Love and Thunder, James Gunn’s third Guardians outing), to have flubbed with Raimi suggests perhaps that, after a fairly uncontested reign and an unprecedented surge of consistency and creativity, the Marvel magic may finally be itself beginning to wear off or, at the very least, thin.
The ardent fans will doubtless flock to it in their droves, and it’s by no means a bad time at the cinema, but one can only hope that somewhere out there in the multiverse exists a version of Sam Raimi’s Doctor Strange that offers up a little more to, well, marvel at.
Neither particularly mind-bending or blowing. Raimi feels stifled, and the storytelling here is Marvel old hat. Fun, but forgettably, and regrettably, not very strange.