“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” directed by Sam Raimi and written by Michael Waldron and Jane Bartlett, is the second of six movies and television shows set to be released by Marvel Studios in 2022. While this new film is fresh and engaging, it is sorely lacking in several respects.
The film follows Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) after the events of “Avengers: Endgame” (2019) and “Spiderman: No Way Home” (2021) as he mourns the loss of his relationship with Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams).
Dr. Strange is thrust into multiversal hijinks upon encountering the universe-hopping teen, America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez). Chavez is pursued by Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), who aims to steal her powers so she may reunite with her dead children. This is also at the expense of Chavez’s life. With the fate of the multiverse at stake, Dr. Strange, with the help of Wong (Benedict Wong), must find a way to stop Wanda before she goes too far.
Raimi, the director of the film, originally rose to fame with the campy, B-horror flick “The Evil Dead” (1981). The same cheesy flair which made that film iconic adds to the outlandish premise of “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.” Abrupt cuts, extreme close-ups and intentionally sloppy camera movements keep the movie fun and energetic while reminding the audience to embrace the camp inherent to the scenarios the characters wind up in.
With more jump scares and gore than any other Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) project to date, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” incorporates a shocking amount of horror for a superhero flick. This adds a jolt of life to the film and reflects influences from Raimi’s early work — especially the film’s focus on possession, demons and the undead.
Elizabeth Olsen steals the show as Wanda Maximoff, giving a performance that is both tragic and bone-chilling. Never clashing with the film’s wacky tone, Olsen exhibits an emotional nuance that is rare in mainstream comic book films. Her portrayal of Maximoff forms the emotional core of the movie; she outshines her costars in every scene they share.
On the other hand, Benedict Cumberbatch and Xochitl Gomez turn in generally underwhelming performances. This is especially surprising for Cumberbatch, who is typically an excellent actor.
In the recent Oscar-winning film, “The Power of the Dog” (2021), Cumberbatch demonstrates his ability to weave a complex web of emotions with such brutal realism that one can forget he is only an actor. If you had only seen “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” you might not know he had such talent.
However, these issues with the actors’ performances may lie with problems inherent to the film’s writing.
Raimi’s distinctive style cannot compensate for the thin characters — an issue that stems from the plot being so bloated it seems ready to pop. The film is burdened with multiple converging storylines and cameos squeezed into a mere two-hour run time. As such, it must take shortcuts in character development.
This is most obvious when Strange and Chavez watch clips of their memories to establish their core emotional conflicts. This scene comes off as an inorganic and clumsy insertion from writers attempting to add an ounce of character development.
After limping through the first act, the film falls dead in the second. The plot’s forward momentum spins out into fan service, an abrupt detour that feels entirely out of place. Despite everything, the film is revived to culminate in a satisfying finale that I won’t spoil.
In the end, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” is enjoyable, as long as you manage to keep your expectations low. The film suffers from weak writing and some underwhelming performances, but, thanks to Raimi’s touch, is one of the more unique MCU entries in recent memory.
Final Grade: B-
“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” is currently in theaters.
Noah Fellinger is the Arts Editor for The Daily Cardinal. He has covered new film and television releases, labor issues in the performing arts, and has written analysis of the relationship between art and contemporary politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Noah_Fellinger.