Back in 2016, the Disney-owned Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) received its newest addition with Doctor Strange, a safe and relatively self-contained romp whose flashes of psychedelic visuals promised a detour of sorts for the MCU, but ultimately didn’t do much more than update 2008’s Iron Man with more mentions of Eastern religion, magic, and Christopher Nolan-esque city-bending. The film was helmed by Scott Derickson, whose repertoire had only previously consisted of horror, and he was signed on to direct the more horror-centric sequel until stepping off the project in January 2020 as a result of creative differences with the studio.
Enter Sam Raimi, one of Hollywood’s most recognizable and idiosyncratic studio auteurs, known for his work on the original Spider-Man trilogy and the Evil Dead trilogy. Raimi stepped on to direct the sequel that same January, and Michael Waldron, writer on Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty and head writer for Disney+ series Loki, was hired for rewrites on the script Derrickson was originally set to direct. This quickly turned to a complete start-from-scratch screenplay that he ostensibly developed with Raimi and reportedly didn’t complete until midway through filming.
Despite the behind-the-scenes turmoil, the creative team of Raimi and Waldron seemed destined to succeed, Raimi bringing a promising lens to a story that hoped to be more of a foray into horror than the MCU had seen before, and Waldron offering some prowess on navigating storylines with heady concepts like the multiverse. As I’m sure is uttered somewhere in this film’s nonsensical ramblings about the universe, perhaps it wasn’t, in reality, destined to succeed.
By no means is Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (an adequately and lovably cartoonish title for a very, very cartoonish film) without its merits. Raimi delivers the goods, and those familiar with his work on the Evil Dead films and even Spider-Man to some extent will immediately recognize his visual shtick, making constant use of gonzo transitions and maximalist, in-your-face camera techniques that never dare to take themselves seriously in the slightest. He also makes no effort to shy away from the gore, packing in lots of surprising body horror that elicited several rare gasps from my audience, as the whole world’s been conditioned to expect the uttermost sanitized product from the MCU.
Marvel has long been caught in a power struggle between the serialized, almost television-like nature of their movies (how do you tell a 20+ movie long series with 20+ different artistic takes?) and the sometimes bold visions of the directors they hire to make their films. Time after time, Marvel conditions these auteurs to conform to a general visual and tonal standard that makes, say, the newest Spider-Man visually indistinguishable from, say, Captain Marvel besides the different spandexed heroes at their cores. While this allows for tonal consistency between their films, it’s a trend that’s disappointing and even troubling for what has become by far the largest movie series in the current landscape of the film industry. James Gunn and Taika Waititi stand as some of the few Marvel directors to make efforts to push against this, bringing in some of their own trademark humor and visual flair to the Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor movies.
For Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Raimi was allowed full creative control as director, his actual villain revealing itself as the screenplay, which throws a thousand different MCU tightropes around his direction that the film flails against for two hours before exploding. Screenwriter Waldron has himself admitted to the film being burdened with the obligation of, without giving anything away, introducing several new properties that Disney recently purchased the right to, while also pushing forward the larger narrative of Phase 4 of the MCU. It’s hard to have fun with the spinning long takes and music-note fights (you’ll see) amidst monologue upon monologue of bland expository dialogue.
While there are several Raimi-isms present here in the superficial sense (zombies and cursed books and the like), his films work because they let themselves have fun visually while cruising along narratively: the Spider-Man series was grounded in a far more human, emotional narrative that had real characters to care about. Here, the few attempts at gravitas are almost hilariously hollow. It could be argued that the intent with this film was more to provide a funhouse horror experience, but look no further than the Evil Dead series for a case of Raimi doing exactly that, albeit maybe a little gorier, and working with a screenplay that’s much more tonally in line with his direction.
Which isn’t to say that Waldron’s screenplay is without its own bizarre silliness — many, many wooden lines of dialogue here were unintentionally hilarious for my opening day audience, and the script ends up operating on the same level of irony as Raimi’s direction entirely by accident. The plot quickly mushes into a slog, barely scratching the many capabilities of its premise, which, by its own conceit has literally infinite possibilities to explore.
It’s almost impossible to miss mentions of recent A24 sci-fi comedy Everything Everywhere All at Once in the conversation surrounding the new Doctor Strange, and now having seen both, it’s easy to see why. For fear of this devolving into a total diatribe on the greatness of Everything Everywhere All at Once (please, please watch), to summarize, that film explores a similar premise, in which the many universes of the infinite multiverse have been opened up to our protagonist, who must do something or the other while the fate of the universe hangs in the balance. The difference is that despite more than 20 films of lead up, I cannot really tell you what happens in Multiverse of Madness past the first half hour. The film requires an absurd amount of homework in terms of catching up on previous MCU properties, and even then, doesn’t end up building on them in any sort of meaningful way. In many ways, Everything Everywhere is the ultimate antithesis to this film, one that tells one of the most profoundly human stories grounded in the most personal stakes that you’ll find in a blockbuster while also having endless fun with its premise.
In Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, things happen at a nausea-inducing rate for 2 hours with little explanation or import before or after the fact, hollow cheers are earned, and then it ends with nothing more than a whimper, shrug, and the requisite post-credit stingers. But what sets it apart from most of its MCU counterparts is that Marvel has finally made it truly difficult to care.