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I’m Trying to Review ‘Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’ But It Doesn’t Really Matter, Does It?

3 stars, I guess? Maybe?

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness poster

Usually I come home from a new Marvel movie excited to write a review. But I got out of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, the follow-up to 2016’s perfectly fine Doctor Strange, only to open my phone and see that the Supreme Court is poised to overturn Roe v. Wade. It’s hard to care about a superhero movie with what feels like America unraveling at the seams. But I’ll give it a shot.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a movie. It is a movie directed by the legendary Sam Raimi, who was here a long time ago with Spider-Man(s), and it was written by Loki’s Michael Waldron. It is a movie that was dogged by COVID-induced production delays and mired for a long time in development hell and the exit of original Doctor Strange director Scott Derrickson for “creative differences” and it is a movie that went through several script overhauls. Unfortunately, it is a movie that shows the strains of the many cooks in the kitchen of its making. It is at its best when it is a Sam Raimi movie—when it cuts loose and has some wacky, scary, trippy weird fun.

Unfortunately again, there is a lot more movie around the Sam Raimi parts of the movie, even if the Sam Raimi shines forth. Before I decided nothing matters because America is a cursed place to live and we should probably burn Washington D.C. to the ground, I was going to title this review “Doctor Strange 2 is the Sam Raimiest of Sam Raimi Marvel Movies.” So now you know that.

Fortunately, Doctor Strange 2 breaks the trend of tedious 3-hour runtimes, coming in at a comparatively brisk 2 hours and 6 minutes. More movies should be 2 hours long; 2 hours is a perfect length for a film. The Batman should have been 2 hours long, if it had to exist. (It did not). Doctor Strange moves at a strange clip, though. It plunges us immediately into action, including into what my friend observed was the fastest straight-to-shirtless superhero scene in the MCU yet. Then it takes about a billion years to get some real momentum behind it, except all the parts where it is undoing the hard-fought lessons learned from Disney+’s WandaVision.

You see, this is a movie that is ostensibly about Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch)—that’s his name right there in the title. But it is mostly about Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) hatching plans that make no sense whatsoever but that doesn’t matter because she is A MOTHER NOT A MONSTER, and it is about new girl in town America Chavez being a living and breathing MacGuffin for two hours and six minutes. Newcomer Xochitl Gomez, so winning as Dawn on Netflix’s The Baby-Sitters Club, deserved better than the script she got here, wherein beloved comics heroine Miss America is vital to the action but mostly gets imprisoned or chased by monstrous things or has several adults talking over her about her life or death while she is in the room.

At least score three for the MCU’s newfound LGBTQIA+ representation, I guess? The first was that Joe Russo cameo in Endgame that we don’t talk about, the second was Eternals, which did much, much better. America (who is queer in the comics and, we imagine, here) has two moms in a flashback, wears a rainbow pin, and has “amor es amor” written on her jean jacket. She’s a great addition despite what she’s given to work with and we can’t wait to see her in a Young Avengers situation where she’s allowed to get the hell away from the adults messing up her speed.

Also present in this movie is Benedict Wong as Wong, the new Sorcerer Supreme and one of my all-time favorite characters, and once again Benedict Wong rescues and elevates every single scene he is in. I am pleased to report he is in several scenes. There can never, ever, ever be enough Wong. However, the narrative for some reason mostly separates him from Strange, meaning we don’t get enough of their delightful banter, which is pretty much the only delightful thing about Stephen Strange.

Our dour doctor of the mystic arts has lightened up a little, but it’s hard to know who the character really is, since he’s primarily defined here by what he is not. This is a movie that contains several Stranges at various junctures, and expository stories about what different Stranges have gotten up to, mostly to establish that our Strange is a special Strange who is not like the others.

If this all sounds confusing, that’s because it is. Don’t look for a plot or through-line that makes sense in this multiversal soup; it really doesn’t matter, you’re going in for the vibes if you’re going at all. And there are certainly vibes aplenty, best when they are Sam Raimi vibes. Think all the way back to the ’80s and ’90s with Raimi’s The Evil Dead and Army of Darkness, and there are winking nods and freaky nods that make you wish the whole movie were like that.

Alas it is not. I wish I could tell you what this film is about, but even Marvel doesn’t seem to know. The movie’s official synopsis reads, “Dr. Stephen Strange casts a forbidden spell that opens the doorway to the multiverse, including alternate versions of himself, whose threat to humanity is too great for the combined forces of Strange, Wong, and Wanda Maximoff.” This is literally not what happens? Not a single of these things happen. Maybe this is a synopsis left behind from a prior version of development? I have no idea.

Again, what this movie is mostly concerned with is America Chavez having multiverse MacGuffin powers, Wanda Maximoff engaged in her own active character assassination, Benedict Cumberbatch showing his acting range as several Stranges, some more interesting than others, and Wong being a badass and the Sorcerer Supreme we deserve. This movie is also not really about Doctor Strange in or on or doing much of anything in said multiverse. He’s, like, within it for mere seconds at a go. Madness.

The most fun you will have here is that Sam Raimi really Sam Raimis it up at several points, and also there is a big juicy chunk at about two-thirds of the way through that is packed with cameos and people appearing that will make comics and MCU fans go YAY and make anyone else watching go Who the hell is that and why should I care? But I had a good time with that part before I came out of the theater into the hellish ‘verse that is 2022 America.

The increasing problem with Marvel movies, and this isn’t Sam Raimi’s fault or Benedict Cumberbatch’s and it certainly isn’t Benedict Wong’s because he is perfect, is that these films are now nigh-on incomprehensible to anyone without a Marvel Ph.D. I’ve been an avid fan of the MCU for more than a decade, and so I get most of the million references and random characters and I know the backstories that the endless exposition tries to fill us in on, but I cannot imagine going to this movie without that history. Audiences who may have missed WandaVision are especially missing a lot of context here, even if the context here messes with much of what we loved about what happened with Wanda in WandaVision. And that big juicy fun part with all of the extra Marvely stuff for fans must feel like an absolute acid trip of chaos if you don’t know who any of these people are.

Anyway, this is a movie that I definitely did not hate. Not like I hated The Batman. Unlike The Batman, there were several points where I laughed and smiled and was even scared, because Sam Raimi. There are cool costumes and bright colors and funky sets, and sometimes Rachel McAdams has red hair and is a scientist, and Strange’s love interest Christine is more intriguing like that, when she actually has something to do. Elizabeth Olsen is excellent and really gives her all to a script that’s unworthy of how magnificently she performs it. There are two after-credit scenes you should stick around for. This movie is a mess, but messes aren’t always bad. It’s not bad, I just don’t really know what to do with it, and it feels like it should belong to the Marvel of another era, not helping to kick off a new one.

You’re either going to see this movie when it comes out on May 6th or you aren’t, and either way, that’s just fine with me. The world is on fire and maybe you want to get away from that for two hours and six minutes. Cool cool cool. You’ll have more fun than you did at The Batman, at least.

(image: Marvel Studios)

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Kaila is a lifelong New Yorker. She's written for io9, Gizmodo, New York Magazine, The Awl, Wired, Cosmopolitan, and once published a Harlequin novel you'll never find.