Multiverse of Madness is all endless, torturous exposition buried within soulless CGI spectacle, and an insult to Sam Raimi’s presence.
Is it worth it to have a beloved genre filmmaker out of retirement even if he’s trapped in a corporate content mill with little to no quality control? That’s just one question posited by the dreadful new Marvel installment Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, a crummy-looking, mostly incoherent slog peppered with hints of “director” Sam Raimi’s visual idiosyncrasies.
We open with Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) barreling through some CGI backdrop or another, dragging behind him a young woman, America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), as they’re being pursued by a weird monster. When the beast gets the better of them, killing Strange, America uses her powers to catapult herself from whatever dimension she’s in into our own universe, where the version of Strange MCU audiences are familiar with is alive and well. Meanwhile, Strange still pines for Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), the one that got away, and his former sidekick Wong (Benedict Wong) is now officially the Sorcerer Supreme. America presses them into service to find out just who or what is trying to capture and kill her for her powers, leading them to seek out Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), who now goes by Scarlet Witch. As usual with these Marvel films — this marking their 25th-ish installment, and that’s counting just the movies — that’s a huge primary data dump. And hopefully you’ve also been watching all the Disney+ content too, because you’re definitely expected to have been in order to keep up here.
One thing Multiverse of Madness has going for it, at least, is momentum. It hurtles through plot, mostly because of its very basic McGuffin chase structure; go here, get that thing, run away, repeat. But the script itself is just endless, meaningless, frequently contradictory exposition, while the characters go through bare-bones arcs that have no real thematic coherence. Strange is repeatedly asked if he’s happy, which seems like it should intertwine with Wanda’s continued quest to reclaim her (imagined) family (also, didn’t we cover that in her streaming series? Whatever.), but those two things don’t reflect each other in any productive way. America Chavez — again, intended to anchor a future installment — barely registers either in performance or character; she’s just a magic book in human form, in a movie with two additional magic books. Smack in the middle is an embarrassing and completely digressive sequence of cameo appearances that grinds everything to a halt in order to service the needs of the IP. It’s sad, shameless pandering.
Does Raimi come through unscathed? Sort of. His visual tics are frequent and very apparent; wildly canted angles, spinning cameras, and reckless snap-zooms abound (not to mention appearances from Bruce Campbell and Raimi’s beloved 1973 Oldsmobile). There’s even a sliver or two of actual grue, and some fun late antics involving a zombie Cumberbatch. But these things seem mostly perfunctory when staged in front of a green screen with actors who genuinely seem like they don’t know what’s happening to them from scene to scene. Multiverse eventually gives over to some amusing horror-adjacent antics, but by then the relentless assault of its thoroughly empty narrative has become numbing. Raimi was once the guy who brought simple economy and genuine emotion to comic book films with his still-influential Spider-Man run in the early 2000s, but this sees him ground into mincemeat and sprinkled conservatively through yet another dose of IP. It’s tempting to say that even in that form, it’s nice to have him back, but at what cost?