Director: Sam Raimi
Writer: Michael Waldron
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen, Benedict Wong, Rachel McAdams, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Xochitl Gomez
Cinematographer: John Mathieson
Editors: Bob Murawski, Tia Nolan
There are moments of jaw-dropping beauty in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. In one scene, two characters weaponise musical notes and lob them at each other. Accompanied by Danny Elfman's rousing score, this becomes a sort of lethal symphony-as-battle. It reminded me of the deliriously brilliant harpists attack sequence in Stephen Chow's 2004 classic Kung Fu Hustle. In another, Dr. Strange and America Chavez, a new entrant into the MCU, are hurtling through universes at lightning speed. In one, they are made of paint. It's gorgeously trippy. Director Sam Raimi, a master of horror – the Evil Dead series, Drag Me to Hell – and superhero movies – the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man trilogy – creates a twisty, visually imaginative saga. And yet the center does not hold.
The film is a sequel to the 2016 Doctor Strange. It's the 28th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The events take place after the events of Spider-Man: No Way Home and WandaVision. Dr. Strange has already opened up the multiverse. Which is causing our universe to lose its balance and like the two corrupt cops, played by Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah in Maqbool, Dr. Strange must now strive to maintain the 'santulan.' This formidable task is further complicated when he encounters America, a young girl who has the power to navigate the multiverse but doesn't really seem to know how to control it. They first meet as she is being chased by a gigantic one-eyed octopus. Which for me, was the first whiff of trouble.
Superhero movies are by design, fantastical. These are films tripping on the possibilities of the creator's imagination and VFX. Anything is possible. But the best – like Black Panther or Wonder Woman or Logan or The Dark Knight – are tethered by human drama, layered characters and emotion. In Multiverse of Madness, this is built around Wanda Maximoff, who is now both a doting mother and the all-powerful Scarlet Witch. The Witch is seemingly invincible. She can, within minutes, reduce several superheroes to dust but incredibly, all she really wants is to be with her children who may or may not exist. The dubbed Hindi version of this film could have been titled: Maa ka Pyaar. And then, there is Strange, who must deal with many versions of himself and confront his own inadequacies, especially when it comes to the woman he loves – Christine.
But the frantically busy story by Michael Waldron, who was also the head writer of Loki, doesn't have the time to make this emotionally resonant. Instead, the plot hurtles through generic moments and worlds. Two books play a pivotal role. One – called The Book of Vishanti – can save and the other – called Darkhold – can destroy. There is a lot of exposition about how multiverses function – so a gap junction is the space between universes and an incursion is when two universes collide. At one point, two characters are in this cave-like space perched on top of steep cliffs. One looks around and says: There is no telling what soulless monstrosities lie within. And on cue, giants that appear to be made out of stone show up. It's underwhelming and for a movie about saving the world – as most MCU movies are – feels oddly low-stakes. As the battles become more eye-glazing, it's hard to care.
Occasionally, flashes of signature Raimi break through the templatised storytelling – zombies, Dr. Strange's face shape-shifting as he hurtles through the multiverse, audacious visuals and moments of genuine creepiness. Which hint at what might have been. Mostly however, the film sticks to its mandate to reference earlier properties (the convoluted narrative might be hugely confusing for those unfamiliar with the events of WandaVision), deliver fan service with clever cameos and keep the MCU juggernaut rolling. The performances don't rise above the material. Benedict Cumberbatch plays his many versions with practiced ease. Elizabeth Olsen, who seems to be channeling Carrie on prom night, is terrific but the mom motive feels like a feeble explanation for her murderous rage. Xochitl Gomez as America has a feisty presence and it will be interesting to see how her character develops. And then there are the regulars – Benedict Wong as Sorcerer Supreme Wong, Rachel McAdams as Christine Palmer, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Baron Karl Mordo.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is stuffed with characters and plot, but ultimately little of it feels urgent. Is this, I wonder, a design flaw in the very idea of the multiverse? After all, if there are several versions of each character and a trillion people can die – as they do in this film – without creating much of a flutter, what really are the stakes?
At various points in this film, characters ask each other: Are you happy? By the end, my answer was: No.
You can watch Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness at a theatre near you.