Are you familiar with multiverse theory?
It’s the idea that outside the bounds of our own universe there exists an infinite number of alternate worlds. Every event, every decision, every point in the course of genetics, evolution, and our own behavior is manipulated to their last possible permutations.
Out there in the multiverse is a reality where Hitler won the war, where I ate better as a kid and now live as a strapping 6’2″–
–and there would even be a world where Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness didn’t make all the many mistakes that it did.
I try not to write too much on Marvel movies (save for here, here, here, here and here). With 25+ of MCU films behind us, an ever-expanding number of “new” stories falling into an almost Aristotelian state of formula, it just gets harder and harder to say anything unique about these films.
But when Sam Raimi was announced to direct this sequel to the eponymous 2016 film, I got excited–now there’s a unique filmmaker. I’m talking the snap zooms, the Dutch angles, the sweet practicals, and the balls necessary to put this scene into certifiable children’s movie Spider-Man 2.
Nearly everything that Sam Raimi touches in this film flares with his distinct vision. His coordination with cinematographer John Mathieson brings about all the aforementioned technical trademarks and a few others here left unsaid to give viewers what very well may be the most visually bold MCU movie released yet–and that’s consistent through it’s reasonable 126-minute runtime.
There is a lot to like about Multiverse. The costumes are great, the sets are fun, and Danny Elfman’s score is just one of the zaniest compositions ever put together, sounding off almost like a with-rock punchline to what we see on the screen.
Unfortunately, none of these things can compensate for the film’s awful, worst-reality script. It’s expository, poorly plotted, riddled with plot devices, and the dialogue is placeholder. But worst of all is that the story is just downright uncompelling.
It didn’t have to be this way. Had a few key decisions been thought through, I’m sure Multiverse’s screenplay could have been just as strong as its other elements. I want to take a moment and identify what I believe to be the film’s shortcomings, and what I would have liked to have been done differently.
Let’s get into it. Obvious spoilers ahead:
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness follows the super-sorcerer Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) on his journey to save young America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) from the clutches of the turned Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen). America possesses the ability to travel between the worlds of the multiverse, a power that Wanda seeks in order to grant herself a life with children. Strange and America flee to an alternate Earth protected by a group of heroes known as The Illuminati, whose ranks include fan-favorite characters like Reed Richards (John Krasinski) and Professor X (reprised by Patrick Stewart).
The film opens in chase. America and an alternate version of Strange flee from the minions of some yet-unknown villain. With defeat imminent, this doppel-Strange performs a ritual spell that would kill America, but keep her power out of the hands of evil. This Strange dies before he can finish the job, and America flees to the universe of the familiar MCU Strange.
With much the same break-neck pace that the film fades in on, so too does the relationship between America and our hero Strange. Young Chavez displays the usual, trope-ish distrust–is this Strange, are all Stranges, just the same? But any sort of conflict in their relationship is resolved by the end of the first act. Chavez has nowhere to go (or grow) for more than an hour after that; she is reduced to a talking MacGuffin.
Suspecting that magic is at play in the plot against America, Strange turns to his fellow Avenger and magic-wielder Wanda Maximoff for help but, in yet another lightning-speed leap of the story, Wanda lets slip that she is the one after Chavez. There’s no time for the twist to build, nothing to enjoy since it hasn’t really settled in.
There is a very poor sense of stake at work here. This movie is dealing with an entire multiverse. That’s a very grand thing, something that speaks to the fate and nature of existence itself. But our driving conflict to this story is a very intimate, very personal thing for one character. It’s incongruous with the larger concept, and in the end feels unengaging.
Screenwriter Michael Waldron also fails to make Multiverse the smartest script it possibly could be in one key aspect: Wanda possesses an ancient tome of evil magic known as the Darkhold. This spell book allows Wanda to possess alternate versions of herself across the universe. The big question being: if she could do this the whole time, why not do that in the first place? Why go to the trouble of tracking down America?
