The Marvel Cinematic Universe might not exist at all if it wasn’t for Sam Raimi. That’s a lot of credit to give to one individual who up to now has never been explicitly involved in the MCU at all, but it’s Raimi’s “Spider-man” trilogy—which debuted in 2002 and spawned two sequels, the last of which was released a mere year before the MCU’s first outing with “Iron Man”—that demonstrated to the world just what a comic book superhero movie could be. A little goofy, a little serious, with big, colorful action sequences and characters who were prompted to fully wrestle with the weight of their decisions and the powers destiny bestowed upon them, “Spider-man” was a critical and commercial hit, and felt like a natural extension of the funky horror comedies (“The Evil Dead,” and even the horror-inspired superhero movie “Darkman”) Raimi was predominately known for before.
A lot has changed in the 15 years since “Spider-man 3,” and in the nine years since the last feature film Raimi directed (Disney’s “Oz the Great and Powerful,” which is the bad kind of weird). Taking over for Scott Derrickson, who helmed 2016’s origin story “Doctor Strange” (and who departed the sequel over creative differences), Raimi and “Loki” series head writer Michael Waldron enter a space that is rather difficult to put an individual stamp on with “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.” The 2016 film was our first big-screen introduction to the character. Since then, Strange has popped up as a bit player in multiple Marvel movies, most recently last year’s “Spider-man: No Way Home,” with the events of this sequel dovetailing directly off that latter film and the Disney+ series “WandaVision.” The end result is a movie that is equal parts the frustratingly familiar routine we’ve come to expect from an MCU project—cameo appearances that are intended to serve the fans more than the story, a barrage of CGI effects, and a heavy reliance on storylines established in previous films and television shows—and something completely different: a visual and directorial flair that is unmistakably Raimi’s, dragging the audience along with Strange down to hell with surreal and creepy imagery. But that’s not primarily what I want discuss today.
Chased across the multiverse by a demon while searching for a tome of magic known as the Book of Vishanti, teenager America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), who has the power to punch entryways between the multiverses, crashes into the Earth of our MCU heroes and straight into Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). Strange goes to consult Wanda Maximoff, aka Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) for assistance in learning more about the demon, only to discover that she is the one behind the attacks in the first place. As we saw at the end of “WandaVision,” Wanda acquired the Darkhold, a book of black magic, and her studies of it has corrupted her mind. Wanda believes that she can use America’s powers to find and be reunited with Billy and Tommy, her children she created in Westview. America’s unstable hold on her powers result in a chase across multiverses as she and Strange try to stop Wanda and also find their way back home.
The first 90 minutes or so of “MoM” aren’t particularly engaging or fun to watch. The screenplay doesn’t even put a lot of effort into the usual MCU witticisms (although that may actually be a positive). After seeing the majority of Marvel’s Phase 4 films thus far standing up quite well as their own movies (“Black Widow,” “The Eternals,” “Shang-Chi”), it’s a little irritating, inevitable as it was, that this film relies so heavily on a TV show (not just “WandaVision” but also “Loki,” which established the multiverse concept for the MCU), that it never really feels like a complete piece. And as well-suited to the role of Strange as Cumberbatch is, his character was, in his previous solo outing at least, given a complete arc. It’s never really clear in “MoM” where Strange is at or where his character is going outside of resolving the current conflict at hand, and still pining for his former colleague and love interest Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), whose wedding Strange is attending at the start of this film. I’m frankly shocked that McAdams agreed to come back for this movie at all; she’s only given marginally more to do, exhibits little chemistry with Cumberbatch (although it doesn’t help that the script dating back to the first movie never did a lot to build up their relationship in the first place), and wears a series of horrid wigs.
It’s sad to see an otherwise reliably great actress like McAdams squandered in a supporting role in a movie like this, but I’ll admit, I did sort of expect it. What I wasn’t expecting was the film’s poor handling of its other female characters. The MCU hasn’t had the greatest track record when it comes women (who for the most part have either been shallow villains, shallow love interest, or supporting heroes making sacrifices for the benefit of the male leads), but they’ve gotten a little better, especially with the room Disney+ has given them to explore some of these characters in a limited series format. Even though “WandaVision” didn’t stick the landing, it’s still my favorite Marvel show to date, in large part thanks to its nuanced and empathetic portrayal of Wanda’s grief, first after losing the love of her life, and then after losing the imaginary life and family she created for them. But the more I saw of Wanda in “Multiverse of Madness,” the more I felt an uneasy feeling developing in my gut. “WandaVision” concludes with Wanda harnessing the Darkhold’s power; we know she is heading down a dark path. But that doesn’t mean she needed to be turned into a one-note antagonist. “MoM” wastes no time transforming her from a fundamentally good person who strayed off the path into a version of the hysterical mother trope. I’d venture to take that even a step further and say that “MoM” villainizes motherhood with the way Wanda is so singlemindedly driven to having her children, she’s willing to destroy others—including America, who is essentially a child herself—to get them. It’s a miss for the usually solid Olsen, who isn’t given much to do outside of diabolically cackle her way through the picture, a disappointing continuation of some much-critiqued storylines and character traits from the comics, and a narrow view of grief and motherhood—the exact opposite of the complex arc we saw in “WandaVision,” which managed to recognize multiple facets of Wanda’s character. It’s difficult to feel a lot of compassion for this version of Wanda, and that’s perhaps the worst thing of all.
America’s portrayal is significantly less frustrating, although it occasionally feels less like she’s her own character, and more like she’s a plot device being used to set up the conflict between Strange and Wanda. We’ve seen heroes struggle with their confidence when it comes to their abilities many times over, but thanks to Gomez, this small section of the story of a character I hope we get to see shine in her own project very soon is satisfyingly wrapped up. Gomez authentically portrays her character’s perky personality, her lack of self-confidence, and her sadness over loss she has experienced in the past, and as much as I wish she wasn’t debuting in someone else’s movie, she’s a welcome addition to the team.
Outside of those fatal character flaws, “Multiverse of Madness” is bogged down under the usual Marvel trappings, but it does end up in some weird places, and as incongruous as it feels with what came immediately before, the final half hour is pure Raimi mayhem. The movie becomes colorful and more visually interesting both in the camerawork and editing in a way not all Marvel films are, and the effects are neatly used to craft some unique magical fight scenes. Raimi and Waldron take the movie into horror territory—replete with zombies, haunted houses, and trippy imagery—in the way the initial premise of logo for the film released in 2019 promised and it’s both messy and refreshing (much has been made of the violence in this movie; it’s slightly more grotesque by MCU standards, or in other words, not much to sneeze at). And Raimi is also responsible for what may be my favorite post-credits scene to date (no, I’m not talking about the usual mid-credits sequence where a new character shows up to supposedly help the movie’s protagonist with some future conflict, although “MoM” has one of those too). I wish I could be more positive on the film as a whole, because it’s rare we get to see a director in the Marvel machine really get to put their stamp on a movie (think Chloe Zhao with “Eternals,” or James Gunn with the “Guardians of the Galaxy” films), and I’d love to see more of it. But while Raimi nailed the superhero movie right out of the gate with 2002’s “Spider-man,” Marvel Studios only proves here that they still struggle with striking the right balance between directorial freedom and connective tissue, and the commercial success of the formula they’ve established.
“Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 126 minutes. Rated PG-13.