During a recent conversation a friend and I progressed from our shared disappointment that we never got to see Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man to speculating on which marquee directors would best match with various comic book movies. For instance, transcendent as the Dark Knight trilogy was, Christopher Nolan’s high-minded science fiction and emotional distance would be perfect for an adaption of Jonathan Hickman-era Fantastic Four. Similarly, Daredevil’s gritty Hell’s Kitchen street crime and Catholic guilt could only be made by noted superhero movie enthusiast Martin Scorsese. Of course, neither of these are likely to happen, with the latter being as far from realization as Darren Aronofsky’s The Wolverine. Perhaps in some other universe where, Aronofsky’s Batman trilogy left Nolan without a franchise, audiences also received James Cameron’s Spider-Man, George Miller’s Justice League, and even Wes Craven’s Doctor Strange. However in our universe, where Cameron’s peeping Peter Parker remained tangled in a legal web, his eventual successor has finally returned to the genre he helped shape into the entertainment juggernaut it is today. And while Sam Raimi’s first film in nine years begins with a murky rush of possibly, it ends with the same confident weirdness that first made superhero films successful.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is so deeply embedded within MCU mythology that it opens with an alternate reality version of our lead character. Strange (pun not intended) as it is to begin a mainstream blockbuster film within a concept that ten years ago existed primarily in comic books, dense science fiction novels, and theories of quantum mechanics, at this point the multiverse is just an accepted part of Marvel’s reality. Even non-powered characters whom we haven’t seen since 2016’s Doctor Strange accept the idea of infinite possible realities, likely because of the last decade-plus of alien invasions, actual gods, insect-inspired crime fighters, and wizards – not to mention the five years half the population spent dead – have made literally anything possible. So when your magic-wielding ex flies from your wedding to fight a cyclopean tentacle monster, you just deal with it. Similarly, we as moviegoers, having been introduced to the multiverse in not only Avengers: Endgame but also two different Spider-Man franchises and the MCU’s Disney+ offerings, no longer need any explanation. Rather than Spider-Man wrestling Randy Savage in a steel cage, Raimi can open Multiverse with Stephen Strange and American Chavez battling a demon in the nexus point outside of infinite realities. That’s how far we’ve come.
The unfortunate part of this narrative progress is that viewers who haven’t kept up with the plethora of Marvel offerings, even during the year-long pandemic hiatus, may have trouble leaping to this point in the studio’s universe. Despite being the sixth film following the end of the Infinity Saga, Multiverse is the first to address the post-Thanos world. With Black Widow taking place years before, both Shang Chi and Eternals being more or less self-contained origin stories (which makes the latter more enjoyable), and No Way Home as more of a sequel to Far From Home than the full saga, universe building has been left to the Disney+ shows, especially when it comes to Wanda Maximoff, making WandaVision required viewing. Further, the second act cameos (hinted at in every trailer) demand audiences be somewhat familiar with these characters. In short, regardless of quality, it’s doubtful that Multiverse would be able to convert many new viewers to the MCU. The studio’s critics will have the same issues they always do, while the uninitiated could be lost quicker than Doctor Strange’s ponytail, or America Chavez’s parents, who, for the record, are handled very well. Like the multiverse, same-sex partnerships are an accepted part of reality, deal with it.
The best Marvel films are those which progress the cinematic universe alongside the characters in the individual film. Many of the less successful are those which tell interesting character stories but feel disconnected to the larger saga. Multiverse, in contrast, is overloaded with universe-changing intrigue while offering nearly no arc of change for its lead character other than to confirm that this universe’s Stephen Strange is different than other universes’ Stephen Strange (but is he?). While we as the audience learn so much of where the Marvel universe may go next, it seems that Stephen himself learns very little beyond confirming the existence of things he (and we) always suspected, and how to bow. As well, the entire second act, containing the crowd-pleasing “They’re really doing it!” cameos audiences have anticipated, is a literal detour from the story. Sure, it’s very fun, it’s exciting, it contains even more possibilities, but it halts the film’s previous momentum. Where Captain America: Civil War, for example, paused the action for Peter Parker’s introduction before then bringing him into the story, Multiverse stops everything to introduce characters who exit the narrative as quickly as they enter. What’s worse, we know that any character which comes from a different reality than the core MCU is expendable in furtherance of our narrative, regardless of their importance to longtime fans. Beyond the thrill of seeing them on screen we’re left with little more than knowing that perhaps those characters exist in the real Marvel universe, the one we are watching and the only one we are meant to care about.
