‘Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’: The hiring of Sam Raimi feels almost like a distraction

Direction: Sam Raimi. Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Xochitl Gomez, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Michael Stuhlbarg. 12A, 126 minutes.

He had always thought that the appeal of the multiverse lay in its infinite possibility. To imagine that the only limit to existence is the breadth of our own imaginations: that anything we can conjure could be out there, born in an alternate universe. Well thank you Marvel for showing me how wrong I was. It turns out that the point of the multiverse, and of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, is not your creative potential. They are the cameos of him. There could be a million universes, and all of them would contain surprise appearances of people and things that fans can scream and scream about, before buying them as toys at the movie theater.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is, in essence, Spider-Man: No Way Home Minus all the rose-tinted nostalgia or one-man charisma machine that is Andrew Garfield. He also doesn’t have an ounce of fun with the central conceit of him that he did. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse 2018, minus a single sequence in which the magically gifted Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) finds himself stumbling through portal after portal, universe after universe. There is still one ruled by the dinosaurs. One where people are made of paint splatters. Another one that is all two-dimensional. The audience greets them as they pass, before Strange returns to the same New York City street set with some additional CGI in the background.

Any chance to get serious about the “madness” in this multiverse is thwarted by the crowded and intersecting desires of its three main characters. Strange, who already broke the multiverse once in No Way Home, he still grapples with the same difficulties he has dealt with since his 2016 solo film: weighing personal responsibility and personal risk. Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), meanwhile, has fully transformed into the headstrong and tragic “Scarlet Witch” persona she discovered in last year’s series, WandaVision, which aired on Disney+ (yes, if you haven’t kept up with the TV shows, this movie won’t spare you any mercy). She will stop at nothing to reunite with the two sons she conjured in her mind. A new hero, America Chavez (a cute Xochitl Gomez), has also randomly emerged from a portal. As we soon find out, she has a tendency to jump universes whenever she’s under pressure.

The film begins with a great deal of exposition, but then begins to buckle more and more under the weight of its vast lore and magical MacGuffins (narrative elements that justify the plots of a film). There are two very important spellbooks, one good and one bad, and an exhaustive series of weapons, names, legends, and committees. But it’s hard to find much joy in that level of world building when Multiverse of Madness is dominated by two feverish and chaotic feelings: watching MCU boss Kevin Feige try to lay the groundwork for the next phase in his grand franchise plans, while also trying to tie up the loose ends of what has come before.

But these are structural loose ends, not emotional ones. While screenwriter Michael Waldron deployed some delicate character work in his recent MCU TV series, Loki, starring Tom Hiddleston, is practically a construction worker here, mechanically figuring out how this person can connect with this other, rather than allowing individual fears and desires to guide the film’s plots. Strange still, for example, has a crush on Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), even though her character basically dropped off the face of the planet after her solo movie. And not in the literal sense, because of the Thanos snap.

With the reintroduction of Jane Foster, Natalie Portman’s character, in the upcoming Thor: Love and Thunder, this appears to be the first part of Marvel’s “sorry we forgot about all the female love interests” apology tour. But it’s hard to build on a relationship that ultimately hasn’t been a central concern for Strange. He is, after all, a guy who still struggles with the fact that he helped temporarily destroy half of all life in order to ultimately save the universe.

Rachel McAdams, Benedict Cumberbatch and Xochitl Gomez in ‘Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’

(Marvel Studios)

However, the biggest victim of the machinations of Multiverse of Madness It’s Olsen’s Wanda. A supporting character who spent most of his screen time with nothing but misery is finally given depth and emotional richness in WandaVisiononly for Multiverse reduced her to the single character trait of “desperate mother”.

She embodies a strange assumption that the MCU has been guilty of multiple times: that if we’ve been given just one opportunity to bond with a character, that built-in affection alone will be enough to see us through every future contractual appearance. And it’s a particular embarrassment for Olsen herself. Surprisingly, she still delivers as raw and honest a performance as she can as she floats in front of a green screen and repeats the same variation of “I’m not a monster, I’m a mother” ad nauseam.

With all that in mind, the hiring of Sam Raimi almost feels like a distraction: smart, but it’s still a distraction. Multiverse of Madness It gives us what many MCU fans have been crying out for: Firstly, some real blood, gore, and violence, even if it’s delivered in the most family-friendly way possible. Second, a little more brightness and color. Raimi is the ideal director to offer both. The Raimi we know from the trilogy Evil Dead Y Drag Me to Hell It brings us gouged out eyeballs, resurrected demons, and shaky, demonic camera angles. The Raimi who directed the original Spider-Man trilogy gives us a handful of sequences that look like they were ripped from the pages of a comic book. They delight in the somewhat goofy heroics of pure-hearted superheroes.

But Multiverse of Madness it is, inevitably, a Raimi film in aesthetics alone, a bit like if you fixed up a sewer rat, put a pink bow on its head and sold it as a chihuahua.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness hits UK cinemas from May 5

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