Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness: An Exciting, Albeit flawed journey
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WARNING: This review contains spoilers for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
“Wanda, your kids weren’t real. You created them using magic.”
“That’s what every mother does.”
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness might be one of Marvel Studios’ most ambitious projects in terms of concepts, characters, and scope. Sure, films like Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame have become a borderline cultural phenomenon, but this film, in particular, seemed to do something even more daring: to break the usual mold of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and at the same time deliver a satisfying conclusion (or at least that seems to be the case at the moment) to the character of Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch.
And the man behind this project was director Sam Raimi, who all comic book fans know from the Spider-Man trilogy of films starring Tobey Maguire. Personally, I’m a fan of Raimi’s work and he did my favorite live-action version of Spider-Man, so I was eagerly looking forward to this film because I know he is a comic book fan and particularly of Doctor Strange. He name-dropped him in Spider-Man 2 way before the character was a worldwide franchise, so that tells you a lot.
The plot goes something like this: the film starts with a new character, America Chavez, running away from a demon in a weird dimension next to a version of Doctor Strange that is wearing the Defenders costume from the comics. As they go about it, Strange tries to absorb America’s powers, which is the ability to cross from one universe to another but gets killed by the demon before doing so.
And as America manages to escape, she is eventually saved by this universe’s Doctor Strange and Wong, only to discover that the person that wants the girl’s power is no other than Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch, who wants to go to another universe and reunite with her children, who were just mere creations in her mind in this one, as per the events of the WandaVision series (recommended to watch it if you want to know more about Wanda’s motivations in this film).
Then chaos ensues.
One of the main aspects of this movie is that a lot of things happen. And I really mean a lot. The movie is “only” two hours long, but you get non-stop action, story, and development. Raimi wastes no time in getting this universe’s Strange to find America and get the main plot going, which in a way is useful because there are no scenes being wasted, but by the same token, it leaves little room for character development and quiet moments that make the loud ones even more powerful. I still enjoy it because it does have a lot of things going for it, but from a more critical point of view, the film does go on a nerve-wracking pace.
Visually, the film is beautiful and it is one of Raimi’s biggest virtues as a director. If you go all the way back to his Spider-Man films, you will see a lot of great shots and visuals, which is a clear example that he knows what to get from these shots and he clearly knows what he is doing. The MCU has a lot of great visual moments in his movies, but I think this one is definitely on another level of eye candy.
I think there are very few characters whose adventures and concepts lend themselves to that better than Strange. Going all the way back to the Stan and Ditko comics, the character always had whacky and crazy adventures with a lot of psychedelic elements, which is something that definitely plays an influence here with the concept of the multiverse, Strange and America jumping from one reality to another.
And speaking of the multiverse, of course, we need to talk about the big elephant in the room: the use of the Illuminati.
It’s no secret at this point that Marvel Studios enjoys offering Easter Eggs, fanservice, and a lot of references to their comics or past projects. It’s fine, it’s part of their formula and it is often appreciated by their fans. And the use of the Illuminati here, at least from my perspective, shows both the good and the bad of that strategy.
On the one hand, it’s cool to see Patrick Stewart’s Charles Xavier in the MCU and also seeing John Krasinski, after years of fan requests, playing the role of Reed Richards from the Fantastic Four, same as seeing a more faithful version of Black Bolt, the leader of the Inhumans. And it is also interesting to see “What If…?” versions of Captain Carter and Captain Marvel, especially after the MCU animated series that played around with those concepts.
However, these characters play a very minor role in this film and Wanda quickly kills them to the point that it’s borderline embarrassing. Sure, the Illuminati have never been particularly useful in the comics, so at least this adaptation has that going for them, and it does play to the concept of the multiverse in the film, but they are of so little importance here. They were thrown in for fanservice reasons and nothing else, which affects the story’s flow a little bit.
It’s one of those things that surprises you at first in a good way, but during a second watch you are no longer impressed and you start to see the cracks in the plot when it comes to their addition. I personally don’t think it’s a Raimi thing because this is something we have seen in the MCU time and time again, and it is an element that I enjoyed, but considering how little influence they have in the plot and how fast they get killed, you start to wonder how important their presence is in this film when judging it on its own and not in the grand scheme of the MCU.
But when it comes to importance to the plot, then Miss America Chavez needs to be brought to the forefront.
The character has always been quite hard to write in the comics because of her bizarre origins, her insane power levels, and how difficult it has been to give her a defined personality, so that is why she has been retconned in recent series into something a bit more simplified and the people in charge of this movie made the smart decision of leaving her origin stuff way on the side and focusing on what she can do here… which is not very good, to be honest.