Beyond universe building, the bulk of development is given to Wanda Maximoff, now fully embracing her role as Scarlet Witch. For years the sheer scope of the MCU has left both Wanda and actress Elizabeth Olsen little of the focus afforded its earlier characters and cast. This of course changed with WandaVision, where both character and actor finally received their deserved moments. Multiverse is as much a sequel to Strange’s previous film as it is to the initial Disney+ series. Much of the film’s greatest moments come in at last seeing both Wanda and Olsen unleashed. Yet, stellar as Olsen is in the part, the character would be entirely flat without the arc of the previous series. In a film where every other lead and supporter is as solid as expected, it’s Olsen who carries the emotional heft, a feat that can only be understood when considering everything that’s been piled up over four years of ever-increasing torment. Again, while those who have followed the MCU will appreciate Wanda’s development, more casual viewers will wonder why she’s fighting for a family that never existed.
It’s an interesting coincidence (or is it?) that the latest entry in the franchise Raimi launched immediately precedes his first offering to the MCU. It’s also interesting that like No Way Home, Multiverse rushes through two uneven, overstuffed acts – a mad dash through a dozen universes before a long pause in one – in service of a stellar finale. Where the two films is differ is that rather than depend on stunt casting, cameos, and nostalgia, Multiverse uses the strength of its characters, actors, and, most of all, director to provide its standout moments. In every way, the film is at its best when it’s less of Sam Raimi making an MCU movie, and more of the MCU making a Sam Raimi movie. While earlier sequences are enjoyable, including a few jump scares and hints at horror, the turn comes during a particularly musical fight sequence. The scene itself is a touch silly and displays powers inconsistent with any in Strange’s five previous appearances, but is also the kind of inspired lunacy that marks Raimi’s best work. (It should be noted here as well that the soundtrack is wonderful, breaking the MCU’s comfort zone of sweeping orchestral scores and quirky licensed music with crunchy guitar and piano suites.) Rather than the slick, at times plastic CGI of most Marvel films, Multiverse‘s finale revels in the stop motion herky-jerky creature effects of the director’s Evil Dead films. In a sense, the film itself feels like Raimi finding his filmmaking feet after years stationary: opening steady, at times unstable, steps with occasional flourishes; relying on studio and franchise requirements to prop him up while testing his balance; finally running full speed, bouncing off and through walls, screaming and dancing and enjoying every minute of it until the film closes with a very last second twist that seems kicked directly from Army of Darkness. Multiverse may not be the horror movie that Scott Derrickson didn’t make, but it is definitely a Sam Raimi movie. Quirks and hokeyness and Bruce Campbell cameos and everything.
Well beyond something as trivial as superhero films, the last few years have given us all reason to wonder about timelines and multiverses. About whether there exists some parallel dimension where recent real world tragedies either don’t happen or don’t happen to the same disastrous effect. Where we could be living better lives even down to things as trivial as an Aronofsky directed Batman – Year One, Nolan Fantastic Four or (here’s hoping) Scorsese’s Daredevil. Just the day before my viewing of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness came news that made the hours I spend watching and overanalyzing Marvel movies feels completely meaningless. Perhaps that’s part of what makes a concept like the multiverse so appealing. Like superhero films themselves it gives us, filmgoers and larger humanity, an imagined escape from the dredges of our reality. Yet, as shown in Multiverse, the divide between a hero and a villain is that villains want to force change upon our accepted reality (*ahem* laws) to better serve them alone, while a hero does what they can to make our reality more acceptable for everyone. Maybe one day a real life America Chavez or *spoiler removed* could come along to bridge this gap into the MCU Scorseseverse. Until then, we, like Stephen Strange, need to do what we can to make our accepted reality better, and when we encounter something that we can’t change without forcing hurt onto others, deal with it.