The film certainly never makes it seem like Wanda is aware or even cares about the consequences of abusing this magic, known as “dream walking.” In the ultimate doomsday reveal, wanton use of the Darkhold can lead to events known as “incursions”: the collisions of entire universes against each other.
Now those are stakes. If there was anything I wish this movie spent rushing its first hour into it, it would be that–just so that maybe it could spend the second half developing its characters a little bit more.
Character is a major problem in Multiverse. Wrapping up all the thoughts on Wanda that I have, I’ll just punctuate it with this: she just simply is not a well-paired villain for Strange.
The best villains are those with personal connections to our heroes. They can either be once dear friends or mentors, or paralleled personalities whose motivations are some mirrored inversion of the good guy’s. One need only look back on director Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy for the exemplars.
Yes, Wanda was once Strange’s teammate, but I don’t think they ever once said a word to each other before the events of this film. There just isn’t enough for this dynamic to really hurt.
Stephen’s former mystical art ally Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) returns for the sequel, though it’s not the Mordo we once knew–and who was guaranteed to be a villain for next time. No, instead the 2016 film’s cliffhanger ending is swept under the rug, even though the old Mordo’s villainous turn works perfectly with Strange’s scantily-addressed character arc.
Doctor Strange displays hubris. He was always pushing buttons and breaking rules in his first film, and it was his risky decision of handing over the Time Stone to Thanos that eventually lead to the Blip, upending the lives of trillions across the universe–all to stop one, single warlord.
Hell, for these reasons Michael Stuhlbarg’s bit character Nicodermus West would have made for a better villain than Wanda–but his grief and grudge against Strange gets only two minutes on screen. It could have carried the entire film.
But worst of all for Multiverse is that our hero simply doesn’t change. Good stories involve transformation. They are about moral teachings imparted onto the characters along their journeys. They learn, and the audience learns with them. But Stephen begins this movie with a chip on his shoulder, failing to reconcile his guilt over his role in the Blip, and burgeoningly accepting his life away from love interest Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams).
How does it end? With a life away from Christine, burgeoningly accepted, and with absolutely no deeper introspection into his great, genocidal gambit. We are right back where we started, and we are not the better for it (in spite of a sly smile and a wicked third eye at the end).
So, what would I have done differently? For starters, something has got to be done with America. Either really milk that wariness of Strange well into the second or even third act, or scrap her entirely. I’m in favor of the former for most reasons, but if we really must keep Wanda on as the villain, then expediting the Darkhold-incursion plotline really does just render Chavez’ character as pointless.
Raising the stakes sooner likely would have gotten us to the Illuminati quicker as well. It would have been nice to have seen a bit more of these characters, especially since them being so under-written means that they’re also a little under-acted in this film. I do appreciate how much build-up and anticipation was put into their appearance, though, only for it all to be snubbed by their gruesome demise. It’s a darkly comic effect, but I also wouldn’t have minded their deaths having more dramatic impact. It works both ways.
But God, something has got to be done about Stephen. Make me care, give me turmoil, show me something other than the most thread-thin motivations. If we have to do the unrequited love thing, then make it big.
I can’t help but think back on Strange’s scene with West in the church pews. Regarding his handing over the Time Stone to Thanos, West asks if there really was no other option. Strange pauses, before answering that it was the only way. My thought being…
What if it wasn’t?
What if actually there had been two possible futures wherein Thanos was defeated? One would be the one that we’ve already seen, and the other very well would like much like it–accept that somehow this one would result in Christine’s Palmer’s unstoppable, unavoidable death?
Now that’s good character.
Look, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is highly enjoyable. I loved a lot of what I saw–but we as audiences should never settle for “just good enough.” We are talking about films with the biggest mass appeal in history. They shape entire cultures. It is our responsibility to demand better, to have art that is both edifying and entertaining.
We have to strive for more. We don’t have another, better world to count on. Thanks for reading.