Directed by Sam Raimi
Written by Michael Waldron
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has given us a lot of good movies, and therefore, conceivably, could do so again.
—me, six months ago
Doctor Strange In the Multiverse of Madness labors under one of the most profound burdens, to my mind, that a franchise film has ever had to deal with. Not commercially; it was always going to make money, that's just a fact of life. But it comes as yet another iteration of the MCU's Phase 4, which is to say it's one of the literal dozen (okay, only eleven) audiovisual experiences that Disney has produced for theaters, television, and (thanks to the pandemic) theatrical television in the aftermath of 2019's Avengers: Endgame; and part of Multiverse of Madness's burden is that the previous ten have been by-and-large mediocre with feints towards the abjectly fucking awful. (Especially if you go by volume, given that almost every single Disney+ streaming show has been just a normal movie's worth of material stretched into an episodic eternity—sometimes only a bad movie's worth of material, in the case of Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Moon Knight.) Meanwhile (also thanks to the pandemic), the theatrically-released element of the franchise has been in basically an uninterrupted march since last June, so that even in better circumstances, a little fatigue would have set in. Speaking personally, maybe I was a little put-out that Scott Derrickson wasn't returning from the first Doctor Strange—that's mostly neutral, as Derrickson is a pretty uneven talent and not necessarily one to keep from being run over by Kevin Feige—but I couldn't conjure much enthusiasm about Sam Raimi either, because I remember the last two movies Raimi made.
There is also a constellation of extrinsic matters, notably the plutocratic consolidation of a new studio oligopoly (which is more a reason to vote for more and better Democrats than to dislike a movie, and while it can be identified as the material basis for the substandard aesthetics of so much modern filmmaking, I'm not sure it's the whole story—indeed, Multiverse of Madness makes a troubling argument it isn't even the chief factor, and instead it really might involve some kind of terrifying generational decay—but "Disney bad," while true, is not a valid aesthetic critique, in and of itself). More broadly, of course, there's the open question of whether blockbuster filmmaking will just be a primary-colored boot stamping on our face forever. The latter is a real concern (though nothing lasts forever), but it tends to be rooted in the pseudo-intellectual pose of the Film Person along with their own sad parasocial attachments. Then there's the scolds circling around the movie at a distance, whose inverted priorities and tiresome discourse I've only seen glimpses of so far, though it appears that a major political concern, in the May of 2022, is that a female character that some people liked for less-than-obvious reasons did a heel turn and actually became interesting for the first time. And it seems that the kind of YouTube Nazi who uses the term "M-She-U" doesn't like it either? Seems counterintuitive, but whatever. Anyway, I'm running afield.
More specifically, then (and I apologize for the "miserable crank complains about all others from the safety of total obscurity" screeds these things always seem to occasion), Multiverse of Madness labors under the burden of being a direct sequel to the two worst things the MCU has ever produced, WandaVision, the streaming show, and last year's depressing box office champion, Spider-Man: No Way Home. (It is not, and in its Marvel way, could never be, a direct sequel to Derrickson's 2016 film, and if it were such a sequel, I would have to agree it's somewhat bad at it. Remarkably, it's not horrible at it.) I probably ought to have just reviewed WandaVision at the time, TV or not, because it's one of those trainwreck failures that would've been cathartic to discuss, but suffice it to say it was never as good in the execution as its premise, and its premise is betrayed by its ugly MCUness halfway through anyway; Tom King's Vision miniseries, an important comic precursor to the show (though for some reason people only talk about House of M), is superior in every respect. No Way Home, on the other hand—this was the last time we saw Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch)—truly seemed to confirm the most violently alarmist propositions of the MCU's opponents about the end of cinema and/or civilization. To stake a position on Multiverse of Madness, then, if you can't recognize a massive gulf in quality between this and that, then I don't know, you're part of the problem no matter which side you fall on.
Multiverse of Madness, to begin with, has an actual narrative, and maybe the most irritating "you've just decided you don't like it for extrinsic reasons" take I've seen is that it doesn't have a functional screenplay. It was written Michael Waldron—of a single subpar season 4 episode of Ricky & Morty, but also of Loki, which is probably the best of the Disney+ shows and, if that means nothing (it means nothing), it's still the one that gets the most out of meandering across six episodes—and he's nominally this thing's sole screenwriter. That's not very plausible, but it does, for once, kind of feel like a single person wrote it. Because it does have a very simple screenplay, arguably the most straightforward that one of these things has ever had (undeniably the most straightforward since Ant-Man, and that's at the latest), occurring in something close to real-time and largely devoid of even any act structure, unless you went out of your way to try to impose one on it. This is not a bad thing: it's direct and it is consistently to the point, and to the extent it's encumbered with its own MCUness it does a sterling job crawling its way out from the narrative disasters that came before, whereas the advertising for more Marvel crap in the future actually comes off as the natural elaboration of its premise. And it's 126 minutes long. In no other context would one praise a 126 minute movie for being brief, but for this franchise that's an astoundingly concise runtime, and it even feels concise.
