Multiverses are everywhere right now.
From Rick and Morty to the newly-released/upcoming (depending on where you live) Everything Everywhere All At Once, the upcoming Flash movie to (of course) the various Marvel/Sony projects (Loki, Spider-Man: No Way Home, Into the Spider-Verse, What If…?, Morbius) that have dabbled in parallel realities, it seems like we can’t get enough of variants, alternative worlds and What-Ifs.
Maybe it speaks to a wider societal malaise. Maybe it’s just like that period in 2016 when all the superhero movies were about heroes bickering and slapping each other. Whatever the reason, it’s an intriguing context for the arrival of the most multiversal of all multiverse stories from Marvel – Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, directed by Sam Raimi and starring Benedict Cumberbatch (among others).
This superhero sequel is an entertaining, watchable film with some cool action sequences and crowd-pleasing cameos. But despite the reality-shaking stakes, it feels light and inconsequential – and surprisingly, it doesn’t have much to say about its titular concept. While the film does see Doctor Strange and his allies travelling the multiverse to escape a nefarious threat and protect a young girl called America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), this isn’t done in a particularly interesting or (barring one sequence) innovative way.
Most of the film revolves around Strange and America striding about looking for one of two magic books that will solve all their problems, mooning about their lost loved ones, or having a big battle scene. A brief scene teases an animated dimension or one where everything is made of liquid paint, but they’re swiftly moved on for more straightforward trips into the Funny Hat and Fan-Pleasing Cameo dimension.
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It was hard not to make comparisons with the new Daniels film Everything Everywhere All At Once, which stars Michelle Yeoh as a woman who jumps between realities and also learns from her alternate selves. That film is largely set in a tax office and a laundrette but still manages to find emotion, excitement and vast scale in a multiversal story.
Doctor Strange, by comparison, mostly uses parallel realities to pop in a half-dozen alternative versions of familiar characters, played by recognisable actors (some of whom have already been revealed, but I’ll avoid mentioning them just in case). These make for some fun cameos, though they don’t add much to the plot and it’s hard to consider them anything except fan service.
When I saw Spider-Man: No Way Home I was struck by the fact that what could have been a nakedly cynical, soulless exercise in corporate synergy – the return of two ex-Spider-Men, Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield – was actually the heart and soul of the film, and made for some of the most engaging scenes. The cameos in Doctor Strange 2 are more what I would have expected – fun and frothy, without too much relevance to the main story.
Of the non-secret Doctor Strange cast, Cumberbatch clearly has some fun playing alternative versions of himself (though, as other characters note, all the Doctors Strange are actually pretty similar), while poor old Benedict Wong is thrown into countless walls, pits and floors as the new Sorceror Supreme Wong. Relative newcomer Gomez is appealing but underwritten, while the returning Chiwetel Ejiofor is mainly there to deliver some key introductions and exposition.
There’s more for Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch/Wanda Maximoff to get her teeth into, though her storyline – which picks up fairly closely after the events of her Disney Plus series WandaVision – goes in some slightly extreme directions that may divide fans. And the film bends over backwards to find some new directions for Rachel McAdams’ Christine to go in, with mixed success. Overall this film doesn’t make enough use of a great cast – especially considering how many different variants of them there could be at any one time.
I may be coming across as too negative, and to be clear there is a lot to like about this film. Much has been made of horror-maestro director Sam Raimi indulging some of his old stylings, and the film does have some entertainingly creepy and gory moments. As noted, one sequence where Strange and America tumble through the multiverse also hints at the level of imagination this film could have included, while a magical battle with musical notes as weapons livens up what could be a repetitive series of CGI energy skirmishes.
Also, you know, it’s a Marvel movie. At a base level, this is a slick, well-put-together film that ticks a lot of boxes for a lot of people. There are exhilarating battles, smart Easter Eggs, and a couple of post-credits scenes for people to breathlessly whisper explanations to each other about in the darkened cinema.
Yet, overall, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a little underwhelming. I thought this film could be a big next step for Marvel, but it feels smaller than Spider-Man: No Way Home, Eternals or even Shang-Chi, despite stuffing a lot into a slightly overloaded script.
Maybe in another universe, cut or script draft this was the terrifying, offbeat and huge movie that fans had been hoping for. In our universe? It’s just another OK Marvel movie. The madness, creativity and imagination must have escaped to a different dimension.
- Read More: Doctor Strange 2 will get same reaction as Spider-Man: No Way Home, says star
- Read More: Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a “progression” of WandaVision
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