Marvel is everywhere at the moment. Its cable series "Moon Knight" is wrapping up just as its latest feature film, "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness" opens in cinemas.
As a lifelong fan of director Sam Raimi (he gave the best filmmaking advice at a 2006 Comic-Con panel), it pains me to say that "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness" is a disappointment. In addition to creating his signature "Evil Dead" franchise, Raimi is also the one who ushered in the current wave of superhero films with "Spider-Man" in 2002. So seeing him return to the Marvel franchise was something I was looking forward to. But aside from a Bruce Campbell cameo, there's nothing in the film that makes it feel like a Sam Raimi movie.
All the woes for this film stem from Mark Waldron's complicated, but not clever script. Waldron has worked on successful, smart and funny shows, such as "Loki," "Community" and "Rick and Morty," so it is surprising that he could not deliver a sharper, more entertaining script. But perhaps this being his first feature film script and one for a film with a huge budget that requires a lot of people looking over his shoulder cramped his style.
The film begins as if all the details of Doctor Strange's life and the last Avengers' film are fresh in the audiences' minds. It took me a minute to remember that Rachel McAdams' Christine was the love interest in the first film and my friend nudged me during the preview screening to ask who Chiwetel Ejiofor's Baron Mordo was.
The gist of the cumbersome script is that Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch returning in the role) had initiated a rift in the multiverse during the battle with Thanos and now this young girl, America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), arrives who can jump between multiverses and is being chased by demons who want to extract her powers, which she can't control or understand. It's not a spoiler to say that the person who wants those powers is Wanda/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). Scarlet Witch, who insists that she is being "reasonable," is laying waste to everything in the way of achieving her desires.
The bulk of the film is spent on exposition and then filled to the brim with computer generated eye candy. But that leaves little room for the kind of warmth and humanity that have marked the best of the Marvel entries. And it leaves little opportunity for Raimi to display any personal flair even though the story leans into his talent of horror. (A quick note that although the horror in this is low key for Raimi and tame for my tastes, this might not be a film that parents want to take young children to without checking it out first.)
"The Multiverse of Madness" also suffers in comparison to the recent "Everything Everywhere All At Once," which delivered a much better take on the idea of a multiverse because each different world added depth and richness to the story and characters. In "Doctor Strange," the multiverse seems to exist just so characters can die with no emotional weight since they exist in other worlds.
Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlett Witch is the only character that develops any kind of emotional interest or complexity. She dreams of her children and a happy life and then wakes up to the nightmare of having lost them. Olsen conveys that sense of loss to give her character some actual texture. But there are as many rifts in the script as in the multiverse and it seems like Wanda/Scarlet Witch might have had other options to achieve her ends than the drastic ones taken in the film. I am willing to suspend my disbelief to a great extent, but I do want a film to at least adhere to its own inner logic and this film is erratic in that department.
Cumberbatch seems uncomfortable with the jokiness of his lines, but is given little chance to develop much beyond that. In an odd way, seeing his discomfort and getting a goofy Bruce Campbell cameo made me wonder what kind of film this could have been with Campbell as Doctor Strange. I know, what madness is that to even consider replacing the brilliant Cumberbatch with the "Evil Dead's" Campbell. But Campbell would have been much more at ease with the sometimes cheesy jokes and nonsensical explanations of multiverse madness. Call me crazy but that thought did cross my mind. And stay till the bitter end for a final gag by Campbell.
As the film gets darker Raimi does have a few good "deadite" moments and Danny Elfman's score hits an almost Tangerine Dream-like trippiness as Scarlet Witch tries to cast her evil spells. But sadly, this multiverse ultimately just feels like a mess.