It's this simple, then: it's a 126 minute chase. In some mystic realm, accompanied by another universe's Dr. Strange, young maguffin America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) is on the run from other-dimensional demon-monsters. They seek to cannibalize her for her power, which is the ability to cross from one universe in the multiverse to another. (The distinction between "dimensions" and "timelines" and "universes" is, as-ever in the MCU, extremely smudgy, and as this is also a movie that makes a distinction between "sorcery" and "witchcraft," it's kind of dumb and confusing, but—mercifully—in ways that actually do offer "just relax" as a real option.) Well, America cannot control her power yet, and can only manifest it in moments of immense stress, such as being pursued by other-dimensional demon-monsters, or Dr. Strange attempting to murder her to keep her power from being consumed by other-dimensional demon-monsters. This Strange dies, and America falls into yet another new reality, this being what's later described as "Universe 616" (meaningful to nerds, and, yeah, I got it), where our Strange lives. Perhaps somewhat gratified by the distraction, Strange abandons the wedding of his old flame Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) to some other guy to save the mystery kid, and whether she wants to trust this Strange or not, she has no choice, and commends her safety to him and the new Sorcerer Supreme Wong (Benedict Wong) in their Himalayan fastness. Perceiving some dark power beyond his reckoning, however, Strange seeks the aid of an erstwhile ally, Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen). Can you guess what happens? Can you? It's rad.
Nursing her grief on some apple farm somewhere over the loss of her two fake children (and to a noticeably lesser extent, her robot husband) back on her terrible TV show, in the interim Wanda's gone full-tilt crazy, and, yep, it turns out that she's the one who's been summoning all these other-dimensional demon-monsters, with the help of ancient and malign spells in the dread Darkhold (Multiverse of Madness does a half-decent job, even, of justifying the Lovecraft reference of its title). She's committed herself to a mad bid to basically eat America and, thus, gain the ability to transplant herself into a reality where her beloved kids are actually real and she's happy. And while she'd prefer Strange simply stepped aside, she's equally satisfied with going through him, and with another adrenaline-induced multiversal-displacement, off they go into a chase across the whole wild multiverse.
There's mostly good but some bad here: the multiverse is only briefly wild, and the universes we spend any real time in are not particularly fleshed-out or interesting in their own right (thinking on it, there's only the single one, the Fan-Service Universe, that we spend any real time in), and the "Memory Lane" concept (a memory-retrieval service that operates out of a... literal sidewalk?) that pukes up America's backstory is pretty gross in its blunt efficiency—and annoyingly unnecessary, since even if those traumatic memories must be ripped from America's mind rather than expressed in a moment of trust, the Fan-Service Universe is going to deliver a certain Omega Level mutant telepath you might recognize just a few minutes later anyhow. Oh, and the mid-credits scene fucks up the High Raimiesque horror sting of the final frames of the movie proper—then again, that's probably the joke, so maybe I approve—and if you're going to use Snow White clips on the television in your set decoration, perhaps it would be a bit more appropriate to use that one scene where Snow White actually meets the hagged-up old Evil Queen. But those are some real fucking notes, ain't they? Okay, one more: pretty much nobody, even Raimi, is completely up to the challenge of making "bad lady shoots red lasers while an army of good folks shoot yellow lasers back" very compelling, and there is such a beat in one of Wanda's confrontations with Strange's allies, whereupon your heart drops for a second worrying if Unimaginative Glowing CGI Battles Part XXVII is what we're in for. Fortunately, it's a very brief hiatus in what is, pretty miraculously, more-or-less a whole feature's worth of actual interesting superhero action. In an MCU movie!
This MCU movie is a Sam Raimi movie, it turns out—not more than a Marvel movie, clearly, but one of the oddest things about it is how Raimi's subverted a Marvel movie into becoming a valediction for his own career. (It is, surely, less compromised and hackish than either his last Disney film, The Great and Powerful Oz, or his last superhero film, Spider-Man 3.) It's even a bit glib and sneering and juvenile about it, but as the MCU deserves a little glib juvenile sneering, the fact that this Marvel movie invokes the most infamous scene of The Evil Dead right in its first three minutes was already a good sign that it was at least going to point in the direction of Raimi's more gonzo impulses, and the goopy manner in which Strange disposes of an eyeball beast not long thereafter confirms it. (There is, also, a straight quotation from the finale of The Quick and the Dead that I quite liked. And, well, it shouldn't take much at all to connect this to Drag Me To Hell, should it? Not that you'd necessarily want to do that.)
