‘Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’ Pushes the MCU to its Limits

NOTE: This review of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness has no plot details that haven’t already been revealed in the trailers, but does discuss some key thematic elements.

Halfway through Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, a thought popped into my head. 

“Martin Scorsese might be right.”

The thought didn’t ruin the experience or the film for me, but it did offer some helpful context.

A few years ago, Scorsese said that he didn’t think Marvel films were “cinema” and that they were more like theme park rides. His comments haunt the Marvel discourse to this day. You can read Marvel’s most recent films as a broad response to the general criticism. Kevin Feige has increasingly tapped directors with distinct styles – from Chloé Zhao to Taika Waititi – to realize his overarching vision, which critics argue is too homogenous.

Sam Raimi takes the reins for the sequel to 2016’s Doctor Strange, returning to superheroes after the original Spider-Man movies. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness follows Benedict Cumberbatch’s mystical superhero as he explores the multiverse, which he and Peter Parker nearly broke. His partner this time is America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a superpowered teenager who hops through the multiverse to escape the gigantic monsters chasing her. Realizing this is beyond even his expertise, Strange seeks help from Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), who is cooling her heels after the events of WandaVision

Multiverse of Madness is deeply embedded in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. No project is ever truly free from the MCU’s sprawl (except maybe Moon Knight). However, this film feels especially connected to character beats and events from several projects, including some fans might’ve missed. (A Disney+ subscription is required.) The learning curve is a double-edged sword. If you aren’t caught up with WandaVision or No Way Home, you’ll have to work through many plot holes. If you did watch those projects, you might notice inconsistencies that are very hard to ignore. 

Elizabeth Olsen in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (Courtesy: Marvel Studios)

Multiverse of Madness struggles to balance its MCU commitments with its own narrative and character development, and the latter two suffer as a result. The story is another MacGuffin-driven tale that wobbles under reasonable scrutiny. The characters can often feel static and flat, their idiosyncrasies smoothed over by Marvel standard-issue jokes. For America Chavez, it’s hard to understand who she is beyond the “irreverent teen who’s been through stuff” trope. (It’s a credit to Xochitl Gomez’s charisma that we care about her at all.) Stephen is dangerously close to being a glorified babysitter in his own film. The third act manages to clarify his emotional arc and tie it into the overall tone, but it comes late. 

America and Stephen walk away relatively unscathed compared to Wanda. Her storyline feels like either a betrayal or bastardization of her growth within the MCU. You can argue that her arc was inevitable, but the film doesn’t make a strong enough case on her behalf. The script claims to give Wanda agency, but its thinness ultimately robs her of it by undercutting her journey, from Age of Ultron to WandaVision. (The parallels between her and Game of Thrones’ Daenerys are stark.)

It’s awkward because Multiverse of Madness relies on those characters for its emotional heft. Cumberbatch and Olsen’s performances rely on muscle memory more than what’s one the script page. They fill in some gaps, especially Olsen, who threads an unsteady sadness throughout her portrayal. Strong as the cast is, the film still feels narratively and emotionally slight, even without the MCU implications. When you slot the film back into the MCU, it’s a mess.

Rachel McAdams, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Xochitl Gomez in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (Courtesy: Marvel Studios)

Multiverse of Madness works much better visually and tonally; it’s a feast for the senses. Marvel sometimes dabbles in genres outside the action-adventure-comedy standard, but rarely goes all in. Multiverse of Madness fully embraces horror, with Raimi leveraging classic conventions to frame the multiverse as a topsy-turvy, hellish nightmare. He fearlessly leverages violence, gore, and the grotesque to uncover the brutality beneath Marvel’s glossy, action-packed sequences. Classic zombie and monster films are referenced throughout the second half and help build the unsettling, genuinely scary atmosphere. (There are even jump scares that work way too well for me.)

Raimi’s excellent direction is dazzling, his stunning and visceral sequences some of the best the MCU has offered to date. He sweeps you into the fear and excitement, which even enhances the much-debated cameos and Easter eggs sprinkled throughout. Multiverse of Madness is a spectacle of the highest order: exciting, engaging, and frightening.

Multiverse of Madness also bears the wear and tear of the MCU and its unprecedented scale. After years of careful alignment, the Feige model may not be as unshakeable as it appeared to be. It’s understandable; how can Marvel filmmakers extend Feige’s vision while enacting their own without compromise? The film shows what we lose from a narrative and character standpoint. 

Benedict Cumberbatch in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (Courtesy: Marvel Studios)

Multiverse of Madness’ compromises feel at odds with Scorsese’s “cinema.” The spectacular action sequences and the cheers surrounding me made it feel like a rollercoaster ride, barreling through splendid images at breakneck speed. It was a wonderful experience, but it did remind me of what Scorsese said.

Kevin Feige, and all of us, need to decide what Scorsese’s point really means. If Marvel movies are theme parks captured on film, does that cheapen them? Do we need crowd-pleasing cameos and Easter eggs for the trek to the theater to be worth it? Which is more important: the individual film or its universe? I don’t claim to know the answers, but Marvel is only getting bigger, and therefore more complicated. We will need a solution before the MCU truly descends into madness. 

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