TAS Reviews: Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (Spoiler-Free)
As a big Marvel fan, I enjoy the incredible spectacle in these movies. But what is it that sets the MCU above the rest of its competition? What is it that has made this franchise endure where other shared universes such as the DC Cinematic Universe and The Dark Universe have failed? One word: character. Kevin Feige and his team have created a series of characters who are relatable, complex and despite their fantastical powers and larger than life costumes, are incredibly human. Throughout the years, Marvel has become increasingly less effective at getting you to care about characters. Though I loved Shang-Chi, there is no moment that even comes close to the emotional impact and poignancy of Steve Rogers jumping on top of the grenade in The First Avenger. Despite this, Marvel has still managed to maintain a good grip on their characterisation, even if they aren't quite as deft at it as they used to be.
That is, until Doctor Strange in The Multiverse of Madness, arguably the first MCU movie in a long time which feels more 'super' than 'human.' It is a movie more focused on spectacle than character, using its lead character as little more than a vehicle for multiverse shenanigans. There is an attempt at character, but that attempt is severely undercooked, and is undercut by the messy, spectacle-driven plot of the movie. Barely any character gets the time to breathe, leaving the new characters, such as America Chavez, feeling undercooked, and even side-lining returning characters such as Chiwetel Ejiofor's Mordo.
If you haven't seen the movie, you're probably assuming all of this implies that at the very least, the movie does function well a larger-than-life spectacle to behold. A movie that embraces the craziness of the multiverse and just goes wild with it. This is yet another area where the movie falls short. Because the true Multiverse of Madness did come out this year. It just isn't this one (hint: It's called Everything Everywhere All At Once). There was so much opportunity to go bonkers with this concept, and introduce it to exciting, creative worlds, yet I left the movie feeling like outside of a few interesting moments, it was just standard MCU fare with the multiverse label slapped on it. There's a lot of Multiverse. Just not a whole lot of madness.
A lot of people went into this movie expecting some crazy cameos. And assuming you've seen the trailer, you'll know that Patrick Stewart's Professor Xavier makes an appearance. He's not the only cameo in the movie, but I'll let you experience that yourself. I, like anyone else, enjoy a good cameo. I loved when all those Raimi and Webb characters appeared in Spider-Man: No Way Home. However, the reason the cameos in that movies worked is because they felt like a natural part of the story, and elevated the themes and character arcs of those movies. When Garfield and Maguire show up, it's not just to get a reaction out of the audience. Those two help Tom Holland's Spider-Man to learn from their own mistakes, and imbue him a sense of companionship and hope when he needs it. The Multiverse of Madness has perhaps the most egregious example of cheap fan-service in Marvel Cinematic Universe history. The inclusion of cameos in these movies is little more than a cheap jingling of shiny keys.
Another area where Marvel movies tend to succeed where this one failed is the acting. Though Benedict Cumberbatch turns in a solid lead performance, we get disappointing performances from Xochiti Gomez, Benedict Wong, Chiwetel Ejiofor and although Elizabeth Olsen ends up delivering a solid lead performance, her acting in the first act in the movie is overly whispery.
This movie is directed by Sam Raimi, and although his direction isn't without it's strengths, I found it to be awkward at times, specifically the cinematography and the movie's overuse of dutch angels. Though I was overly disappointed in Multiverse of Madness, it is far from an irredeemably bad movie. The visuals, as expected, are terrific, and there is a part of the movie where they traverse different universes within a short amount of time and it is an absolute visual delight to see. In a similar vein, there is an action sequence in the movie that is executed in a way I would've never expected to see in a Marvel movie, and is one of the creative things in this franchise history.
The movie also has one of the best villains in an MCU movie, which perhaps isn't saying much considering how inconsistent the villains in this franchise have been, but it is still worthy of noting that we get a villain that is both complex and at times chilling. Before venturing into the comic book genre, Sam Raimi established himself as a horror director, known specifically for directing the Evil Dead franchise. Though the PR statements about this movie being a horror movie were wildly exaggerated, this is probably the most horror esque superhero ever made, and there are moments which could've straight up been ripped out of a horror movie. It was delightful seeing Raimi bring what I can assume to be his own touch to a Marvel blockbuster.
Though Doctor Strange in The Multiverse of Madness is inarguably one of the most visually stunning universes in Marvel Cinematic Universe history, it is also easily one of the weakest. It suffers from underdeveloped characters, ham-fisted fan-service, surprisingly weak acting and a general under-utilisation of what could've been an imaginative, creative concept. If you want a bonkers, balls-to-the-wall multiverse movie, this isn't it. That one came out a few months ago.