Once upon a time, you knew a sequel was a sequel by the artistically redundant number stuck to the end of its title. Iron Man 2 followed Iron Man and Vol. 2 came after Vol. 1 in the Guardians of the Galaxy trilogy. Marvel have long since abandoned such logical linearity. As such, their latest is not Doctor Strange 2 but Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Eight long years after Benedict Cumberbatch’s Stephen Strange first burst onto the scene, it is a reflection of a cinematic universe in which each new entry succeeds the last. The film is certainly a sequel to Scott Derrickson’s original Doctor Strange but no more so than it is to Jon Watts’ most recent Spider-Man: No Way Home and Disney Plus TV hit WandaVision. Not up to date? We’ve reached the threshold across which you may begin to struggle.
Much as with No Way Home, it is the “multiverse” that sits front and centre here. This is the concept that infinite parallel universes that exist outwit our own, each slightly variant in form and direction. Whether there is potential here beyond the opportunity for Marvel to simply satiate fan appetites with cameos remains to be seen. There’s a nice line about the relationship between the multiverse and dreams here but little more to justify so dominant a focus. When the cameos come, they’re a whole lot more distracting than was the sight of three Spider-Men sharing screen time. Frustrating even.
The film is directed by Sam Raimi and marks a long awaited return to the genre for a man who hasn’t touched supers in fifteen years. Much has changed in the field since the rather maligned conclusion to Raimi’s own Spider-Man trilogy. Creative freedom is growing under the stewardship of Marvel and there’s a palpability to the sense that Raimi is thrilled by such opportunity. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is as close as Marvel has yet come – and likely can come – to all out horror. For better or worse, there are sequences here that may make uncomfortable viewing for parents accompanying children to the multiplex. As a 12a, the film permits it. Raimi’s own work on The Evil Dead is recalled, with characters here sliced in two, resurrected from the grave and ripped to ribbons.
Cinematically speaking, Raimi’s efforts to stir shivers are impressive. And yet, in the context of a film still somewhat restrained by the Marvel machine, the broader picture can’t help but feel disjointed. Box ticking and fan pleasing have rarely felt so limiting in the MCU. Such is not, of course, helped here by thin plotting and a rather rambling narrative arc. While it would be remiss to give away – or “spoil” – the story, it would be fair to boil said story down to an A to B to C summary. There is a hunted party, a hunter and a series of variably exciting events, designed to keep the two apart until the film’s climax. It’s very rote.
We open in the thicket of action, with a parallel Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) in battle with some demon from another universe. He’s protecting the young super America Chavez (winning, if underused, newcomer Xochitl Gomez), while attempting to secure the Book of Vishanti, a bible of white do-gooding magic. A MacGuffin. America has the power to traverse the multiverse and does exactly that when things go awry. It’s not long before she meets our own Strange in his own universe. Elizabeth Olsen soon joins the fray as Wanda Maximoff, while Benedict Wong and Rachel McAdams find themselves reduced to somewhat thankless bit parts. When the multiverse hopping begins proper, there are returns for more familiar faces – namely Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Karl Mordo – and surprising new ones. Once again, to reveal more would be an injustice.
Compared to the emotive resonance achieved in No Way Home, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness can’t help but underwhelm. It’s fun but frivolous and struggles to hold down an umbrella tone or sense of thematic unity. There are highlights – including one seriously inventive musical battle – and it’s slick in construction. Of course it is. Perhaps, in some alternate sphere of the multiverse, there is a variation of this film in which greater depth and narrative advancement are achieved. One just that little bit madder. There will be a Doctor Strange 3 – whatever they call it – but let us dream that the interim episodes in the Marvel saga can do more to develop the story and characters.