A Kaleidoscope of Realities
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) feels like the forerunner to a film that’s already been released. The Covid 19 pandemic forced studios across the globe to rethink their production plans for the foreseeable future. Marvel Studios was no exception to this rule, forcing a majority of its productions to halt, delay and reshuffle in order to accommodate the sudden shift in circumstances. All such rearranging resulted in its two most prominent 2021 features – Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) and Multiverse of Madness – flipping their release schedules. While the reception of No Way Home didn’t suffer as a result of this, it could be argued that the same cannot be said for Multiverse of Madness. This film feels very much like a 101 introduction to reality hopping; a gateway that eases fans into the concept before utilising it in more creative and surreal ways during the events of No Way Home.
Throughout the course of this movie, we get to spend time in three different universes. Though there are some variations to these realities that are demonstrated when we first enter them, for the most part, these fictional spaces don’t feel all that dissimilar to the main MCU timeline. Characters look the same in appearance as their primary 616 counterparts, and storylines seemed to have played out in slightly similar (albeit alternate) manners. This is very much the classic approach to doing parallel realities. Everything was the same until something minor changed the course of history. There isn’t anything wrong with this approach. There’s a lot of fun to be had in seeing recognisable events and characters possessing dissimilar fates. The reason it stands out here is because Marvel Studios dished up a considerably more inventive approach to the multiverse just several months prior; making this feel somewhat antiquated by comparison.
Spider-Man: No Way Home invited us to look at the multiverse as a space where the impossible can become possible. Versions of the same characters can look completely different, be born in totally separate time periods, have differing laws of fictional magic applied to their realities, and are threaded to neighbouring realities by a string of symbolic and narrative similarities that echo through the ether. Some universes have wizards and aliens in, whereas others just have Oscorp and Peter Parker. The idea of the multiverse as presented in No Way Home depicts alternative timelines as worlds where everyone and everything are exclusive from one another. The film dishes out a far more ambitious and ridiculous notion for us to sink our teeth into. There are worlds out there that are essentially entire reboots to the MCU. Universes where Iron Man looks like Tom Cruise, Doctor Strange was born in the 30th century, and Captain America runs around a version of New York that looks startlingly similar to that of Christopher Nolan’s Gotham.
The idea of the multiverse as presented in No Way Home encourages the MCU to break away from the formulaic umbrella many of its past films have taken shelter beneath. Shifting into new realities can allow familiar characters to find themselves in lands administrated by differing narrative flows, mise en scene, dramatic beats and fictional laws. It’s a chance to mash up genres and experiment with new styles that go against the uniformed standards Kevin Feige has instilled upon his empire up until this point.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is not a film that’s quite ready to venture down the road of MCU reboots, it would seem. Everything available on show here are mildly altered takes on traditional MCU formulas. It’s a life-action edition of the Disney Plus series, What If (2021-present). Of course, it would seem that this was always its intention. This was supposed to be our first proper trip into the multiverse. The reunion of franchises was destined for another time. The purpose here, it would seem, is to lay the groundwork so that the weirder stuff can play out at a later date. Getting stage one after stage two hit theatres last December means were are now getting a film that feels less ambitious by proxy. Perhaps this would have appeared far more brave and barmy, had it been released in May 2021, as intended.
Return of Rami
The original Spider-Man trilogy(2002 to 2007) is considered to be the template for the current golden age of cinematic comic book movies. Their director, Sam Rami, successfully merged blockbuster spectacle with fantastical sensibilities. An immaculate assortment of Saturday morning cartoons with a multimillion dollar vision. Mix all of this in with a roster of complex and relatable characters, and you get what is still considered to be one of the most beloved adaptations of Peter Parker for the big screen.
Alongside Richard Donner, Sam Raimi is considered to be a godfather of modern superhero cinema. It’s for this reason why his announcement as the director of this feature in early 2020 was such a big deal. His attachment to the project came with an air of clout and experience that many believed would elevate the quality of this production to new heights. Marvel Studios are known for producing solid quality productions throughout their run, but to bring Raimi into the fold would also bring with it a vision and a level of directorial authorship that was missing from the original Doctor Strange (2016).
Many of Rami’s trademark characteristics are on show throughout Multiverse of Madness. The outlandishly ambitious action; the chunky, vibrant colour palettes; the Danny Elfman musical cues; and even the notable Bruce Campbell cameos punctuating the drama with bursts of comedy. While this may still be an MCU movie at its core, the stamp of an auteur bleeds through to the surface.
