The Marvel Cinematic Universe is now into double-digit hours of whacking the pinata of grief that is Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) with a trauma stick. On the one hand, repetitive moral injury comes with the gig, as all superheroes are basically Job in spandex. On the other hand, women are, in fact, allowed to have motivations that extend beyond maternal and romantic concerns.
Wanda’s full, formal heel turn in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” isn’t unexpected so much as it is uninspired and upsetting. It’s essentially two hours of “No! Not mah babies!” after 9 hours of “No! Not mah husband!” in “Wandavision.” It’s not easy to set aside a fundamental betrayal of the female superhero with the most screentime during this entire 15-year comic book movie boomtime. But if you can Elsa that fact, you’ll find a jaunty campy horror riff that happens to feature Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a character seemingly hated as much by everyone inside his movies as he is by those who make them.
The notion that dreams are windows into alternate universes isn’t a new idea, but nobody has had one of those since the invention of Sour Patch Kids. Sweet and sour? You crazy kids. After Doc Strange wakes from a nightmare in which he tries to murder a teenaged girl and dies at the hand of a blobby demon, he soon finds himself having to save said teenaged girl, America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), from a blobby demon.
Turns out the blobby demon works for Wanda, now fully The Scarlet Witch, who is willing to murder a youth to acquire the power to travel between realities. Her “plan,” and that is meant in the fully quotation-marked sense of that word, is to use evil magic to replace a Wanda in a universe where her kids ain’t totes dead. Doctor Strange is against this. The entirety of the movie is him trying to keep America safe while getting Wanda to be a little more caring and a little less “Carrie.”
Spoilerific cameos aside, “Multiverse of Madness” is at its best when it lets director Sam Raimi do his cornball scary schtick. From reanimated superhero corpses to a fashionable cape made from souls of the damned, the more silly-spooky things get, the more the movie justifies its own existence. Because from a character development standpoint, this multidimensional monstrosity has no purpose. Nobody grows or changes as a person so much as they endure a series of whackadoo scenarios, emerging “changed” because the plot says they were.
America, in particular, gets totally neglected. Her arc apparently consists of not being able to control her power until given the right pep talk. The Scarlet Witch learns no lesson that wasn’t explicitly, repeatedly taught to her in “Wandavision.” Poor Doc S, once again, is just a human plot device. To be fair, everyone in the movie talks only in lines of exposition or explicitly reveals their inner motivations.
Although a great deal of fun and a unique, creepy atmospheric tweak on the MCU, what a waste that nobody seems interested in unpacking Doctor Strange at all. Why not drill down into this arrogant dingus who “learned a lesson” about hubris when he lost his surgical skills and then gained the power of a god? Have we solved the problem of malignant narcissism recently or something? Equally frustrating is how Strange is never given a chance to go on regular adventures or explore the boundaries of mysticism. He just has to keep cleaning up other superheroes’ poopies. When can Doctor Strange have his own poopies?!
Some questions may forever remain unanswered. These include the moment in the film when someone says “This isn’t sorcery. It’s witchcraft.” Does anyone know what the hell that means?
Grade = B-
Other Critical Voices to Consider
Jennifer Heaton of Alternative Lens says “At its worst though, it brought to mind ‘The Rise of Skywalker;’ a technically well-made movie but one that focuses on plot and spectacle to the detriment of everything else.”
Angelica Jade Bastién at Vulture says “After all, grotesquery isn’t solely about the images but what message they’re communicating. The message here: All this murder and insanity is the result of one woman and her desperate need to have (imaginary) kids.”
Carla Hay at Culture Mix says “The movie also repeats a theme of the main characters looking for their definition of happiness. More than once in ‘Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,’ someone is asked, ‘Are you happy?’ And then it’s followed up with some version of saying, ‘Are you really happy? Don’t lie to me because I can tell you’re not really happy.’”