Full of erudition and wit, Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) consistently bewitches the Marvel Cinematic Universe, mystifying the canon in fittingly strange ways. Following his scintillating sorcery with Peter Parker (Tom Holland) in “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” Strange has returned in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” with the same enchanting poise, yet he lacks the magic that once propelled him to icon status (and Sorcerer Supreme, for that matter).
Jumping right into the action, the film’s opening throws viewers into a disorienting whirlwind of multiversal mayhem. What begins as a perplexing first five minutes quickly disintegrates into disappointment, as viewers learn the events they have watched unfold have merely been figments of Strange’s dreams.
This formula — rousing audiences before revealing the inconsequentiality of what they have viewed — makes up the entirety of the film. Despite its appealing experimentation with genre and earnest exploration of its antihero, Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), “Multiverse of Madness” struggles to sustain its spark within the resplendent fire of the MCU.
Honing in on the implications of multiversal travel, “Multiverse of Madness” stitches together themes that have long interwoven throughout “Phase Four” of the MCU. Yet, the film’s reliance on the lore introduced in each of these projects diminishes its ability to successfully hold its own, thus isolating audiences unfamiliar with the complexity of the Marvel canon.
Even those who are well-versed in the MCU’s intricate history may be feasibly disappointed given the film’s hectic pace. With unceasing action, it consistently refuses to give moments time to simmer with audiences, making events that unfold feel bathetic and, ultimately, insignificant to the broader scope of the MCU.
While films such as “Spider-Man: No Way Home” exemplify the exhilaration that abounds from surprise cameos, Marvel takes this too far in “Multiverse of Madness,” introducing a series of beloved characters from different universes that, ultimately, have little to no relevance to the film, other than their audience appeal. Though these characters will surely return, their substandard introduction further muddies any insight found within Strange’s underwhelming sequel.
Sam Raimi’s direction, however, shines through the film’s eccentric use of genre. Playing with classic horror motifs, Raimi returns to the superhero world with his “Evil Dead” roots on full display. Jumpscares, zombies, demons and references to classic horror films such as “Carrie” weave throughout this wacky two-hour descent into madness. While Raimi’s style compellingly distinguishes “Multiverse of Madness” from other Marvel projects, these tropes often suffer from being a bit too on-the-nose and disconnected from the film’s writing. Given the already haunting depictions of Wanda’s sorrow that charge the film with desolation, these stylistic choices lack splendor and, at times, feel disjointed within the narrative.
Though Strange serves as the film’s titular character, Wanda overshadows him effortlessly, enchanting audiences despite her role as the antagonist. Following the events of “WandaVision,” Wanda returns in “Multiverse of Madness” to locate her children within the multiverse. In attempting to usurp Strange’s mentee America Chavez’s (Xochitl Gomez) power to travel across dimensions, Wanda resorts to iniquitous measures to reprise her maternal role.
Despite her violent vehemence, Olsen’s performance gives viewers a glimpse into Wanda’s torment which transcends timelines. In examining her grief, the film successfully reconstructs the depth of “WandaVision,” emotionally exhibiting the extent of a mother’s love — for, as her synthezoid husband once queried, “What is grief, if not love persevering?” Masterfully embodying the nefariousness of the Scarlet Witch while subtly entwining Wanda’s desperation for connection, Olsen is easily the sole standout of “Multiverse of Madness.”
Although the exploration of the multiverse posits endless possibilities, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” restricts its scope, dismaying as one of Marvel’s most disenchanting projects.