Somewhere in the middle of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a sense that this is all a little less wonderful than it should be. A sorcerer and an interdimensional super-being hopping through the multiverse trying to avoid a witch is a pretty awesome concept, but as is the case with their most exasperating films, that old Marvel formula weighs down Madness and robs it of its whimsy and horror and wonder. There are flashes of brilliance here and there, thanks to director Sam Raimi and stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Elizabeth Olsen, but Madness feels oddly heavy for a film that flies by at a relatively fleet two hours and five minutes, and it’s strangely rote for a film that features paint dimensions and a magical cape made of damned souls. This is one of the MCU films most begging to be freed from the expectations of being a “Marvel movie”.
Cumberbatch returns as Stephen Strange, the surgeon turned sorcerer, about a decade on from the car accident that altered his life. Now settled as the master of the New York sanctum and a famous superhero, Stephen is haunted by two things: dreams of himself in different times and places, and the question “are you happy”. The single most frustrating thing about Madness, which is scripted by Loki’s Michael Waldron, is that it sets up an intriguing concept for exploring the multiverse. If you had the power to change your life by assuming someone else’s life in another, better universe, would you do it? Madness paints a portrait of Strange that is quite unflattering—in all universes he is arrogant and prone to massively risky decisions that usually blow back on him and everyone else with disastrous consequences. The question that plagues Strange is what separates him from all these other Stranges and their respective dreadful mistakes?
After all, he is the man who condemned half of all life to die, for a little while, at least. And Madness makes a point early on to drive home that even though the Avengers ultimately brought everyone snapped away by Thanos back, there were still losses the Avengers couldn’t rectify (Michael Stuhlbarg shows up and throws us into an entirely different, MUCH better film for five minutes). Stephen has to live with that, that he not only inflicted the trauma of the blip on the world, but that there was collateral damage that can’t be undone. He’s already walking the line it turns out all Stephen Stranges walk, of brilliant solution and devastating disaster, and then he meets America Chavez (a charming if underutilized Xochitl Gomez), a teenager from another dimension running for her life across time and space.
At its cleverest and sharpest, Madness explores the boundaries of arrogance and confidence, and hypocrisy and honesty, and the thin line that separates heroes and villains. When faced with questions of the multiverse, Strange seeks out Wanda Maximoff, now the Scarlet Witch, living in self-imposed exile. Madness works hard to sidestep the “madwoman” trope that has plagued Wanda in the comics, but the film only does a so-so job. Part of it is that Wanda starts at an emotional eleven and then stays there, so Olsen’s performance is weirdly flat despite being quite histrionic. But part of it is also that the MCU is entirely unwilling to reckon with the morality of Wanda’s recent actions. Strange, at least, gets that beat at the top of the film where he is confronted with the permanent consequences of his decision in Infinity War. Wanda never has a similar beat, which makes her feel hollow in comparison, and that sense of unevenness plagues Madness.
But Madness offers enough fan service and big enough spectacle that most people probably won’t care that the MCU is morally inconsistent, and that Madness is all over the place narratively. Raimi lacquers the standard Marvel mold with his signature horror beats, backed by a cool Danny Elfman score, and it’s not hard to envision a version of Madness where Raimi got to run with his whole head and make this a true horror movie, full of monsters and demons and moral quandaries with no right answers. As is, Madness is an uneven story that is bookended by a surprisingly melancholy opening and a gonzo ghoulish climax, but with an exposition-heavy middle that moves with little grace. The cameos practically guarantee this a spot atop “best of Marvel” lists, but Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is one of Marvel’s most frustratingly mediocre movies.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is exclusively in theaters from May 6, 2022.