The big problem with America here is that she is a plot device. That’s it: she is the MacGuffin that gets the ball rolling with Wanda’s desire to find her kids and Stephen Strange’s mission to stop her. But there is no big character development with America because she doesn’t have a defined personality and she doesn’t go through a lot of ordeals beyond running away from the Scarlet Witch for most of the time until she suddenly manages to control her powers thanks to Stephen’s pep talk.
I don’t know if Raimi was involved in the decision of adding her to this film or if the character was forced upon him, but regardless, she seems like a bit of a weird fit when it comes to a clash between two characters that are more related to magic and witchcraft.
Going back to the personality bit, at times she seems introverted, at times she seems feisty and sarcastic and at others she seems to be just there, hoping for Strange to get the plot going instead of having an actual character arc. Actress Xochitl Gomez doesn’t have the widest range of facial expressions, but she is not given much to work with and I think that is down to Raimi and the writers, to be honest.
It’s hard to root for a character who is just there for plot convenience and who we get a very little background about except the loss of her two mothers. Her big moment near the end of the film, where she is facing off Wanda, doesn’t feel earned or logical based on what we have seen in the story until that point. She is a MacGuffin for most of the movie and all of the sudden she can deal with the Scarlet Witch without much setup for that? I don’t know, it doesn’t do it for me.
The character of Strange is an interesting case because, much like the antagonist here, he benefits from previous installments in the MCU where he’s gotten the chance to grow and develop. And what’s interesting here is that we find a Raimi trope he already did with Spider-Man in his second film: to have the hero question why he does the things he does.
Strange is a hero and has saved the world a couple of times, but he is not living a happy life and that seems to have him over the edge, which is something that is constantly shown across the multiverse here: his other versions are consistently breaking the rules and their moral codes to do what they feel is right, to the point that they end up dying because of it.
It’s interesting because the multiverse concept is often used to show how you can have many different versions of the same character, and while Raimi does that here, he is also showing the core attributes of Doctor Strange: that rebellious nature of doing what is necessary to save the day. And the evil version that Stephen faces in the third act, the one that has been corrupted by the Darkhold, is ironically the Stephen that has chosen his own selfish reasons rather than being the hero he was meant to be.
I won’t say that the film fully executes this concept well but it’s definitely there and it has some nice subtleties here and there that make it very enjoyable. And while this movie is not as prone to humor as other MCU installments, you can still see a bit of Stephen’s wise-cracking and sarcastic personality, which is always nice.
But the star of the show is definitely Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda. Sure, she has played the character for almost a decade now, but this film sees Wanda fulfilling her destiny as the Scarlet Witch and falling prey to the worst sides of her personality after all the losses she has endured, which have always been brewing beneath the surface.
The MCU is not the finest franchise when it comes to nuanced characters, but they have definitely done a very good job with Wanda. She started out as an antagonist working for Ultron, then became a hero, and ever since Infinity War there has been this inner darkness that was growing stronger in every installment until she became the tragic villain we see today. In that regard, this film retroactively makes the WandaVision series an origin story for a villain and that is pretty cool.
Wanda is a broken woman who has dealt with many tragedies and losses in her life and she wants to do what she considers fair for her own benefit, which results in her being corrupted by the Darkhold and losing her moral compass. Raimi does a phenomenal job with what he’s being given from previous MCU stories and turns her into a sympathetic yet frightening villain, with elements of horror thrown into the way she behaves and is filmed.
The tunnel chasing scene in the Illuminati headquarters is quintessential Raimi horror and it shows how powerful and scary Wanda can be when she has lost any control of herself.
I have talked with some people about the final resolution of the conflict and thought that it was too easy. I disagree. I think the resolution for Wanda’s struggles and her journey in the MCU was very fitting because it was very logical: she was only going to stop if her own kids saw her as the monster she had turned into. It is one of my favorite scenes in the MCU because it shows how a character can descend into insanity for the ones she loves… only for those loved ones to reject her.
It’s touching, it’s powerful and very real. And when you have a character that is this powerful and at the same time so connected to her emotions, this seems like a very logical and satisfying conclusion. However, the fact that Vision was nowhere to be seen in the presence of the multiverse makes me think that this isn’t the last time we’re going to see the Scarlet Witch in the MCU, especially considering how popular Elizabeth Olsen is, but we’ll have to wait and see.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is not a perfect film and it certainly has its fair share of flaws, but it also has a lot of dynamics, one of the best antagonists in MCU history, a strong underlying theme about making necessary sacrifices for the greater good, some spectacular visuals and is the kind of crazy journey that a Doctor Strange story should be.