Spoilers ahead for Doctor Strange In The Multiverse of Madness and any other MCU films and shows to date.
If I’m being honest—I’m starting to have concerns.
As an avowed MCU apologist, one who spent much of my childhood sitting on the floor of Barnes and Noble working my way through a chin-high stack of graphic novels, it pains me to say that Marvel’s Phase Four (their first in the post-Infinity Saga era) has been, generously, a mixed bag. On the one hand, a handful of top-tier performances across its films and now-cannon Disney+ series (with Jonathan Majors’ Kang, Florence Pugh’s Yelena Belova, Haley Stinefeld’s Kate Bishop/Hawkeye, Oscar Isaac’s Moon Knight, and Simu Liu’s Shang-chi leading the charge) has helped to assuage fears of a precipitous post-roster-turnover decline. However, since its 2020 respite, the franchise has had more misses than hits, with its apex (No Way Home) serving as more of a fun performance and nostalgia vehicle than a coherent film, and its worst (Eternals) bafflingly disappointing in spite of the brilliance of its Oscar-winning director, Chloé Zhao.
Which brings us to Phase Four’s latest entrant: Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. As with Eternals, the reins of this latest MCU installment have been handed to a director who is anything but anonymous. Sam Raimi’s winking, gory signature is unmissable scrawled across Multiverse of Madness, elevating moments of the film to the upper echelons of MCU canon. But in spite of its successes (especially in comparison to the franchise’s prior auteur-driven effort), Doctor Strange 2 is ultimately hamstrung by its Disney-beholden design.
That’s not to call Multiverse of Madness a failure—rather, what you walk away from the film with is largely a consequence of what expectations you brought into it. If your hope was a return to form from the erstwhile Spider-director of yore, or an injection of his horror hallmarks into the customarily more centrist franchise, Doctor Strange provides plenty worth celebrating: a bevy of unseen-presence-evoking tracking shots ripped from the frames of Evil Dead; supernatural fades and overlays reminiscent of The Gift; a grotesque facial prosthetic recycled from Liam Neeson’s Darkman; an unmitigated deluge of whip pans and extreme close-ups; and of course, a contractually obligated Bruce Campbell appearance.
In his inimitable fashion, Raimi blurs the line between grotesque and ludicrous with a whirlwind grace. Black Bolt implodes his own skull into a brain sack moments before Mr. Fantastic is unwound into skin spaghetti. A Fantasia-inspired, musical-notation-weaponizing duel (a sequence so arch it nearly collapses under the weight of its own camp) concludes with a Strange variant impaled, Virgin Suicides-esque, on his own fencepost.
We’ve been burned by the promise of “edgy” Marvel before, but throughout MoM, Raimi presses hard against the boundary of his PG-13 confines, smirking at his audience all the while. There is a joy and a vitality to these flourishes, (one that’s been conspicuously absent through much of the MCU, especially in its post-Endgame era) and it hints at the creative possibility of a Marvel Universe absent its corporate guardrails.
Sadly, the world eater that is Disney’s commercial interests continues its Galactus-like consumption apace. Those hoping for Doctor Strange to match the lofty franchise-shaking promises of its marketing campaign will once again find their hopes devoured by the company’s apparent “big hype, little progress” mantra. Whether motivated by a genuine lack of direction, or a desire to milk this soft-reset phase well past what it’s worth, the MCU seems to have discarded the patient, methodical construction of its first three phases in favor of a Bachelor-level of “most dramatic season yet” delusion.
The result is a kind of closed-loop grandiosity; the promise of a “nothing will ever be the same” reward for each project that, more often than not, leaves us back where we started by the end. Yes, in No Way Home Spider-Garf and Spider-Mags enter the MCU…only to be sent right back. Yes, in Doctor Strange we meet Professor X and Reed Richards and live-action Captain Carter…but they’re offed after five minutes. Yes, we’ve opened the door to the long theorized possibility of integrating reclaimed Marvel properties into the MCU proper via multiversal travel…but we’ve undercut it by saying that living too long in a different universe will destroy it. Again, the “meaningful change” can is kicked.
Traditional logic is not a requisite for functional or entertaining storytelling–certainly not within a landscape as narratively infinite as comics. However, the defining trait of the MCU until this point has been its cross-project coherence, at least in terms of direction (shouts to all the Phase Three timeline sleuths and their It’s Always Sunny -esque whiteboards).