We'll swing back to Sam Raimi, Stylist, in one second; but I might even be more impressed by the less obvious benefits of having a real, tested filmmaker in charge. The MCU has often been actor-unfriendly—it's the kind of franchise where Oscar Isaac can be handed "imaginary version of dissociative identity disorder" and give not just an awful performance, but a boring one—and this feature of the franchise has in no individual person been better embodied than Olsen. It does help, starting out, that instead of Sears Catalogue street clothes she's actually given a neat costume in this one; it sure doesn't hurt that her powers are more "whatever we feel like," which sounds negative, but honestly better reflects the character's abilities in the comics. But on the long, featureless road between "Wanda Maximoff" and "the Scarlet Witch," Olsen has been just perversely dull, either as a featured extra in the movies given nothing to do, or else given her own giant streaming showcase only to do nothing with it. And I've blamed Olsen, but I think maybe I was wrong, or maybe all it ever took was for her to get mean, because I'm not sure—other than Tom Hiddleston's Loki, and mainly just in that first Thor—that the MCU has provided a better villain than with its first fallen hero, and Olsen (and Waldron's screenplay, and Raimi evidently having clear designs on what performance she would give) are everything to do with that. I understand Wanda's emotional stakes better from a single dumbass song about ice cream here than I did after that whole slog on Disney+ that concluded by revealing that the defining tragedy of Wanda's life involved her dad in Fake Serbia selling bootleg DVDs of The Dick Van Dyke Show.
I have no desire to oversell the actual material here: as with Stephen and Christine (though this manages a little more psychological reality just by virtue of being extremely basic), the movie requires you to accept, fait accompli, that these emotions "matter," and it's building them upon a preexisting scaffold that frankly did not do the work. But that's the past and nothing can change it, and—in the best comic book fashion, really—this did its job of making me forget. As for Olsen, then, she's great, encouraged to play it absolutely rabid, but in this weirdly-understated register, where she's aware, in an intellectual sense, that every person she's going to meet will perceive her as wildly delusional, so she's in continual struggle to manage her tone and words in a film-long effort to persuade them (but mostly herself) that she's the real victim and, in fact, is being (in her words) "reasonable"—when, you know, what she wants to do is murder one kid in order to be reunited with kids she invented for her personal Bewitched fan-fiction. It's campy and playful (even irresponsibly satirical) in the most fascinatingly restrained way, albeit let loose in reads of such objectively-terrible lines as "I'm not a monster, I'm a mother!", as well as in the brute visual signposting of Raimi treating her like a J-horror ghost, or the even more brutal fact of Olsen just spending most the last half of the movie covered in other people's blood, let alone that terrific moment where Olsen just straight up looks into the camera to confirm that she is the hero of her own story; it's a privilege otherwise extended only to Raimi's muse, Bruce Campbell, and then only in an after-credits cameo. (There's a really psychologically-hard ending, incidentally, that would never have happened, but Multiverse of Madness comes surprisingly close in its grand Dark Phoenixness.) Cumberbatch, by contrast, is reliably fine, but he gets to have some fun, and another benefit of "real, tested filmmaker" is the way that some of the quippier Marvel conversations here are made amusing simply by putting them at 1.5 speed, which, after all, is how they got away with it in the 40s.
As for Raimi Style, there is plenty, though I guess if you're treating Evil Dead 2 or The Quick and the Dead as some kind of minimum standard, maybe it could seem constrained; for normal people, this is as unique as the MCU gets, stamped with its maker's personality from pretty much front to back in the form of silly dissolves and dubious angles and expressionistic color choices and even an occasionally-noticeable musical score, courtesy Danny Elfman, and being noticeable at all is already a break from MCU formula. I could be convinced Raimi even had a real say in the (digital) compositing, which is frequently "bad" but "bad" in the way that his first wave of movies didn't sweat the surreal artificiality of their (optical) compositing. It's all disciplined but still verifiably drunk on the visual possibilities of Dr. Strange's adventures, tacking towards horror and comedy simultaneously in a real Army of Darkness vein. (The finale is real fuckin' goofy, and it rules; though my favorite small thing is an itty-bitty green sidelight on Olsen's face in a scene that takes place amidst a sheet of scarlet.) There's a lot of creativity here, from the "dreamcasting" that picks up on the kind of cool tossed-off sci-fi that doesn't get much air in superhero movies, involving the balmy idea that all dreams are just out-of-body experiences in the multiverse, to a cute "music battle" that feels like an old-time cartoon, to Raimi and Waldon using the multiverse the way God and comics editors intended it, as a killing field for cameoing characters who get executed in ecstatically gratuitous ways without damaging ongoing continuity.
I loved it; its weaknesses are, truthfully, almost entirely external to it as a motion picture—besides its obligation to serialize the very stupidest aspects of its franchise, it has to compete contemporaneously with a genuinely meaningful riff on the same ideas, in the form of Everything Everywhere All At Once. But like that film, and all the more because this is an expression of the dominant force in popular culture, this gives me hope that cinema isn't dead. It's just been asleep for a while.