It’s a shame it doesn’t stick the landing though; also, spoilers galore.
It’s strange trying to review Marvel movies from my position. I am someone who doesn’t really care about Marvel, but a lot of the creators that I love are fans or accept Marvel’s offer to work with them. So, even if I don’t really care about Marvel, I am not going to miss Sam Raimi’s return to directing, so I am going to see the new Doctor Strange movie. But, approaching it feels weird in any way I try to; as a sequel to 2016’s Doctor Strange it’s just too far removed to be constructive; as a continuation of this massive franchise that includes movies, comics, and tv shows, I am too far removed and uninterested by them to be of any use; even seeing it as a newcomer feels weird because I know I have no interest in what it offers (a reason to care about the Marvel universe), I am not a newcomer (having seen a lot of Marvel movies), so even that perspective feels wrong. Similarly, my thoughts on the movie feel weird to even explain; I don’t like it any more than all the previous Marvel movies and still think that it should have been so much more than what it ended up being, but for the first time in this new phase of the MCU, I felt like I could see a version of it that I could like.
Doctor Strange in the multiverse of Madness was directed by Sam Raimi, written by Michael Waldron, composed by Danny Elfman, edited by long-time Raimi collaborator Bob Murawski and Tia Nolan, and cinematography was done by John Mathieson. It stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange who stumbles upon a kid claiming to be from a different universe and chased by demons for her power. In the midst of this, Doctor Strange has to deal with not being able to be with Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) as well as Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) struggling to deal with the grief of losing her children and/or husband and becoming increasingly dangerous; I’m still not 100% clear as to what Wanda is dealing with, because my friends told me it is something that is explored in Wandavision, which I haven’t seen. As someone who is only aware of that show’s existence, I was already lost on the state of the movie’s villain; I gathered that her children were fake, but I don’t really understand what the implication of that fantasy was. So, in that sense, Doctor Strange is a typical Marvel movie where if you missed a single property they released, you will need a recap to be on the same page as the thing you want to see; it’s also another jokey movie with big CGI set pieces and it feels very similar to previous Marvel movies as an experience. However, it is also a Sam Raimi movie much more than I had anticipated and those portions were so fun and so interesting that I have finally seen a version of this new Marvel phase that I can get behind; this is also the last warning about spoilers.
My main problem with this new phase of the MCU is that these new fantastical characters and the expanded universe with magic and multiverses are not exciting to me, however, the movies toy with concepts that I find interesting; Spidey meeting with different versions of himself and dealing with the loss of Aunt May at the same time; combining the Asian-action style of action with Marvel’s big-budget and special effects expertise. It’s just that their execution of these concepts and their lack of creative ambition or willingness to settle for something I’ve seen before and is less risky, made those movies lackluster for me – and those are the ones I’ve seen, I couldn’t even muster a drop of enthusiasm for Black Widow or The Eternals. Doctor Strange 2 is mostly that, until Sam Raimi was let loose and made something I didn’t expect he would be allowed to do; the second half of the movie is essentially a Raimi horror movie with Scarlett Witch as the horror villain (she even looks like an Evil Dead hag), killing pretty gruesomely other characters, while the climax of the movie has Doctor Strange possesses a dead version of himself and using the dead to attack Wanda (again with Evil Dead nods as their high-pitched screams sound like Raimi’s dubbed over lines for Deadites in the Evil Dead franchise). This is something that I didn’t expect and never really thought I wanted to see, but the creativity and Raimi’s signature slapstick humor with horror elements really sold those moments for me. Scarlet Witch destroying different versions of characters we know and love (including Professor X from returning Sir Patrick Stewart); a musical note fight between two Doctor Strange; Zombie Strange using the souls of the dead to defeat the Witch. This is something that uses the multiverse in an interesting way; this isn’t a side gag or a way to just please fans, it’s a way for creators to channel their creativity in new and interesting ways.
As a movie, it is the same standard of quality as other Marvel movies – which is to say that it’s fine – but it at least showed ambition and a willingness to take risks in order to pursue a creative goal. It is convoluted at times, the pacing is woeful, and the story never felt like it moved (or more accurately, it felt like it took breaks every 10 minutes or so), but the weirdness and the attempt at delivering something new were there. To me, No way Home recreating the ‘three Spiderman’ meme was exactly how I felt about that movie’s ambitions; it was a crowd pleaser first and foremost, an artistic expression or an interesting blockbuster second. Doctor Strange 2 has a moment where Scarlet Witch asks Mr. Fantastic if his wife is alive because she is worried that his kid will not have someone after she murders him, which she does by lifting him up and shredding him like a piece of paper as he screams in agony. I’m not asking for every Marvel movie to be that, but it is the first time that I experienced what I wanted from this phase of the MCU and I hope that they continue to pursue this ambition and get better at it, as Doctor Strange in the multiverse of Madness is not that great of a movie in total, but it has moments, sequences, and ambitions that do make me excited to see if they want to pursue them further because I would like to see a better and wilder version of this.