As you may have assumed based on the title, there are myriad Doctor Stranges in the new Doctor Strange movie. There’s ponytail Strange, zombie Strange, third-eye Strange, lovelorn Strange, a Strange statue, and a Strange that ends up impaled on a wrought iron fence like a Lisbon sister in The Virgin Suicides. These all may be the same or different Stranges; it’s difficult to keep track because a crucial Strange is missing from the menagerie—one to actually care about.
DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS ★★ (2/4 stars)
Directed by: Sam Rami
Written by: Michael Waldron
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen, Xochitl Gomez, Benedict Wong, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams
Running time: 126 mins.
The film, the second headlining Benedict Cumberbatch’s arrogant mystic, tries to hide its lack of emotional depth and meaningful connections between characters under a barrage of special effects we have come to expect from Marvel movies, as well as horror film tropes that are new to the series. While some of these universe and genre hopping flourishes are genuinely creative and others derivative, they too often feel like the work of a magician wildly trying to distract you before revealing that there is, in fact, nothing in his hand—or in this case, of much consequence on the screen.
But then you tend to forgive Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness much of its manic gesturing for a simple reason. The film marks a rare MCU instance where the prestidigitator in charge appears to be the film’s director rather than the producer, the studio, or its streaming-content-hungry corporate overlord.
Sam Raimi, whose innate feel for comic horror sent a generation of kids hunting for VHS copies of Evil Dead II before his knack for mainstream spectacle got them to line up at the multiplex for the original Spider-Man trilogy, directs the film like it’s a notebook dump. He crams the movie’s margins with every idea he’s been sketching out since his days as a teenager, devouring comic books in suburban Detroit.
There is a one-eyed giant tentacled octopus creature that menaces New York after Strange makes small talk at the wedding reception of his former flame Christine (Rachel McAdams). There’s that monster’s summoner—a rampaging, neck-snapping witch who blazes a destructive path through many universes with the saucer-eyed determination of an undergrad jacked on Red Bull during finals week.
The fact that that this reality-shaping virago is Wanda Maximoff, aka onetime Avenger the Scarlet Witch, is a new spin for Marvel and gives the series its most formidable villain since Thor lopped off Thanos’ head in Endgame. In by far the movie’s most spirited and layered performance, Elizabeth Olsen plays Wanda as a homicidal berserker and, in an alternate universe, a doting suburban mom.
Dreams of the latter haunt the sleep of our world’s Wanda; dreams, it turns out, are actually snapshots of our lives in different universes. (Dr. Freud, I want my money back.)
The fever of Wanda’s unhinged maternal desire is the only madness on display in Multiverse, causing her to unleash the power of a book of evil spells and stalk America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a teenager who can traverse dimensions by punching holes in her present reality.
There’s so much movie here and yet so little of consequence that actually occurs, that you end up feeling like you have spent the last two hours chowing down a barrel of Cracker Jack that’s well past its sell-by date, suffering through the stale popcorn of false urgency to score the occasional prize. These may be so-called “Easter eggs”—there are surprise cameos of off-world versions of well-known superheroes who are destroyed shortly after being introduced, as if Sid from Toy Story was in charge of opening the Christmas presents—or an actual cinematic embellishment worthy of Raimi’s paraph.
The director is most engaged and expressive with the film’s sound. (Notes of music even become weapons in the film.) Designed by Jussi Tegelman, who has worked with Raimi since Spider-Man 2, the sound evokes the haunted house feeling even more effectively than the visuals. (Particularly memorable were creaking stairs above lapping water.) Also effective is the fun house score by 68-year-old Coachella breakout Danny Elfman.
Raimi’s care with craft and drive-in movie jump scares are mostly memorable because they exist in an emotional void. Cumberbatch’s aloof Doctor is so arrogant and condescending to his cohort, including Benedict Wong’s Sorcerer Supreme, that he keeps the audience at a distance as well. And Raimi is so busy trying to break the Marvel content mold that he forgets the essential business of getting us to invest in all of this colorful Sturm und Drang.
Every good magician knows that the real trick is making the audience care. For all of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’s mind-bending universe jumping, that particular magic never manages to arrive in the theater.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.