Over the past few years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has repeatedly flirted with going into more adventurous and complicated territory.
That’s especially true of its TV series on Disney+, as Loki, WandaVision, and Moon Knight have been much more creative and bizarre than any of the feature films. Unfortunately, Marvel’s most challenging movie to date, Eternals, was deemed a disappointment by critics, while it underperformed at the box office, too.
The mammoth success of Spider-Man: No Way Home quickly made sure that any discussions on the demise of the MCU immediately came to a halt. But, clearly, the creative powers at the company are intent on making the most popular franchise in the history of cinema even bolder and more original.
Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness continues that pursuit and while it is far from perfect, especially during its rocky opening act, once it finds its rhythm the superhero blockbuster’s blend of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror becomes hugely enjoyable.
Set a few months after the events of Spider-Man: No Way Home, Dr Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) suddenly finds himself face to face with America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a teenager who has the ability to travel between universes.
To help America return home, Strange pairs up with Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen), who is still struggling after her actions in the town of Westview, New Jersey, in WandaVision. Soon Strange has to tackle a number of mystical and mind-bending adversaries, as he’s transported across a number realities, each of which prove to be more dangerous than the last.
For the opening 40 minutes of Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness, it’s hard to be engrossed by any of what transpires. Once again, Marvel fails to incorporate exposition into its storytelling in a seamless or even enjoyable manner. For long periods of its beginning, characters are just exchanging tedious descriptions of plot and back story to each other.
It also doesn’t help that, during this part of the film, both Cumberbatch and Olsen look completely uninterested. Screenwriter Michael Waldron, who previously wrote on Ricky And Morty and Loki, doesn’t make the characters feel distinctive or even that interesting, while the film’s attempts at humour repeatedly fall flat.
Thankfully, Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness is saved by its director Sam Raimi. The renowned filmmaker behind Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man trilogy manages to keep the film visually arresting throughout. But he really hits his stride once the foundations have been set. When Doctor Strange starts to travel through the universes, Raimi takes control, creating numerous visceral, captivating, and, at times, even beautiful worlds.
Even more impressive, though, are some of the fight sequences, with the finale in particular unfolding in a truly unique manner that’s high-octane, hilarious and refreshingly different to every other action scene from the MCU.
Considering that it’s Raimi’s first film in nine years, it feels so great to watch a visionary director return to a blockbuster of this size with such ease and aplomb. More than that, though, Raimi’s energetic and inventive style of filmmaking allows Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness to really feel different and more captivating to watch than other instalments to the MCU, which have often been criticised for looking too similar.
Raimi’s efforts don’t completely salvage the film, though. The script is so convoluted that the emotional beats don’t come close to landing with the impact that they should. At the same time, while Olsen’s performance becomes much more impressive, and Gomez and Rachel McAdams provide strong turns, too, Cumberbatch still feels wooden and even slightly withdrawn as the superhero.
Ultimately, though, Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness deserves credit for pushing the Marvel Cinematic Universe into new territory. While, thanks to some of the twists and turns, it also suggests that more ambitious storytelling and surprises might, thankfully, be on the horizon, too.