Perhaps one other area where Raimi’s directorial talents shine through, however, relates to the horror characteristics on display here. Prior to his work on the 00’s Spider-Man trilogy, Raimi made his name on the cult-classic Evil Dead trilogy; a film series that amalgamated the fantastical with that of the horror genre. Body horror, jump scares, shocking visuals and surreal imagery were used to great effect throughout the trilogy. Horror is Raimi’s first language when it comes to filmmaking. Even during his more mainstream projects, he’s been unable to steer clear of it. After all, how can we forget the heart-stopping moment in Spider-Man 2 (2004), where Alfred Molina’s Doc Oc butchers a room full of surgeons trying to amputate his newly grafted tentacles.
All the way back when Marvel announced Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, it was pitched as the MCU’s debut horror flick. True to his word, Kevin Feige has indeed delivered his studio’s first in the genre. The hiring of Raimi means that not only was such a target realized, but was done so with ease, charm and considerable effect.
This film is riddled with body horror, surreal occurrences, jump scares, and perhaps one of the most grotesque takes on a Chekhov’s gun moment I’ve ever seen committed to film. The fact this is targeted at a family audience is quite an astonishment when you take into account just how frightening and nasty things get. Though the horror isn’t baked into the plot from start to finish, Raimi successfully manages to fuse the more gory and unnerving moments into the main story, making them feel like natural and unforced. Channelling horror and fantasy through occultist storytelling is very much a case of this director revisting his Evil Dead days. To finally apply such a combination to that of the superhero genre feels, in many ways, like Raimi coming full circle.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness takes all of Raimi’s strengths and packages them into a single movie, dishing up an experience that is likely to terrify as much as it will excite his audiences. It’s the cinematic equivalent of building a haunted house into the most thrilling of rollercoaster rides.
Clinging to Chaos
This film is a mad dash of fun. It’s also a bit of a headache at times. If we stick with the rollercoaster analogy for a few more sentences, we could say this is the sort of feature that has a few too many loop de loops applied to it. It’s also the sort of rollercoaster that expects you to get off and rush to a neighbouring ride midway through. While more seasoned of riders are probably going to be accustomed to all the stopping and changing, the more casual visitors will likely feel a little miffed by the whole affair.
The concept at the root of this film means chaos was destined to be shackled to its existence. After all, this is a movie about hopping through realities. How exactly is a writer, director, or any creative force supposed to well and truly streamline a feature in which shifting sideways within a fictional space acts as its core selling point? You can’t. Every time the central concept kicks into gear, you have to attempt build an environment and roster of characters from the ground up. Even when you have a pre-built universe like the MCU to use as a frame of reference, you still have to figure out how to exposit all the tweaks and changes to the lure within the fresh reality on show.
Multiverse of Madness attempts to work around this by reducing the number of realities it present to us. We only ever spend a significant amount of time in one alternative timeline, while the second realm Strange falls into has quite literally collapsed into something more bitesize in nature. The film knows it’s a handful of scenes away from becoming incomprehensible chaos, which is perhaps why it polices its scale in this sort of manner. Reducing the universe count down to just three – two alt realities, plus the primary timeline – comes with both a pro and a con shackled to it.
Pro-wise, the reduction of alternate timelines on offer mallows Raimi to apply some focus to the story. Each time our heroes reality-jump, the script shifts into combat-mode, scrambling about the place trying to manufacture the setting for audiences to settle into. Multiverse aside, there’s a lot of separate ideas in here that need time to breath. Concepts concerning dream walking, the devastation born through discontent and power, not to mention the various sub-plots laced throughout the feature need time to develop. Had this just been two-plus hours of characters blasting through every conceivable reality, it would have given none of these ideas any room to do their thing. Instead it would have come across as a bunch of concepts hodgepodged into the narrative for the sake of seeming interesting. The refusal to run wild with the multiverse pitch keeps things flowing in a manner that would have otherwise been near impossible.
On the flip side of this, the refusal to give into the madness of the title’s major selling point also feeds into its potential downfall. The reality-hopping pitch that got fans giddy in the first place isn’t really as prominent in this movie as its name implies. Depending on how significant the multiverse tagline was to you is going to determine how you respond to this. If you were gearing up for two-hours of insane realm-skipping, there’s a sizeable chance you’re going to be disappointed. This is a much more streamlined and character-focused feature than the promotional material may have you believe.
Sure, so there’s a handful of isolated moments in which they lean into the peculiarity of its selling pitch. There’s even one point in which the film decides to hurl a whole host of fantasy storylines at their audience, but again, your reaction to how this is handled is also going to depend on your relationship with the what-ifs they’ve decided to dish up for us. It will also differ depending on how fond you are of subversions, stunt casting and fan teasing.
