Phase four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been a busy one. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness may be – due to the pandemic – merely the fifth film post-Endgame, but, at the time of writing, this has to be put alongside six television offerings. Although mileage with each IP will vary, it is probably fair to say that it has been a mixed bag, with the films being somewhat mediocre, and the TV offerings being so different from each other that the phase as a whole lacks identity.
With some exceptions it has felt like a gigantic comedown after an eleven-year cinematic journey of unprecedented scale. Into this environment comes a new entry helmed by Sam Raimi – a man who has not directed a film for nine years, and whose entries in this genre pre-date a great deal of development and look decent but basic – and led by a character whose first entry was one of the weakest of a very strong earlier phase of these films.
READ MORE: 12 Monkeys (1995) – 4K UHD Review
We pick up after the events of Spider-Man: No Way Home, with Dr Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) still something of a distant, solitary figure. This is thrown into sharp relief with his attending the wedding of Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams); the great love of his life is now moving on without him. At the reception, events are interrupted by a large octopus-type demon on the streets outside, causing carnage in pursuit of America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a young woman from another dimension who has the sought-after ability to move between parts of the multiverse, though we learn it is a power she cannot control at this point. With help from Wong (Benedict Wong), the demon is slayed.
Seeking the advice of Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), having noticed the hallmarks of witchcraft, Strange learns that Wanda is now in full-on Scarlet Witch mode and wishes to acquire Chavez’s powers in order reunite with her children – conjured up by her in WandaVision. Going on the attack, Maximoff stresses America into activating her ability and taking Strange through a multitude of dimensions, ending up in an alternate New York where Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is Sorcerer Supreme, the Avengers never existed but an alternative does, complete with other famous parts of the Marvel roster (as well as at least one character we saw in What If…?). Stephen must work to help America get control of her power, so that they can escape this dimension (and avoid its version of Wanda – who is being controlled by the Scarlet Witch), whilst preventing Maximoff getting hold of an ability that could be devastating in the wrong hands.
Let’s start with a couple of negatives. With this film having ‘Madness’ in its title, it would be fair to expect a wild ride, with different realities being moved through at a dizzying rate. Instead, the clip depicting this lasts a total of 23 seconds, followed by our characters stopping in a version of New York that isn’t that different: merely a bit more plant life and a few CG buildings. This is a far more straightforward piece of work than we might have thought we’d get, particularly if familiar with Loki.
This leads on to the second problem: the ever-growing density of the lore. This is the eleventh new release from Marvel Studios in around 17 months. This should not be anyone’s first visit to the MCU, as a working understanding of Wanda, the events of her TV show, and some exposure to the concept of the Multiverse is necessary to getting the most out of this film. That means at the very least reading the plot of WandaVision and having some idea of what happened in Loki, but in reality a viewer really needs to understand the ‘blip’, the relationship between Christine and Stephen, and some idea as to why Strange immediately recognises and understands the multiverse – that’s becoming a lot of homework just to watch a film.
On the plus side, this is probably the strongest film so far in this phase (if we don’t count Spidey, as that gets a lot more love elsewhere). Raimi has brought a horror sensibility to the work, which is understandable given his back catalogue. Suggestions, however, that this is Marvel’s first actual horror film are wide of the mark: there are a few unsettling images, and Olsen definitely evokes Brian De Palma’s Carrie in one scene, but it never seriously challenges going beyond the PG-13/12A certification that is standard for this studio.
The plot is well thought through, Gomez is a decent character, with agency, but Raimi doesn’t overload the film with this unfamiliar presence. Strange has moved beyond the cold arrogance of his earlier appearance and has settled into the role very well indeed, whilst Olsen builds on the promise of her television show to further develop a character that can serve as hero or antagonist equally effectively. Raimi feels like he has never been away, with liberal use of his trademark unconventional camera choices.
By film’s end we believe more in the Stephen-Christine relationship than we ever did when they were actually in one. It is the first film in this phase to feel like Marvel is not just regressing back into safe, cookie-cutter storytelling after phase three. Although there are cameos and surprise appearances it feels like the story came first, and these characters are brought in to serve this, rather than the reverse-engineered fan service of No Way Home. The fact that fan service can be so pleasurable is almost the strongest advert for not having it: it is too easy, and it retards storytelling; this film gets the balance right.
So, at eleven releases in, phase four may just have arrived, and we have at least three more entries coming in 2022 with which to test this. For now, welcome back Sam Raimi, nice to see you again Stephen, and thank you Marvel for finally giving us a big screen entry in this phase that doesn’t feel like the right film at the wrong time, cookie cutter, derivative, or purely fan service.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is out now in cinemas.