“Are you happy?” It’s a simple enough question, but the pursuit of happiness and meaning in a post-Blip world that doesn’t seem to have all that much patience for superheroes is one that underpins the entirety of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.
With Marvel’s Phase 4 being relatively new, a lot of the movies and TV series we have seen so far have focussed on trying to pick up the pieces after Endgame. But with Multiverse of Madness, a sobering message is given both to the main characters and, perhaps, the audience: it’s time to move on.
With Wandavision, Shang-Chi, and Eternals, this era of the MCU is arguably a lot more existential and character-driven than we have seen thus far, with Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Doctor Strange finally being given the room to go beyond the mind-bending spells and wisecracks he was reduced to in No Way Home, Infinity War, and Endgame. In between saving the world and clearing up Spider-Man’s messes, Stephen Strange wasn’t given much room to develop beyond the events of the first movie, so it makes perfect sense that he’s still hung up on Christine (played fantastically by Rachel McAdams).
Given that Multiverse of Madness is written as a movie that’s as much about facing literal demons than it is facing your personal demons, there’s plenty of room for character development as well as the opportunity for Cumberbatch to play other versions of Strange: giving him ample opportunity to push his Oscar-winning acting skills to the next level.
But someone who really deserves an Academy Award for their acting skills in this movie is Elizabeth Olsen as the Scarlet Witch. Anybody who has seen Wandavision knows that her nuanced portrayal of grief was very hard to top — but she manages to do just that in this movie, being able to combine Wanda’s desperate, very human yearning for a family with extremely sinister and terrifying supernatural moments.
Although she’s undoubtedly the ‘Big Bad’ in this movie and, as Strange points out, won’t be getting back on the Avengers lunchbox anytime soon, Wanda’s corruption feels more like a natural progression than a plot convenience.
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Even after doing a series of surely irredeemable acts, you can’t help but empathise with Wanda because, as reinforced by Olsen’s hugely conflicted and layered performance, her life is shaped by relentless pain. You’d hope Kevin Feige gives the poor girl a break at some point, but it looks like the Scarlet Witch is destined to be the MCU’s Demeter – a tragic Greek goddess who, after losing their child, causes the earth to die as a result of her overwhelming grief.
Some may wonder whether the Scarlet Witch’s role as the villain serves to undo the development she underwent at the ending of WandaVision, but the idea of an external force corrupting her and attaching itself to her pain seems very plausible and the right choice plot-wise.
Benedict Wong and Xochitl Gomez also come into their own as Wong and America Chavez, with Wong being elevated from sidekick to a more than capable Sorcerer Supreme that, arguably, is a better choice for the role than Strange ever was. Meanwhile, Gomez does an impressive job of not channelling the headstrong, lone wolf side of Chavez, but also showcasing her vulnerability, desire to be cared for, and pain.
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She’s a rebellious teenager, but also a child, and the way her raw powers and potential evolve feel natural to the movie. It’s also reassuring that writers didn’t revert to the ‘unstable powered woman’ trope, although a lot of the time Chavez was treated as an asset rather than the person, and was a bit too Damsel in Distress at times for my liking. I was also surprised to see just how short and inconsequential the LGBTQ+ scene actually was — although it was a nice touch, that’s all it was. A touch.
It has become expected for MCU movies to integrate comedy — but it was getting to the point where it was becoming a bit stale and corny. This is why Sam Raimi’s turn as director is incredibly refreshing. His sinister, slow-burn style of horror and lack of inhibitions in terms of showing blood and gore definitely helped in convincing the audience that just because there’s no Thanos, that doesn’t mean there’s no danger on the horizon.
Raimi also helps to give witchcraft and sorcery a darker edge that it has perhaps been lacking in the MCU so far, especially when complemented by Danny Elfman’s dramatic and high-stakes score. Although this movie definitely has a Sam Raimi stylistic stamp, that Marvel-style humour fans enjoy still shines through — it’s just less shoved down our throats than before, which makes the jokes that do happen land better.
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Of the highly-anticipated cameos in the movie, there areplenty in the form of an alternate universe’s Illuminati headed by Sorcerer Supreme Baron Mordo (I know, I know) — but they’re pretty short-lived. Although some of them are well-known enough from recent movies, TV series, and general pop culture for people to appreciate, a couple are more ambiguous unless you are a fan of the comics, or spend a lot of time on MCU theory subreddits.
There’s also the fact that with the exception of one highly-anticipated cameo, their own individuality and character doesn’t really shine through. This means that their successive deaths, while jarring, don’t really have the Supreme-Leader-Snoke-being-chopped-in-half effect that Raimi seemed to be going for – but they do serve the purpose of showcasing Wanda’s power.
Because these cameos were, for the most part, fleeting and one-dimensional, it was pretty blatant fanservice — and because of the ambiguity of a couple of these cameos, they didn’t have the same wide appeal and impact as those in No Way Home. As an ambitious multiverse adventure dripping with cameos, it is hard to not compare Doctor Strange 2 to No Way Home.
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I’m under no illusion that Maguire and Garfield’s appearance was also a giant heaping of fan service, but the difference is that they didn’t just show up in costume and throw a couple of punches: they formed a meaningful part of the plot and even had the chance to undergo some development themselves.
Perhaps, if the plot didn’t pan out as it did, they would have had the same opportunity in this movie – but the handy thing about the multiverse is that anything can happen. Outside of cameos, there are also plenty of Easter Eggs and references for committed Marvel fans to enjoy, but rest assured that contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to revise for this movie by consuming every piece of media Marvel has ever produced.
While understanding these Easter eggs and references will certainly enhance and illuminate your experience of the movie, what Raimi does well is ensuring that if you don’t, it doesn’t detract from it either.
All-in-all, Doctor Strange 2 is a fairly self-contained story that doesn’t bloat and oversaturate its runtime for the sake of it (*cough* Eternals *cough*), meaning that its consistent fast pace doesn’t run out of steam halfway through and keeps your attention throughout. Raimi wisely chose to leave the audience wanting more rather than letting the film overstay its welcome.
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This film’s unique horror-inspired, suspense-building, twisted style makes it stand out as one of the strongest Phase 4 projects so far. While established Avengers Cumberbatch and Olsen gave their strongest performances yet, Gomez’s debut is more than promising. What I can say for sure is that after this movie, the future of the MCU looks extremely bright – whatever reality it ends up being in.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness will be available to view in theatres from May 5, 2022.
An impressive, freaky, whiplash-inducing Raimi romp whose main incursion is between being a crowd-pleaser and fan-service.