Content warning: This review contains spoilers.
A buddy of mine got into one of the press screenings of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness early. When I asked him his thoughts, he told me that this isn’t your typical MCU movie, and I shouldn’t expect the film the trailers sold me. So, I went into it expecting something different, something new. What I got was exactly the film I thought I was going to.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is an MCU film, like all those before it. Sure, it plays around with narrative structure and character a little bit, and Sam Rami’s directorial style does help make the film distinct. Ultimately, it’s still the same old MCU. But that’s not a bad thing, and it definitely has cool moments and visuals, not to mention Elizabeth Olsen’s performance as Wanda Maximoff, which does a lot to carry the film. But that’s it; it’s just fine, there isn’t really anything impressive.
That’s my spoiler-free review. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a well-directed, well-written, well-acted MCU film, but very little more. From here on out there will be spoilers.
Most of the stuff I do like comes from the decision to cast Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda Maximoff as the villain. I hesitate to say that this is a career-best for Olsen as I’m not super well versed on her career, but it’s definitely up here. In her more villainous moments, Olsen seems like she’s having a world of fun playing a slightly campier version of the Scarlett Witch than we’ve seen in other MCU films. Her performance in these moments reminds me of Cate Blanchett’s Hela from Thor: Ragnarök. Much like Blanchett, she seems to be having a whole lot of fun being a neigh unstoppable god among mortals.
On the other hand, Olsen also carries the quieter, subtler moments of the film. In the climax, the scene between the two Wanda’s, where she begins to discover what she’s become, is just brilliant. Olsen manages to become two different characters and convey a whole range of emotions almost without a spoken line – there aren’t a lot of actors that can do that. It’s even rarer that the MCU will ask that of them.
Sam Rami’s directorial style also does a lot to keep Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness interesting to watch. It’s genuinely fun to watch Wanda rip and tear her way through both Kamar Taj and the Illuminati (more on them later). In very much the same way, it’s fun to watch characters like Jason Vorhees brutalize unsuspecting campers. A lot of that bleeds out of director Sam Rami’s origins as a horror director. There are a lot of sequences that scream horror, and it does a lot to make Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness distinct from the rest of the MCU.
There are even elements of a horror framework in the way Wanda is set up to be a villain too. Most of the first act is dedicated to showing us that there is no one in the multiverse that can match the Scarlett Witch, which leads most of the film to be a cat and mouse game between Strange and Wanda. This in turn allows Rami to avoid a lot of the same versus same that MCU films can too often slip into. There is still a bit of that, but most of it has enough creative flair to stay interesting, even if it doesn’t make a lot of sense. For example, the Strange versus Strange fight at the start of the third act; I don’t really understand why these characters are throwing musical notes at each other, but is at least more interesting than just different coloured energy balls.
That’s about all the stuff I liked in the movie. There isn’t really anything I objectively don’t like, but there is a lot of stuff that just sort of doesn’t do anything for me. Take all the stuff with the Illuminati. Is it cool to see Hayley Atwell’s Captain Britain in live action? Sure, much the same as John Krasinski as Reed Richards. But that’s all it is, a cool moment. Over 10 years deep into a franchise, you need to have more than a handful of cool moments to keep me interested.
That’s the crux of where I’m at with this film. There isn’t anything bad about it, but there also isn’t much that elevates it to be above the rest of the MCU, or the rest of superhero media in general. Take something like The Boys or Invincible. Both of those are taking the well-worn superhero narrative and doing more with them. The Boys uses heroes to discuss a whole range of social issues, from war profiteering to the issues of capitalism, and Invincible puts a compelling character drama at its core and humanises these god-like beings.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness doesn’t even attempt to do either of those things, or further the idea of super herodom in any meaningful way. Look, maybe that’s fine with you, and I would argue it’s fine with most people, but in a world that is arguably oversaturated with stories about superheroes and franchises that we are 14 years and 28 films deep into, I need more than just cool moments. Ultimately, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is emblematic of the larger problems within the MCU, it’s competing in an arena that has largely outgrown it.
Thanks to Dendy Cinemas for making this review happen. This movie was viewed at Dendy Cinemas Canberra.