Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a universe of fun despite its missed opportunities

Multiverse of Madness is one of the most stylish Marvel movies to date.

This review originally appeared in the North Texas e-News.

One of the biggest criticisms of Marvel movies is the alleged lack of creative freedom they foster. There seems to be a belief that Marvel movies are cookie cutter by design. That Disney’s desire to pump out pop culture friendly films overtakes any sense of uniqueness, creativity or genuine emotion.

“Nothing is at risk,” Martin Scorsese said of Marvel movies in his now famous New York Times Op-Ed. I wonder if he would feel the same after seeing Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.

The second Doctor Strange standalone film is Marvel’s biggest departure from their so-called comfort zone, aside from perhaps the Moon Knight streaming series on Disney Plus. It offers Sam Raimi, of the famed Evil Dead and Sony Spider-Man franchises, a chance to execute a vision that’s undeniably his own. The result is an 80’s horror-inspired take on the superhero genre that’s both compelling and impactful.

Raimi is able to use all the horror movie tropes in his toolbox to shock and surprise the audience at just the right times while still working within the PG-13 parameters. The tone of Raimi’s Evil Dead films meshes well with the superhero genre in these circumstances, creating horror that can alternate between unnerving and downright silly without ever feeling out of place.

Raimi is therefore able to avoid some of the more paint-by-numbers action pieces that plague modern day blockbusters to put together thrilling and entertaining scenes. Great cinematography helps maintain the horror-fueled tone when plain visuals can’t, allowing scenes to feel tense and impactful even with the heavy CGI elements. An amazing score from Danny Elfman also never fails to set the required mood when needed.

Raimi and the rest of the crew aren’t the only ones who get to put their stamp on the movie either. Benedict Cumberbatch once again hits all the right notes as Doctor Strange. His mixture of dry wit and self-confidence bordering on cockiness feels like a definitive take on the character, one that can live on past these films in the same manner as Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man or Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine. It makes it easy to see why Marvel has been so comfortable handing over the reins of the franchise to Cumberbatch after Avengers: Endgame.

His arc in the movie also happens to be the best executed. For a movie that practically demands an overwhelming number of details given its name alone, Strange’s arc is surprisingly easy to follow and ultimately satisfying in its result.

The arc for Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda Maximoff is another story, however. Multiverse of Madness builds heavily off of WandaVision, so much so that it’s likely ill-advised to see the movie without watching the hit Disney Plus streaming series. While the movie does offer an incredibly brief explanation of the show, it doesn’t give an unfamiliar viewer enough to connect them with the plot in a meaningful way.

That apathy towards the intricacies of WandaVision extends to the plot itself. While Elizabeth Olsen delivers an amazing performance, clearly thriving in the horror-themed inspirations, it’s not enough to save a story that’s far too comfortable simplifying or all together ignoring obvious plot threads and character development from the show.

Basically, her arc is the worst of both worlds. Even though it does successfully create emotional stakes in a way that few Marvel movies can top, it’s ultimately neither disconnected enough from the character’s past appearance to create a truly satisfying standalone plot as a whole nor is it connected enough to reward viewers who took the time to finish WandaVision. It also feels as if it likely robbed some of the screen time necessary for the audience to relate with Xochitl Gomez’s America Chavez. Chavez is key to the story thanks to her unique ability to travel the multiverse, but viewers barely have an opportunity to care about her beyond those powers and a somewhat stereotypical origin story.

 The sloppiness in how Multiverse of Madness handles WandaVision could represent a big problem for the Marvel franchise moving forward, especially if Disney intends for more of the streaming shows to affect the stories on the big screen instead of the other way around. It’s a lot to ask an audience to purchase a streaming subscription and watch hours of programming just to fully appreciate one movie. If Disney plans to go that route, the payoffs should be far better than this.

Since Wanda’s story actually drives the overall plot more than anyone else’s too, it’s generally best to just turn your brain off for a bit when watching Multiverse of Madness. Despite certain plot issues, the movie is still a blast to watch, plain and simple. It’s just more enjoyable not to harp on all the what ifs of the multiverse or the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole and just sit back and enjoy this weird and wild ride.

Spotlight Score: 7/10


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