'Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness' review: Muddled, sluggish and ordinary
The latest Marvel theme park ride squanders its opportunities to get weird. Too bad.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has never been a showcase for directors. You realize that amid the whiz-bang-pop of "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness" when, late in the film, it suddenly becomes a Sam Raimi movie.
Up until that point, the distinctive director — who ushered in the modern superhero movie era with his "Spider-Man" trilogy — struggles to put his stamp on the sequel to 2016's "Doctor Strange" and the 28th film overall in the ever-expansive Marvel playground. And then a zombie Doctor Strange shows up and you're suddenly reminded of the flesh and blood — and vision! — behind the camera, which so often in these movies takes a backseat to assembly line-like production, light comic tonality and the business of worldbuilding designed to lead into the next project, the next project after that and so on.
"Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness" is a mess, but at times it's fun, and those times are when Raimi gets to flex his devious muscle.
Otherwise yeesh, and it's the first modern Marvel movie to show the strains on its behind the scenes production and its race-to-the-finish completion. (The movie's release date has been in stone for months, even as reshoots were occurring in March and final picture wasn't locked until mid-April.)
Benedict Cumberbatch returns as Stephen Strange, the former surgeon and mystic arts practitioner last seen in "Spider-Man: No Way Home" getting distracted while whipping up spells for Spider-Man that allowed three generations of on-screen Spideys to share the screen and eventually do the meme together.
He's out to protect a teenager in a Captain America jean jacket (introducing Xochitl Gomez as America Chavez), who has the ability to travel through the multiverse, from the evil forces who send a giant one-eyed squid monster to the middle of Manhattan to attack her so her powers can be harnessed.
Strange knows just the person who can help, Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), fresh off her demented sitcom cosplay that wiped out a whole New Jersey town (depicted in last year's Disney+ series "WandaVision"). But in a twist of fate (or an example of economical to the point of lazy screenwriting), she's the one who's actually coming after America. (What are the odds?)
Her motivation? Wanda wants to use America's powers and find a universe where she and her now vanquished young boys can be a family again, and she's not above wiping out entire universes as a means to her domestic happiness. "I'm not a monster, Stephen," she tells Strange. "I'm a mother!"
Hoo-boy. From there the chase is on, and America and Strange leap to an alternate universe where things are just slightly askew (red street lights mean go? Wacky!) and Strange gets another chance at making it work with his love interest, Christine (Rachel McAdams).
At one point Strange, through some confluence of narrative hoop-jumping, ends up before an Illuminati council that's packed with spoiler-y cameos but doesn't distract from the utter slog that is the center of this movie or the fact that for much of its running time, "Doctor Strange" is a multiverse of meaninglessness.
That doesn't mean Olsen doesn't give it her all, and she's convincing in her fury, with a fire in her eyes that makes up for the tired scorned woman trope that she's been handed. (Cumberbatch, forced to spend much of his time on-screen making circles with his hands, is less effective.)
And then there's Raimi, giving us a giant disembodied eyeball here or a Bruce Campbell cameo there just to let you know it's him, who only gets to really show out in the film's final act, when a zombie Strange and an all-powerful book (the Necronomicon, anyone?) bring things as close to "The Evil Dead" as a Marvel movie will ever get.
It's there that the movie suddenly feels like it's alive and kicking; it's the kind of energy the whole project should have had, and it shows how filmmakers can override the Marvel machine if given the chance.
But too often, "Doctor Strange" is muddled, sluggish and ordinary. If ever there was a chance for Marvel to get truly weird, this is it, but "Multiverse of Madness" pretty much gets its business done, tosses in some themes about finding one's happiness and sets up the next chapter in the ride. Ho-hum. "Strange" deserves stranger.
'Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness'
Rated PG-13: for intense sequences of violence and action, frightening images and some language
Running time: 126 minutes