Doctor Strange and Scarlet Witch Battle In A Multiverse of Madness (Movie Review)

This weekend the summer movie season begins with Marvel’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Although expectations are high, with some outlets predicting the 28th entry in the MCU to rake in the dough, becoming a cultural juggernaut like 2021’s Spider-Man: No Way Home is doubtful, even for the Sorcerer Supreme. The top-notch cast includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen, Benedict Wong, Rachel McAdams, and new to Marvel, Xochitl Gomez. However, the big news is that this film marks director Sam Rami’s return to superhero antics since his Spider-Man trilogy from the aughts. Did the Drag Me To Hell maestro concoct a new kind of experience for the MCU? Can he top his web-slinging masterpiece, Spider-Man 2?

*SPOILERS for previous MCU films/shows.*

We’re deep into the Marvel Cinematic Universe at this point. Phase Four is not only five films deep but littered with multiple television series to boot. It’s not enough to have simply seen the theatrical adventures of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes; the Disney+ exclusives are now required reading viewing. Thankfully, most of the shows have (so far) been highly watchable, with Loki being the best of the bunch. Another strong series was the flagship entry for MCU TV: WandaVision.

That show cleverly went through a history of American family sitcoms while slowly revealing how unraveled Wanda Maximoff had become post-Avengers: Endgame. She lost Vision, the love of her life, after previously losing her sole family member, twin brother Pietro in Age of Ultron. By the season’s end, Wanda had to give up a lot to maintain her sanity, namely, two sons she conjured out of thin air. And yet, in the series finale, a post-credits scene revealed Wanda’s Scarlet Witch persona was using a magic book dubbed “The Darkhold” to connect to them. Were they finally real boys and not just figments of her imagination? Where exactly could they be? Another dimension or… another universe?

The heart of the latest Doctor Strange outing is Wanda, for better and worse. Previously, the quality of villains in the MCU has seen highs (Kilmonger) and lows (Hela). Using a beloved Avenger as the foil to Steven’s heroic yet flawed sorcerer is a good idea. Who wouldn’t want to see two powerful magic wielders duke it out amongst trippy, psychedelic backgrounds? Yet the script is too dependent on what came before, namely WandaVision. And kind of just repeating it bare bones style.

As good as Elizabeth Olsen is and as cool as some set pieces are (I’ll get back to this), the entire emotional thrust of the story is merely a less nuanced retread of Wanda’s arc from the show. Minus the fun of playing with sitcom tropes ripped out of I Love LucyModern Family, it comes down to this: Wanda misses her made-up kids, she wants them back, and it doesn’t matter who gets in her way. That’s really the entire plot.

While it’s understandable to expect fans will have seen WandaVision, cribbing the same plot robs The Multiverse of Madness of any genuine story beats of its own. In the first Strange film, we witnessed how Strange’s decision to use dark magic was not only frowned upon by his pal, Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) but pushed them further apart as friends. That provides emotional stakes for the viewer. Wanda and Strange don’t have the same connection.

On a fundamental level, it’s shocking how sparse the plotting is considering all the titular multiverse hopping. Early on, we’re introduced to a new character, America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), who has the power to travel across multiple universes. Yet, despite Gomez’s natural charm, the character is merely a plot device that Steven needs to keep away from Scarlet Witch. We do get a few fun beats between Steven, America, and Wong (the always welcome Benedict Wong), but there’s no emotional weight to their exchanges. There’s so much fantastic eye candy as they travel to an all-painted universe or crazy architecture-inspired vistas, but the characters are woefully thin.

With that said, Rachel McAdams returns as Steven’s former love interest, Christina Palmer. Like Marvel’s villains, romantic chemistry has been passionate (Tony/Pepper) and meh (Thor/Jane) when it comes to these aspects of the various stories. Sadly, Steven and Christina are in the former camp. Fans might be pleased to see the pair interact in multiple locations, but I found it rather dull.

This is a shame, as the entire cast is down for big-budget, Marvel-level antics. Even the now-required cameos and Easter eggs are more perfunctory than inspired. Nothing in this entry made me smile like seeing Peter Parker meet Matt Murdoch in Spider-Man: No Way Home.

The set pieces are a doozy, though. Rami doesn’t shy from making the most brutal and violent MCU flick yet. Ghoulish imagery is also a fun feature, like an undead Strange. A big battle where Scarlet Witch takes on half a dozen heroes or an army of sorcerers has real stakes. Rami and Olsen, with help from a solid score by Danny Elfman, make every attack hurt. I loved these moments. It’s a fresh way of approaching action in this big franchise. Using imagery that makes us squirm was a welcome change-up for the MCU. This is by no means the horror film some have been hoping for, but a step up regardless.

While Rami’s direction is a plus, the script by Michael Waldron lacks magic. Too many interactions between characters lack the push/pull that typically keeps audiences invested with onscreen relationships, romantic or otherwise. It’s certainly possible for the direction to be the reason too many non-action scenes are merely superficial or, worse, static, but the script often strands the actors with little to build on motivation-wise.

The fabled Darkhold that Scarlet acquired in WandaVision is a key MacGuffin that allows the director to employ further visual invention. One spell which enables the user to “puppet” a version of themselves in another universe is a clever concept. Although how great would it have been if Scarlet Witch decided to use Evil Dead‘s Necronomicon instead? (Naturally, Ash then arrives with his Boom Stick.)

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a solid enough MCU experience that struggles to find a sense of purpose or urgency, despite a talented cast and director. Rami’s horror movie roots often inject the proceedings with life even when the script’s character dynamics fall short of MCU’s previous efforts. It may not be the ultimate spell, but it’s still a neat trick.

Note: There is a mid-credits scene which is OK, but the end credit one is a real hoot.


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