Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness: The Quip and the Dead, by David Bax
Sam Raimi‘s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness opens mid-adventure, like an Indiana Jones installment. But, in that moment, it doesn’t really feel like it’s Sam Raimi’s movie yet. Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and an as-yet-unnamed companion (Xochitl Gomez) battle a demon in one of those Marvel Cinematic Universe trademark gloopy, formless pre-vis sequences marked more by momentum than by framing or, God forbid, editing.
It’s not until the immediate aftermath of that CGI brouhaha that Raimi makes his presence felt. The camera (an actual camera at this point) still moves dynamically but now it whips and pans with intention, starting and ending on considered compositions. Unfortunately, this is more or less how the rest of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness progresses, trading off between Raimi’s artfully schlocky take on the high-tech psychedelia established by Scott Derrickson in the franchise’s previous entry and crossing off items on a studio-imposed checklist. It’s the “one for them, one for me” model playing out over and over again in a single film.
One of the worst markers of the prescribed house style is what we’ll charitably call the movie’s sense of humor. There was a time when Marvel’s movies actually had clever, amusing and even funny dialogue. Sometimes they even still do; thank God for Peyton Reed and Paul Rudd. But now that’s devolved into an empty quippiness, the cadences of banter that sound like placeholders the writers forgot to fill in with real jokes.
And then there are the endless cameos and winkingly telegraphed character introductions, all geared to elicit cheers from the studio’s drooling faithful. The movie practically has to hold for applause like Kramer just skidded his way into Jerry’s apartment. From the characters you know are going to show up, like Elizabeth Olsen‘s Scarlet Witch, to the big name surprises, the movie’s giddy buildup to each new appearance starts to become embarrassing.
Taking a break from general Marvel-bashing to focus on a more serious criticism specific to this particular film, let’s discuss the movie’s villain (spoiler warning, I suppose, if you don’t know who that is). One would think, after the critiques of the final episodes of Game of Thrones, that male screenwriters (Michael Waldron, in this case) would hesitate before once again returning to the trope of the woman whose grief turns her into a monster. The dark inverse of the maternal instincts we project onto women seems like rich territory only to those who don’t realize we’ve mined it countless times before.
Speaking of screenplay issues, it’s worth pointing out that multiple plot points in this macabre tale of universe-hopping bear a suspiciously close resemblance to things that happened in Rick Remender and Matteo Scalera’s 2013-2019 comic Black Science. But that’s not even really much of a complaint given that it only adds to the best part of the movie, its many, many borrowings from the horror genre. As it goes on, Raimi stuffs Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness with monsters, demons (including Raimi-brand demon-POV shots), gruesome deaths and even a creepy gag with reflections that owes no small debt to Poltergeist III. When it’s fun, it’s very fun but it’s never enough to free itself from the studio’s grasp.