When I walked into my hometown movie theater for a late Friday night screening of “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” I was already in a pretty bad mood. My friend and I were running about 10 minutes late. Our lateness was exacerbated by the ridiculously long line for overpriced movie theater snacks (that I was paying for), which of course gave me a terrible stomachache. So, as I sat and waited for the infamous Marvel opening credits to roll for “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” with stomach pains and a freshly burned hole in my wallet, I could only expect the worst. I was prepared to suffer through two hours and six minutes of confusing and headache-inducing special effects, not-that-funny jokes and references to other Marvel movies I had long forgotten. I was prepared to write a less-than-gushing review, maybe fall asleep in the theater and, okay, maybe even stoop so low as to crack an MSU-related joke at director Sam Raimi’s expense. What I was not prepared for was a Marvel rollercoaster of emotions that took me from intrigued, to excited, to enthralled, only to ultimately leave me stranded and feeling disappointed.
For those of us who haven’t been keeping up with the Avengers since the beginning of time, or who maybe haven’t had the free hours (or weeks) to watch every Marvel movie in chronological order, here’s a little back story. Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, “Sherlock”) is a powerful, magic-wielding sorcerer whose role in Marvel films has been building since Cumberbatch’s Marvel debut in the first “Doctor Strange.” As one of the very few actual Avengers-adjacent superheroes still around, his character has been integral to many recent Marvel films where he’s showcased his ability to completely rewrite reality — an ability that becomes extremely important as Marvel begins to explore the lore of multiple realities and interdimensional travel. So yes, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” is as complicated and insane as its title, and for better or worse, it is definitely a wild ride.
The plot of “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” hinges, as always, on the fate of the universe as we know it — but this time, it’s thousands of different universes that rest in the hands of Strange and America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez, “The Baby-Sitters Club”), a teenage girl with the ability to travel to alternate universes. The film’s roots stretch all the way back to Cumberbatch’s Marvel debut in the first “Doctor Strange,” tying together key plotlines from recent Marvel projects such as “Avengers: Infinity War” and most notably “WandaVision,” the miniseries in which Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen, “Sorry for Your Loss”) loses her marbles and transforms into the villainous version of the Scarlet Witch who appears in “Multiverse of Madness.” Maximoff seeks to covet America’s powers for herself in order to find a universe where she can be reunited with the children she lost in “WandaVision,” and uses dark and disturbing forbidden magic to follow America and company across dimensions in a plot twist that we kind of all saw coming.
“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” is made up of stunning visuals, a killer soundtrack and character growth — so why did it still feel like a letdown? With what the writers had to work with, this movie should have knocked it out of the park. Opening up the Marvel universe to the concept of multiple realities? Giving the characters the perfect playground of alternate universes with endless possibilities? It should have been a recipe for success. But despite the changes in tone and genre and the new characters that Marvel has introduced, the film’s tendency to fall back into predictable patterns and its cookie-cutter plot rob it of any chance at fulfilling its potential.
“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” is the most recent addition to what Marvel calls Phase Four, the fourth stage of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, following the Infinity Saga and set to extend all the way until 2023. Before the beginning of Phase Four, Marvel films had a particular brand of storytelling (utilizing very cut-and-dry hero archetypes and variations on the hero’s journey), under the charge of specific directors (the Russo brothers), who all pushed similar types of themes (good vs. evil, where good always prevails) — all of which created a very basic routine. But Phase Four has been the beginning of a new era for Marvel, and has represented a sort of evolution for the MCU. Phase Four has introduced Marvel projects much darker than your average “Captain America” movie, tackling more serious topics such as mental illness, like in the recent release “Moon Knight,” and adding creepy, horror-esque special effects to their already extensive arsenal.
With Raimi’s expertise and refined horror-movie chops, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” leans into the Phase Four rebranding, bringing a tone of depth and darkness that highlights the severity of the consequences that come with manipulating the fabrics of reality and the tampering with the very existence of entire alternate universes — a concept that is, honestly, pretty freaking terrifying. It’s these elements of horror that bring out the best of the film, ensuring that the concept of the multiverse isn’t just a comic book plot device or a little quirk in an already insane fantasy world.
If you had stopped me halfway through the movie and asked for my opinion, I would have been ready to label it a cinematic masterpiece. But no amount of amazing visuals or compelling characters can transform a lackluster plot. Despite the complexities of the multiverse that made for an interesting and attention-grabbing premise, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” fell back into the classic, formulaic patterns of superhero movies that I thought Marvel had managed to escape. The film was plagued with overplayed and, frankly, boring tropes at every turn, leading it to finally fall flat.
The most glaring example was Chavez, a new and fun character who brings Latina representation to the MCU with her actress’s Mexican heritage and LGBTQ+ representation as the daughter of two moms, who we see make a sweet on-screen appearance. However, she’s quickly reduced to the age-old trope of the character who can’t control her powers simply because she doesn’t believe in herself. When Chavez is finally able to somehow harness her powers to beat the all-powerful villain, the excitement of the moment is diminished by the obvious cliché. Despite Chavez’s lack of any useful power throughout the majority of the film, she is still able to escape from monsters and threats at every turn, giving the plot the least desirable characteristic in a horror or superhero movie — predictability. After such a promising exposition, watching the film devolve into banality was, to say the least, a little unsatisfying.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of all in this film was Maximoff’s role, her villainy in itself derived from an overused and off-putting trope. The most powerful witch in the universe with enough magical prowess to wipe out every obstacle she encounters — in every universe — and she is ultimately defeated by what? Her feelings. To have the strongest, most terrifying female character in Marvel be driven by some kind of maternal madness is bad enough. To have her be miraculously defeated by a teenager in the timespan of a single film was just unbelievably frustrating to watch — especially after the years-long buildup that showcased the growth of her incredible abilities since “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” The complete devolution of Maximoff’s character and erasure of any and all growth made it pretty obvious Raimi didn’t even watch WandaVision. Casting aside the Scarlet Witch was undoubtedly the most exasperating turn that “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” took, but with uncertainty surrounding the length and contents of Elizabeth Olsen’s Marvel contract, we can only hope she’ll make a comeback in a less played-out and stereotypical role.
Marvel has come a long way since its days of simple heroes and two-dimensional villains, and its Phase Four projects are proof of that. In the last year we’ve seen Marvel dive into the darker sides of character development and worldbuilding, creating universes that are thrilling and immersive. However, it seems that even after decades of filmmaking and four stages of storytelling, Marvel is still trying to find what works for them as they step into their new genre-bending era. In one fell swoop, Marvel has fallen back into the monotonous cycle of repetitive and predictable plots, throwing away all the progress they’ve made since Phase One — and there is no alternate universe where that was a good idea.
Daily Arts Writer Annabel Curran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.