Review: The new Doctor Strange is a maddening slog through the multiverse

Sam Raimi returns to comic book movies 20 years after Spider-Man and loses his soul

Benedict Cumberbatch in Doctor Strange And The Multiverse Of Madness, which we review here
Courtesy of Marvel Studios

DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS (Sam Raimi). 126 minutes. Opens Thursday, May 5 in theatres everywhere. Rating: NN

You may have already heard that director Sam Raimi added some ghoulishness to his entry into the Marvel (questionably) Cinematic (never-ending) Universe, Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness.

Raimi is the director who broke the movies with the now 20-year-old and still pretty amazing Spider-Man. The movie starring Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst became the first to make nine figures on opening weekend and spawned an even better sequel, and it’s the reason Marvel is the behemoth it is today. Though Raimi didn’t stick with the franchise after 2007’s Spider-Man 3 stumbled.

Now Raimi is back in comic book terrain with a Doctor Strange movie after the original writing and directing duo C. Robert Cargill and Scott Derrickson abandoned ship citing creative differences. Raimi suggests in a recent Rolling Stone interview that he didn’t mind making a movie with executives shaping and reshaping the story to fit their corporate strategy. Some reviewers have been eager to point out in their reviews and fawning tweets that Raimi, the man behind The Evil Dead and Darkman, got to go ham, because Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness is the scariest and most macabre Marvel movie.

Present in this deadening slog through the multiverse are wraiths, ghouls, a zombie version of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange, and Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda Maximoff (aka Scarlet Witch) going full Carrie in scenes. But those playful, carnivalesque and occasionally funny nods to Raimi’s canon aren’t exactly evidence that a director got to exert authorial control over Marvel’s factory-line green screen assault. It’s more like giving a dog a treat for fetching your slippers.

Those bits stand out, because Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness is otherwise another soulless and frustrating cog in the franchise machinery and a waste of its incredibly talented stars, Cumberbatch and Olsen. They get tangled up in another story about alternate realities that threaten multiple universes.

I’ve wrestled with how much of this plot I should reveal – whether I should let this stand among those reviews that earn their “no spoilers” stripes. There’s a pretty significant revelation in the first act that I’m motivated to spill because I can’t say much about the story without it. But then again, there’s not even a lot about the story that’s worth writing about.

Multiverse Of Madness chronologically follows Spider-Man: No Way Home (which I thought was cynical enough) and some of those alternate scenarios presented in the animated series What If …?, which means you can bet on catching new versions of old characters and older versions of old characters. You can also count on hearing devoted fans in the audience squealing at all the IP flaunting.

But Multiverse Of Madness also acts as sequel to the original Doctor Strange movie and the Disney+ series WandaVision, which happen to stand among the best Marvel Studios properties. Strange is yearning for his lost love (Rachel McAdams) who we last saw in Doctor Strange. Wanda is yearning for the children she dreamed up in WandaVision, which gives this movie a Mother’s Day weekend tie-in. When the multiverse comes crashing into their world thanks to a young dimension hopper named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez playing Marvel’s first queer Latinx hero), both Avengers see alternatives to their miserable existence.

More so than the flat, characterless and overwhelming CGI, the insufferable quips and a heavy reliance on cameos to add excitement, what really irks about Multiverse Of Madness is how it retroactively sabotages what was great about WandaVision. Olsen elevated the brand with her performance in that series as a superhero in mourning, processing her trauma and ultimately learning to live with loss and heal. The Scarlet Witch’s convincing emotional growth in WandaVision was one of the very rare instances when these properties conjured real feeling.

In Multiverse Of Madness, Wanda once again loses control in ways that are not only redundant but completely undermine the growth that came before. That’s an emotional continuity error overlooked by whatever department at the corporate office oversees that sort of thing.

But hey, at least Sam Raimi got to turn Cumberbatch into a CGI zombie.


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