An evil witch. Undead bodies rising from the grave. PowerPoint fade-out transitions. A discomfitting song about ice cream. No, this isn't a description of a campy horror flick from the early 2000s, but the latest Marvel Studios production: Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.
Director and maestro of all things scary, Sam Raimi literally projects his dramatic flair into every frame of MoM, whether that be by Dutch-angling the camera or weaving in elaborate special effects sequences. Raimi embraces his passion for horror with jump scares, accumulating suspense and super dark deaths (see Black Bolt exploding his own brain or Mr. Fantastic being shredded into spaghetti). While the first Doctor Strange's visuals are stunning aesthetics that immerse the audience in the intersection between magic and reality, MoM's SFX looked uncoordinated and clumsy with galaxy-painted green screens and a giant octopus-like creature pasted from old PS2 software.
Unfortunately, what the film lacks in visual artistry cannot be salvaged by the plot. The lifeless storyline is that Stephen Strange must protect America Chavez from Wanda Maximoff, who seeks to use America's ability to travel across multiverses for herself and reunite with her fabricated children Billy and Tommy. Wanda is sent on a wild goose chase across the time and space continuum after Strange and America as they travel from universe to universe. The duo are searching for the Book of the Vishanti: the antithesis to the Darkhold, a spellbook of black magic and darkness that has possessed Wanda. Elizabeth Olsen successfully portrays a crazed Scarlet Witch, consumed by hysteria and corrupted into killing to get what she wants. It's a characterization of Wanda so different from what the hero we were previously introduced to in 2015, but then again, she has been forced to experience all 5 stages of grief again and again. The sheer scale of Wanda's powers and her proficiency in witchcraft beyond your run-of-the-mill, telekinetic mind tricks are finally demonstrated in MoM: the Scarlet Witch is a proven force of incredible destruction.
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There's a romantic subplot where Stephen is still very much in love with his ex-girlfriend Christine Palmers, but she's long moved on and engaged to another man after Strange was snapped away five years ago. Plus, Christine reassures him that his superhero duties and internal conflicts would've prevented them from having a healthy relationship anyway. So, any hope Stephen has is brutally shut-down. MoM humanizes Strange and evokes our sympathy for the sorcerer as he struggles to come to terms with himself and let people in: something a Christine variant would later tenderly encourage him to grow beyond. Strange is even given more of a backstory, with a quick couple of lines about his sister Donna drowning under a frozen lake that was intended to be referenced in full in the original Doctor Strange film. In the comics, Donna's death is what inspires Steven to pursue medicine and become a doctor.
Intense, CGI-heavy action is abundant throughout the film: the first couple of scenes feature America Chavez and a Strange variant fleeing from a demon sent to kill her and absorb her unique teleportation powers, and an eventual violent battle between the sorcerers of Kamar-Taj and the Scarlet Witch as she penetrates their defense. I actually enjoyed one scene in which Doctor Stange is battling his own Sinister Strange variant, by peeling measures of music notes off the piano scores and throwing them like daggers. And while these notes are dangerously soaring across the Sanctum Santorum, the audience hears Beethoven's 5th Symphony and Bach's Toccata and Fugue, fused together by composer Danny Elfman to form the arrangement Lethal Symphonies. One piece is sweeping in stature and sound while the other is familiarly haunting and mysterious. This coalescence of physical setting, mystical powers and perceptive music selections is an example of the ingenious creativity I expected from the rest of MoM.
The movie delivers us massive fan service with cameos from Marvel veterans like Sir Patrick Stewart as Professor X and Anson Mount as Black Bolt. And we get first looks at Charlize Theron as Clea and John Krasinski as Reed Richards, bringing one of the most popular fancasts on the Internet to life. In fact, MoM even teases the existence of Valeria and Franklin Richards, Reed Richards and Susan Storm's mutant children who could possibly be included in the upcoming MCU remake of the Fantastic Four.
“The Illuminati will see you now.” 👀 Experience Marvel Studios’ #DoctorStrange in the Multiverse of Madness NOW PLAYING only in theaters! Get Tickets: https://t.co/wsSkVSXS4z pic.twitter.com/0hTLFFrBDN— Marvel Studios (@MarvelStudios) May 27, 2022
However, these appearances are short-lived as the members of the Illuminati quickly fall victim to the Scarlet Witch's murderous rampage. MoM is certainly more graphic than previous Marvel Cinematic Universe productions and this can only be attributed to the shift in directorial direction from Scott Derrickson to Sam Raimi, the former of whom departed the film because of creativity differences. Raimi's fateful entrance into the Marvel Cinematic Universe marks the introduction of new, distinctive filmmaking styles in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and experimenting with other genres outside the typical action/adventure definition.
It's still sad to see that not even Raimi can escape the formulaic writing churned out by the MCU machine. Chavez is written to be Strange's next protege as the latest Peter Parker and Tony Stark tutelage, if you will. The resolution is fairly predictable and rather anticlimactic, failing to provide any kind of promising set-up for the future of the Scarlet Witch: Wanda sacrifices herself in light of the greater good, burying herself beneath the rubble of Mount Wungadore, and the subsequent post-credits scene just reveals Strange developing a third eye.
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In a nutshell, MoM is a fun spectacle and somewhat entertaining to watch, but it doesn't really offer anything significant to the development of Phase 4 of the MCU. We get an unfocused glimpse into the multiverse, which is explained in ambiguous terminology and abstract concepts like "dreamwalking." The movie is more about Wanda's spiral into a unhinged villain rather than the multiverse or even Doctor Strange himself. MoM somehow manages to be simultaneously overwhelming with crazy, psychedelic visuals and even underwhelming, since so much potential is left completely ignored by Marvel. But throughout this Multiverse of Madness (which could be alternatively titled Disaster Through Dimensions), we witness something radically different from what we're used to in the MCU and I can at least applaud the film for attempting to break the box.