“If the Avengers move to the compound after Civil War, how can The Vulture rob their moving plane in Homecoming?!?! It doesn’t make any sense!!!”
Five films and six shows into Phase Four, and we have little sense of where we’re headed, aside from who we’ll see when we get there. For all its touted expansiveness, the majority of post-Endgame progress has centered on characters’ emotional growth—which would be fine if those changes weren’t so frequently discarded or hand-waived by the start of the next project.
Nearly a year ago, I wrote about the unfulfilled promise of WandaVision. For all the creative highs that ultimately fell short of their potential, that series’ greatest success was in its deepening of the cinematic rendering of Wanda Maximoff, finally allowing Elizabeth Olsen a chance to flex her thespian range (one of the franchise’s best, even when her role has been underserved) as she contended with the messy intersection of grief and love, joy and rage, motherhood and mental illness. We left WandaVision anxious to see how the expanding darkness within our protagonist would balance against the heroism that motivated her end-of-series decision to release Westview from her spell, at the cost of her conjured family.
Barely a half-hour into Doctor Strange 2, any hopes of a long or nuanced character arc for the Scarlett Witch are felled beneath a hailstorm of chaos magic and attempted child-murder. Our very recent heroine is so distraught over the children she sacrificed to undo her misguided reality-warping that she is now more than happy to […checks notes…] warp all of reality to get them back. Wanda has broken bad, but Marvel never bothered to show us the breaking, a baffling storytelling decision with all the narrative grace of skipping from Walter White’s cancer diagnosis to his “I am the one who knocks” monologue and expecting us to fill in the blanks.
Leaked behind the scenes footage of Elizabeth Olsen in Doctor Strange In The Multiverse of Madness (Image via Industrial Scripts)
In doing so, not only did the MCU further erode its cross-project coherence, but it discarded the opportunity for a remarkably compelling storyline, patiently spiraling from tortured hero to unhinged, chaos-weilding antagonist. Instead, Wanda is relegated to the all-too-familiar “hysterical woman” archetype, and unceremoniously killed off before there’s any chance for interrogation of that much-maligned trope. While history has taught us to put little stock in the permanence of her end-of-film demise, any future attempts to revisit such an arc would sadly read as revision or retread, rather than deliberate plotting.
You’ll notice that we’ve hit the double-digit paragraph mark, and I’ve made little mention of Benedict Cumberbatch (who’s overworked American accent and dickish charm continue to be just askew of the franchise-player position Marvel is determined to put him in), or newcomer Xochitl Gomez (a compelling performance in an underbaked role as Young Avenger standout America Chavez), or the driving plot of the film (which is as superfluous as the film’s first post-credits scene; the second is, of course, essential).
This is the inevitable consequence of an undertaking as expansive as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Even the most standout portrayals (Olsen deserves a medal for all the emotional nuance she packs into this otherwise paper-thin rendering of Wanda) or moments of genuinely thrilling filmmaking (Raimi directs Marvel Zombies or we riot) are difficult to celebrate unencumbered by theorization of what role they might play within the overarching franchise.
By the same token, genuine critiques of the film’s plodding, expositionally girthy script, or it’s disjointed halves, or its troubling implication that motherhood + power = madness receive less attention than concerns about when we’ll finally get to see the X-Men and Spider-Man interact. This review makes it abundantly clear that I’m as guilty of this as anyone.
But this is the bed Marvel has made. By teaching its cinematic audience a style of storytelling once reserved for us denizens of the comic book shop and Barnes and Noble graphic novel aisle, the studio trained us to always balance our engagement with their films against a fixation with the larger constellation.
Integrating unique directors like Raimi and Zhao and allowing their styles to flourish, even in small moments, is a positive step towards reinvigorating the importance of individual movies (for all my critiques, Doctor Strange 2 is decidedly the best film of Phase Four). The big-picture storytelling possibilities of Kang, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and the Young Avengers (and the inevitable intersection of all these new characters) are exciting, even in their nascent stages.
But if I’m being honest–I’m starting to have concerns.
Rating: 3.5/5 Giant Gauged Dimensional Space Demon Eyeballs
For Nate’s full ranking of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date, swing by his letterboxd.