Though the MCU may have started with Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr in 2008’s Iron Man, the blueprint for our culture’s current superhero dominance was laid down by someone else; Sam Raimi, whose 2002-2007 Spider-Man trilogy really launched the genre to the mainstream. After 14 years of movies and shows, Marvel has finally brought Raimi back to the superhero fold to launch their new phase of multiverse stories with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, a reunion that grants the MCU some of its best visuals and set-pieces to date, though let down by some really lousy writing.
Though this may, on paper, be a sequel to 2016’s Doctor Strange, Multiverse of Madness barely carries any threads from that film outside of two character, immensely powerful sorcerer Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), and his tutor/sidekick/buddy Wong (Benedict Wong). Instead, it relies mostly on a working knowledge of two of last year’s MCU Disney+ shows, WandaVision and What If, as Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) hunts multiverse-hopping teenager America Chavez (relative newcomer Xochitl Gomez) to use her powers to find Wanda’s theoretical twin sons, who exist in other realities, but not the mainline MCU one. Problematically, this process will kill America, so in steps Strange to protect her, driving Wanda into a state of violent mania and a multiversal killing spree that Strange and America (and some of Strange’s alternate selves) have to stop.
If that sounds convoluted, it’s because it is, and the set-up portion of Multiverse of Madness is just bad, weak writing laying a bunch of ground rules and lazily handwaving a lot of moments of character development. A lot of the time, the whole multiverse schtick simply gets in the way, expanding the scope but, at the same time, actually lowering the stakes. The infinite universes allow for plenty of carnage with limited consequence a la the throwaway interdimensional episodes of Rick and Morty, of which Multiverse of Madness’s writer Michael Waldron is a veteran.
Thankfully, there couldn’t really be anyone better to marshal this carnage than Raimi and, though the Marvel status quo is hardly upset by these set-pieces, he makes them into some of the most memorable the studio has ever put out. Raimi has clearly been given more room to manoeuvre than a lot of his Marvel director stablemates, and he embraces that with gusto. He turns in visually inventive and grisly fights filled with plenty of his stylistic signatures and some actually considered and pretty lighting, which is an embarrassing rarity within the MCU, though the mixed bag that is Marvel’s VFX (some incredible CGI elements but lots of awful compositing) remains unfixed. Multiverse of Madness is, by an extraordinary margin, Marvel’s most violent film to date, with zombies and tentacle monsters and genuinely nasty deaths – a moment in which a dead hero’s exploded brains are barely contained by their supersuit is far more gruesome than anything in the 15-rated The Batman, and I absolutely loved it.
It all adds a vital, splattery weight to a story that otherwise often feels unmoored, overly reliant on cameos and alienating to anyone who isn’t a true Marvel die-hard. Admittedly, that demographic is not currently a hugely important one to the MCU, which still commands the sort of big-money cinematic cachet that only maybe Star Wars and James Bond can match, but sets a worrying precedent for how self-involved these films may get down the line. Raimi’s battles – one involving weaponised musical notes is a real standout – also help distract from the fact that this multiversal trek doesn’t actually do all that much with that basic premise. Of all the infinite dimensions we spend any extended time in, none are markedly different enough from the normal one, while a quick-fire montage of more imaginative realms (like one made entirely of paint) is fun but also smacks of missed opportunities.
While most Marvel films generally toe the line of ‘good, but unremarkable’ from start to finish, Multiverse of Madness tends to fluctuate between extremes. At its worst, it’s a baggy chore with a cast who often seem actively uninterested in the words they’re speaking, but at its best it shows Marvel a new and exciting future of more directorially driven gonzo bombast. Raimi brings in an animating energy of colour, light, and gore in set-pieces that breathe renewed life into the Marvel project, even as the lore-heavy multiverse babble makes this franchise seem more ominously sluggish than ever before.