There are several scenes in the midst of this film that do take advantage of the multiverse’s potential to do everything or anything it desires. Seeing as this is story in which any character introduced can meet whatever fate their writers chose without impacting future Marvel releases, it would have been a shame for them not to try out a few new consequence-free ideas whilst playing in the sandbox of infinite timelines.
Multiverse of Madness most certainly does throw a handful of exciting new plot developments into the mix. The introduction of Patrick Stewart’s Charles Xavier flirts with the possibility of marrying up the MCU with the Fox/X-Men timeline. Furthermore, the casting of John Krasinski as Reed Richards looks on the surface to be putting to bed a rumour that’s been circulating the web for what feels like an eternity. Yet for all the reveals and revelations occupying the centre portion of this movie, it’s perhaps fair to suggest that Marvel Studios uses these moments to commit an act they’ve become notorious for committing on various occasions in recent years; trolling its audiences.
We saw this happen back in 2021’s Wandavision, where after several episodes of being led to believe the Fox/X-Men’s Quicksilver was entering the MCU, a last-minute plot twist revealed that any similarities’ between Pietro and Peter Maximoff stemmed no further than the stunt casting of Evan Peters. Even I fell for this one. For several weeks whilst reviewing the show, I discussed how Marvel had pulled off their first ever dual-franchise crossover, only to then be suddenly whacked awake by a phallic-shaped punchline.
In classic Ralph Bohner fashion, Multiverse of Madness takes the joke of false promises to its ghastliest extreme. A literal line of dream casting decisions are presented before our very eyes. We’ve got a live action Captain Carter, Maria Rambeau as Captain Marvel, Black Bolt, Professor X as played by Patrick Stuart, and John Krasinski’s Reed Richards. All of these reveals are direct replies to years of online fan speculation and discourse. Krasinski’s version of Richards looks so much like the mocked up photoshops circulating the web over the past several years, it’s almost impossible not to see it as a parody play. I mean they even use the 90s X-Men theme tune as Charles Xavier enters the scene. All of this intentionally plays into the wishes and demands of Marvel fans in the most on-the-nose manner imaginable. We’re well and truly in Snyder-Cut territory here.
All of which makes the decision to dispose of all these characters in such swift and graphic fashion as shocking as it is hilarious. Even if we overlook the violence on show during these moments, it’s difficult not to admire the audacity on display. This is Marvel giving their fans a thumbs up, before promptly swivelling them the middle finger. Of course Krasinski isn’t Reed Richards, of course Pegger Carter isn’t replacing Rogers on the big screen, and of course Patrick Steward isn’t about to feature in an adaptation of a 90’s Fox cartoon. Marvel probably have plans for all of these characters to some extent, but building them up as replicas requested by Twitter isn’t the way they’re going to go about doing this.
In addition to this functioning as a boldly shocking gag, there’s also an importance to this decision. Recent years have seen once-believed impossible projects become a reality, largely as a result of people on the internet screaming for their existence. The release of Zack Snyder’s Justice League in 2021 is perhaps the most notorious example of this. As fascinating as Snyder’s version turned out to be, it’s very existence hinted at a concerning possibility. Should studios really be following scripts laid down by strangers on the internet? Isn’t it better to have qualified, talented storytellers moving narratives forward? Surely the musings of nostalgia-sozzled keyboard folk shouldn’t be the ones piloting narratives. The more creators panic and people-please before the roars of a demanding fanbase, the more we get disasters like Game of Thrones series eight (2019) and Rise of Skywalker (2021); both projects that undid years of plot development in a bid to try and please everyone, only for them to achieve the very opposite.
The decision to introduce then obliterate a roster of fan fantasies in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness serves as a reminder that fans are not the kingmakers of this content. As Russell T Davies states in his phenomenal book, The Writer’s Tale, “art isn’t a democracy”. As fans, we think we know what we want. Truth is, if we always got what we desired in stories, we’d probably get pretty board. Fiction becomes exciting when it surprises and introduces us to worlds and outcomes we never knew possible. Having everything our way would mean getting similar variations of things we’ve already had in the past. Marvel, for the most part, seems to understand this, hence the decision to swiftly kill off all fan-interpretations of properties they’ve yet to adapt to the big screen. Yes, we will definitely be getting a new version of the X-Men, not to mention a rebooted Fantastic Four series. How that will look and what form that will take, however, has yet to be seen, and will most likely not replicate the versions of the characters as demonstrated here.
