In 2022, the multiverse is seemingly everywhere (all at once) on movie screens, including, of course, in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” the sequel to 2016’s “Doctor Strange.” The film sees snarky superhero surgeon Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) back in action, though he never really went away, as we saw him just last Christmas in “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” This time, the good doctor tangles with the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), so here’s to hoping you’re all caught up on “Wandavision” on Disney+. Strange finds himself crashing through the multiverse while trying to save a scrappy new kid, America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), from the Scarlet Witch’s grasp.
Lauded genre director Sam Raimi, who helmed the original Spidey movies, two whole Peter Parkers ago, is behind the camera for “Multiverse of Madness,” and he brings his exuberant, gory style to bear on this Strange world. There’s a gleefulness to the way Raimi shoots a giant, bloody eye as it’s plucked from an octopus monster rampaging the skyscrapers of New York City. He applies his signature horror aesthetic, which he pioneered with the “Evil Dead” trilogy, to this witchy MCU installment, turning it into a proper horror film, with zombies, monsters and terrifying killers that stalk down darkened hallways.
It’s nice to see Raimi playing in the genre movie space again, bringing horror flourishes to the MCU, but make no mistake, this is the Marvel House Style, to be sure. Which is fine, it’s always a serviceable, if rather uninspiring, backdrop to the superstars as superheroes, quippy dialogue and cameos galore. But even with the Raimi touch, the whole endeavor just feels so basic. Aside from one quick, hallucinatory ‘verse-trip, the locations are a street corner in New York, and a street corner in New York with flowers. There’s a mountain top with a temple and a mountaintop with a shrine. This isn’t a multiverse of madness, but of mundanity.
This sequel, written by Michael Waldron, is likely a second installment before a third, or at least some connective tissue to other films and TV shows, and it just feels like a mostly inconsequential stopover to introduce new characters and tie up loose ends, further knitting together the MCU across the big and small screens.
Though there’s so much potential to be found in ‘verse-hopping, these characters just want to hop right on home. A lovelorn Stephen Strange longs for his ex-girlfriend, Christine (Rachel McAdams), while Wanda Maximoff, aka the Scarlet Witch, just wants to be a mom. Maybe the multiverse can deliver what they feel they lack in life. Relatable, perhaps, but considering the infinite possibilities that an all-powerful witch and wizard might exploit within the multiverse, the dream of ice cream on the couch is hardly awe-inspiring here, and neither Olsen nor Cumberbatch manages to sell it.
Gomez is cute, Benedict Wong as Sorcerer Supreme Wong is always a welcome addition, but “Multiverse of Madness” just isn’t that interesting. Minds might start to wander, and wonder, as to why we’re so fixated on multiverses at the moment. Maybe — probably — because we’re all yearning for an escape hatch out of this timeline, a second chance, a do-over. Wouldn’t it be nice to open up a portal to a world that’s like ours, but just a little bit different? Maybe they got some things right over there that we didn’t. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that multiverses are having a moment after the past two years.
But Wong leaves the Doctor, and us, with a powerful reminder that if we’re longing for another ‘verse: we’ve got to find gratitude in this one every day, and appreciate that we’re in it together. For better, and for worse, the messages to be found in this “Multiverse of Madness” aren’t even that strange at all.
‘DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS’
2 1/2 stars (out of 4)
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action, frightening images and some language)
Running time: 2:06
Where to watch: In theaters Friday