Marvel Studios, the comic book film division of Disney, has pushed audiences for more than a decade that a bigger plan is always in the offing.
It took three phases and over 20 movies for producer Kevin Feige to complete his Infinity Gauntlet saga culminating in Avengers: Endgame and along the way there were times in which things didn’t make a whole lot of sense.
It’s safe to say Marvel has gone back to the beginning in a post-Endgame world, throwing things against the proverbial wall to see what sticks and then piecing it all together down the road.
There isn’t a clear vision in their latest film, Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness, a movie that isn’t entirely about the titular Strange at all. It’s one that requires viewers to watch the Disney+ show WandaVision in order to understand character motivations and blurs exactly what the long term plan is for the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole to the point that it’s unclear if Feige even knows.
The simplest way to describe the plot of Madness is that it follows Strange as he ventures across multiple alternate timelines to protect multiverse jumper America Chavez from an unexpected threat to humanities far and wide along the way.
Director Sam Raimi, working with Marvel again for the first time in 15 years since concluding his own Spider-Man trilogy, has to slog his way through a wildly underwhelming screenplay from Michael Waldron that puts almost no actor in a position to succeed.
Much of the early portion of Madness has the signature Marvel sheen that seems to sugarcoat most of the MCU outside of the final Avengers films and it isn’t until things take a darker, more sinister turn midway through that Raimi’s directorial eye is allowed to shine through.
Madness is also unique in that it’s the first film in the MCU to directly pull from Marvel’s Disney+ limited series in order to fully understand the plot of the movie as Raimi’s movie requires audiences to have familiarity with WandaVision and several episodes of the animated What If… to have context for plot points the screenplay glosses over or assumes viewers understand.
Benedict Cumberbatch does a solid job in his return as Strange, especially with some of the alternative versions of the character audiences meet along the way. But by in large, his character mainly serves as a vehicle to drive the story forward and Strange’s uneasy chemistry with Rachel McAdams’ Christine from the first Doctor Strange film continues to be middling here.
Elizabeth Olsen is able to pull a rabbit out of her hat by crafting some truly inspired work as Wanda Maximoff, a fallen Avenger mourning the loss of her love in a path twisted by the events of Avengers: Infinity War and WandaVision. She provides Raimi’s film with an intensity that is showcased largely through the cinematography and direction that other actors just don’t seem to rise to the level of.
Newcomer Xochiti Gomez is serviceable as Chavez, although Waldron’s script basically reduces her character to a Macguffin that is the excuse to tell the story the film does, while not really saying anything about who Chavez is as a person or hero, a larger flaw of the entire screenplay as a whole.
In a way, the rapid pacing of Madness hinders just how good of a movie it is overall because audiences can’t fully appreciate the nuance of what Raimi achieves cinematically. There’s little time to linger on the wide panoramic shots of the visually stunning worlds Raimi’s production team creates because it has to quickly move on to fan-service cameos or random moments that won’t be fully realized until movies years from now.
The same is true of the terror-inducing moments he turns simple chase sequences into, with a race down an underground tunnel being the most creative and impactful cinematic moment in a Marvel film for several years.
There’s a point in the film where it becomes easy for audiences to tell which parts Raimi had control over the style and direction and which were spoon-fed to him by producers reliant on pre-visualized storyboards made before Raimi was ever brought on board.
Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness isn’t the groundbreaking horror comic spectacle that some audiences might have been hoping for in a Marvel reunion with Raimi, but his directing is the best part of this middling MCU movie and the main reason to see the film in theaters outside not wanting to be spoiled.