Review: Doctor Strange in The Multiverse of Madness: Sam Raimi cannot rescue what amounts to a complete mess

Marvel's sequel begins with relentless exposition before sinking further under the weight its magical MacGuffins.

Review: Doctor Strange in The Multiverse of Madness: Sam Raimi cannot rescue what amounts to a complete mess

Marvel's sequel begins with relentless exposition before sinking further under the weight its magical MacGuffins.

The multiverse's infinite possibilities was what I believed to be the attraction of it. Imagine that there is no limit to the universe. That anything we can conjure up could exist, and it could even be born into existence in another universe. Marvel, I am so wrong. It turns out, the point of the multiverse and Doctor Strange in Multiverse of Madness is not its creative potential. It's the cameos. There could be a million universes, each with surprise appearances from people and other things that fans will love, before they are sold as toys.

Doctor Strange in The Multiverse of Madness is essentially Spider-Man: There's No Way Home, but without the rose-tinted nostalgia and one-man charisma that Andrew Garfield brings. It doesn't have the same fun with its central conceit as 2018's Spider-Man. Into the Spider-Verse. There is one sequence in which the magically endowed Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), finds himself stumbling through portal after portal, universe upon universe. One is still ruled by dinosaurs. One in which people are made of paint splatters. Another is entirely two-dimensional. As Strange passes by, the audience can wave at Strange before he returns to the same New York City street with some additional CGI.

The interconnected desires and crowded lives of the three main characters spoil any chance to truly put the "madness” in this multiverse. Strange, who has already broken the multiverse once with No Way Home, still struggles with the same issues he faced in his solo film 2016. He must weigh up both personal responsibility and risk. Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) has meanwhile fully transformed into the tragic and wilful "Scarlet Witch", which she discovered in last years limited series WandaVision. (Yes, this film is not for those who haven't been keeping up with the TV programs. To be reunited to her two sons, she will do anything for them. America Chavez, a likeable Xochitl Gmez, has been randomly released from a portal. We soon learn that she is prone to jumping universes when she's under duress.

The film begins with an exposition dump. But then it starts to buckle under the weight of all its lore, magical MacGuffins, and other complexities. Two very important spellbooks - one good and one bad - are included along with an extensive list of weapons, names and legends. Multiverse of Madness makes it difficult to find joy in world-building at that level. It is driven by two chaotic, feverish feelings: Kevin Feige, the MCU head, trying to set the foundations for his next franchise plan, and also trying to tie up any loose ends from the past.

These are not emotional loose ends. Screenwriter Michael Waldron used delicate character work in the recent MCU TV series Loki, starring Tom Hiddleston. Here he is almost a construction worker, mechanically figuring how that person can connect with him, instead of letting individual fears or desires guide his film's characters. Strange, for instance, is still lusting after Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), even though her character has virtually disappeared from the face of the Earth after his solo film. Not in a literal, snapped by-Thanos way.

This is part one of Marvel’s "sorry, we forgot about all your female love interests" apology tour. It's difficult to maintain a relationship with Strange that has not been of primary concern. Strange is a man still grappling with the fact that he temporarily destroyed half of all human life to save the universe.

Olsen's Wanda is the greatest victim of Multiverse Of Madness's mischiefs. She was a side character that spent her screen time in misery. WandaVision finally gave her emotional depth and richness. However, Multiverse reduced her to the one trait of "desperate mom".

This is an odd assumption that MCU has repeatedly made about Olsen: that if we have had one chance to bond with a character, this in-built affection will suffice to get us through any future contractual appearances. It's especially shameful for Olsen. Amazingly, she delivers a raw and honest performance while floating on a green screen, repeating the same version of "I'm no monster, but I'm a mom" ad nauseam.

All of this in mind, Sam Raimi's hiring feels almost like a distraction. A clever one, but still distracting. Multiverse of Madness delivers what MCU fans have been longing for. It offers real blood, gore and violence in a way that is both family-friendly as possible. A little more colour and brightness. Raimi is the perfect director to deliver both. We know Raimi from Drag Me to Hell and Evil Dead Trilogy. He has gouged out eyeballs and resurrected ghosts. His camera angles are shaky and demonic. We are treated to a few sequences by the Raimi who directed Spider-Man's original trilogy. They enjoy the innocently silly heroics of pure-hearted heroes.

Multiverse of Madness, however, is a Raimi film in aesthetics - it's a bit like if you pamper a sewerrat and put a pink bow on the head to make it a chihuahua.

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