Undoubtedly, there’s going to be plenty of fans who won’t be happy with the decisions made here. Getting upset by writers and filmmakers having a laugh at the expense of your emotions is understandable. I get that these kinds of rug-tugging japes aren’t for everyone. Your response to this sort of joke largely depends on how you respond to this type of humour. If being tricked and teased by a storyteller is the sorts of thing that tickles you, then you’ll love this. It’ll be a bit like that moment in 21 Jump Street (2012), when Peter Deluise and Johnny Depp turn up, only to be gunned down seconds later. If this sort of subversive shock gag isn’t you cup of tea, however, or if you just don’t like storytellers laughing at ideas you like the sound of, then these scenes will probably leave you feeling understandably perturbed.
Establishing and slaughtering a selection of fantasy casting decisions serves another purpose; it establishes Wanda Maximoff’s strength. If she’s able to annihilate those who brought down Thanos before End Game even had time to happen – all whilst puppeteering a doppelgänger from another reality – what can’t she do?
Establishing Wanda as a villain is a decision likely to divide fans. On the one hand, her shift from protagonist to antagonist makes a lot of sense. Wandavision did a solid job of establishing the trauma endured by the character up until this point. Her entire family were blown to smithereens in the midst of a sitcom sesh, she was experimented on, was forced to burn her boyfriends’ brain out, and had even had to wish her own children out of existence. If there’s one character whose likely to be charmed round by some dark magic, Wanda’s your gal. There’s even a full circle to this approach. Her shift from bad to good occurred throughout the duration of Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). Having Wanda defect to the opposing team for her final outing, very much mirrors her arrival within the MCU.
Of course, this isn’t a decision that’s going to go down well with everyone. This could quite easily be read as undoing the years of development this character has been through. She may have started out life as a foe of the Avengers, but that wasn’t always her destiny. She thought alongside earth’s mightiest heroes bringing down Ultron and Thanos. She even got her own television series! Having her become the antagonist again for her swan song could be read by some as an undoing of the journey this character has embarked upon over the past seven years.
For the most part, I think this decision works. For starters, that narrative logic is very much present. This is someone who’s lost everyone she’s ever loved at every stage of her life. Her family, her lover, even her freedom have all been taken from her. Even her unborn children have been taken from her! The fact this character has lost touch with morality is little surprised. Furthermore, the manipulative antics inherent in the Book of the Damned has taken advantage of her grief and sorrow. Seeing this character resort to mutilating and butchering beloved heroes may not be comfortable to watch, yet to say it’s inconsistent with what we’ve come to learn in recent years wouldn’t exactly be true.
For what it’s worth, Elizabeth Olsen does a fine job of selling this sudden development to us. Wanda’s pain and suffering is emoted in every scene Olsen is on screen. It’s difficult not to empathise with this character, even when she’s giving in to her more monstrous nature. There’s a complexity and depth to this antagonist that matches the richness of Josh Brolin’s Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War (2018); we’re certainly not rooting for her, but it’s easy for us to understand what she’s feeling during the events of this movie.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness feels like something we’ve already been introduced to in a more audacious manner several months prior. While the multiverses on offer here are plenty of fun, they are far from revolutionary. This is a much more simplified version of alternate realities that doesn’t function as a means to do anything radical or peculiar with the concept. The parallel timelines are just that; spaces where similar-but-different stuff plays out for our entertainment.
Having said that, the film does have a lot of fun teasing fans and subverting expectation, something it achieves as a direct result of its premise. Introducing fantasy castings and crossovers, only to burn such promises to the ground is shocking, ridiculous and funny. Not everyone will agree with this claim, of course. It’s likely a sizeable number of folk will actually hate the fact this film uses the multiverse for this reason.
It’s strongest characteristic is its attempts at horror, which are remarkably engineered. Raimi is always in his element when he’s revisiting his Evil Dead days. The jump scares and body horror are flawlessly crafted. They seldom feel cheap and always evoke the desired response. Sick, twisted and unsettling moments are peppered throughout, giving the film a seasoning all MCU films prior to it have lacked.
This is far from Marvel’s most ambitious movie. Beyond establishing a character to serve as a backdoor for the MCU to dimension hop in future features, this is surprisingly standard for a film some considered to be Marvel’s post-Avengers game-changer. All the big stage setting hinted at with the arrival of Charles Xavier and the Illuminati aren’t build-ups to future movies, but are jokes intended to throw off and subvert expectation.
None of which is to suggest this is a waste of time. Not every film has to be huge or significant in the grand scheme of things. This is a solid entry to the MCU. A well-directed movie that’s creepy, entertaining and barmy. It’s likely to disappoint and agitate those who were expecting this to be the next best thing since No Way Home, but if you’re able to surrender all your expectations prior to watching this, it’s likely you’re going to have a good time with this one.