Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is an almost-enjoyable mess

May 15, 2022

After 2019’s Endgame, the Marvel movie franchise was at a crossroads. At this point, the Avengers had done it all. Either in unison or on solo projects, they had saved the world a dozen times over; they had lost half the universe, traveled back in time, and saved the universe. With each subsequent film widening the scope of their jurisdiction, what more could they do?

This brings us to Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. In the latest addition to the MCU, Benedict Cumberbatch reprises his role as the titular spell-casting surgeon. He discovers that the universe we know is but one cog in a vast, interconnected, and infinite sprawl of universes known as the multiverse.

In typical Marvel fashion, the film wastes no time putting its $200 million budget to use. Before long, a giant alien octopus appears, scaling the Manhattan skyline in a destructive frenzy. It’s baffling that MCU mortals still choose to live in New York when, atop soaring rents and incompetent politicians, their city is prone to such frequent alien incursions that nearby onlookers now simply gaze at the carnage as if it’s an ordinary car crash.

It’s soon revealed that the tentacled monster was chasing a young girl, America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez). Chavez has a unique power: She can travel through the multiverse from one universe to another. This power is desperately coveted by Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), who wants nothing more than to be a mother. Accordingly, her plan is to siphon Chavez’s power to herself, move to an alternate universe where a different version of her has children, kill that version of herself, and take her place. The film never explains why surrogacy, adoption, or finding a new husband were deemed more unrealistic or complex schemes.

The distinguishing factor between good Marvel movies and perfunctory MCU filler has proven to be the antagonist. The good guys are obvious and straightforward. But in many of the Marvel films, the villains are overlooked, one-dimensional CGI stand-ins, haphazardly written in for the sake of a plot. Black Widow and The Eternals are two such examples.

As spectators, we want to see our gods bleed — to be entertained, we need to believe that some measurable degree of danger exists. Otherwise, what’s the point? We’ve seen Iron Man and Captain America mow down reams of belligerents, coming out unscathed. Avengers: Infinity War was largely memorable for Thanos showing that they can, in fact, be bested in combat.

In Multiverse of Madness, Wanda steals the show. The movie could have just as appropriately been named after her. Under the ominous title of “the Scarlet Witch,” Wanda leaves a trail of corpses and mutilated bodies on her unyielding quest to take Chavez’s power. Though it would provide some helpful backstory to have seen the miniseries WandaVision beforehand, for those of us who don’t have a part-time job watching MCU content, it isn’t essential.

For a franchise that, until now, has vied to be the lighter, family-friendly alternative to the DC universe, Multiverse of Madness is a stark departure. Directed by Sam Raimi, the film incorporates elements of horror. It’s a welcoming change to the MCU, allowing the full extent of Wanda’s treachery to be conveyed.

Its visual triumphs aside, dialogue is one aspect of Marvel films that cannot seem to improve between sequels. In one scene, America Chavez, acclimatizing to a new universe and befuddled at the notion of paying for food, exclaims to Doctor Strange, “You guys have to pay for food in your universe? In most universes, food is free.”

Maybe somewhere out there, in an alternate universe, there’s a great version of this movie. But if you’re hankering for another Marvel blockbuster, Raimi’s darker directorial flair and Elizabeth Olsen’s menacing performance almost make up for the messy, convoluted plot in this Multiverse of Madness.

Originally published at The Washington Examiner