Jay Maidment / Marvel Studios
If you saw Avengers: Endgame in a theater, you remember the moment: Thor’s hammer flies into the hands of Steve Rogers, Captain America, and the audience proceeds to go well and truly buck-wild.
The reason that particular cheer-triggering callback landed as hard as it did had everything to do with how carefully it had been set up, in the linear progression of MCU films that had gone before. Audiences didn’t know they were expecting it, yet they very much were, because the work had been done to lay the track. So when that moment finally arrived, it proceeded to target and overwhelm their brains’ pleasure centers with the ruthlessness of sheer, satisfying inevitability.
In the latest MCU movie, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, there are lots and lots of similar callbacks and cameos. Makes sense: The plot sends the good Doctor (Benedict Cumberbatch), the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and newcomer America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) tumbling through a kaleidoscopic series of alternate universes. What they see and experience along the way draws on characters and situations established in past Marvel films and broadcast television shows, in recent and current Disney + streaming series, and in the fervent speculation of Marvel fans.
But something has changed – irrevocably, it seems.
Not too long ago, the MCU was a straightforward, if noisily busy, progression of narrative events along a single timeline that Marvel Studios executives divided into a series of “phases.” Today, the studio churns out films and streaming series in tandem.
As a result, the MCU is now an increasingly diffuse network of content – a universe, like our own, in which everything is expanding outward, its multifarious characters and storylines spinning madly, hurtling away from each other in all directions.
So whenever, in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madnessa character or event gets dutifully plucked from some dimly-lit, ill-remembered corner of the MCU – a hero, say, from the time Marvel produced broadcast TV shows – the appearance of said character fails to muster the requisite power, the sheer narrative momentum, to get the audience to go, “WOOOO!”
What it can and does do instead is get the audience to go, “Hunh.”
“Hunh. How about that.”
For the record: “WOOOO!” is an emotional, purely reflexive reaction. If you’re making a big superhero movie, you want “WOOOO!” and lots of it. “Hunh” is an intellectual, mediated response. It signifies that your audience is feeling both a distance, and a dissonance. It’s not a dealbreaker, but it is a cause for concern.
Jay Maidment / Marvel Studios
Strange’s new world (s)
Marvel is lucky, then, that even when the sheer volume of callbacks and cameos weighs events down and muddies the narrative waters, the film has something else going for it.
That something: Sam Raimi.
This is not the director’s first time at the Marvel rodeo of course – back in the infancy of what we now call superhero cinema, he helmed the original, Tobey Maguire Spider-Man trilogy. But back then, Marvel was still just a studio, and not yet a genre.
In interviews, Raimi has been refreshingly honest about the challenges of making this film. He came onboard after its original director (Scott Derrickson, who helmed 2016’s Doctor Strange), departed, citing creative differences with Marvel Studios’ vision for the film. Originally, the film was supposed to premiere before Spider-Man: No Way Home, which meant the script was constantly in flux, and he had to keep checking in with studio execs charged with directing the MCU’s narrative traffic. All this, plus a series of COVID delays and reshoots.
So, yes, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a mess. As you watch it, you can’t help but imagine that you’re only viewing it through a gauzy scrim of hastily issued, last-minute studio notes and frantically dashed-off memos.
But Raimi spent his early career making shambling, goofy, profoundly messy movies, and whenever Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness leans into his horror roots (which it does often; the film pushes hard against its PG-13 rating), the film manages to attain a clear, if idiosyncratic, point-of-view. The callbacks that work best aren’t Marvel callbacks, they’re Raimi callbacks: zombies, ghouls, a brief tracking shot from the baddie’s perspective.
Raimi’s last Marvel movie – Spider-Man 3 – is controversial among Marvel fans, and slightly less so among Raimi fans. In that film, Raimi listened to his bosses as he does here, and dutifully loaded up the overcomplicated plot with a surfeit of studio-required villains – but he did so while indulging his goofier side by turning Peter Parker into a pompous tool, grooving down and the Manhattan sidewalk. Marvel fans loved the villains and hated Dancin ‘Peter, while we Raimi fans ate up Dancin’ Peter with a big ol ‘spoon and rolled our eyes at the need to shoehorn in so many bad guys.
There’s an echo of that happening in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Marvel fans are gonna love all those fan-servicing, momentum-sapping cameos, but Raimi fans are going to find themselves liking the film more and more the longer it goes, because the director seems most firmly in control later on, once things get darker and darker towards the conclusion.
Much will be made of the digital effects of the film, which ably conjure colors out of space, alien geometries, impossible architecture – the whole uncanny, otherworldly visual schmear you expect from a Doctor Strange movie. The various universes we visit in our whistle-stop interdimensional tour pulsate with vivid color and swirling, psychedelic patterns. A forbidding, cliffside citadel seems to radiate malevolent intent. Characters defy gravity as they hop between crumbling bits of masonry mysteriously floating in space. A villain launches an eldritch assault upon a familiar sanctuary. All of this is depicted with pleasantly disorienting spectacle and grandeur.
And yet a brief scene that takes place on a grubby Greenwich Village rooftop manages to look howlingly, egregiously fake – as featureless and one-dimensional as if it were rendered on a Nintendo NES.
And yet a film that spends millions of dollars on green screen effects, stunt work, elaborate costumes and hefty actor salaries can’t manage to throw a few hundred bucks into its wig budget: Throughout, Strange’s hair perches atop Cumberbatch’s head like an acrylic skunk pelt.
If these sound like quibbles, consider how important it is for this particular film to sweep you up into its world – into its worlds – and dazzle you with the spectacle of limitless possibility. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is great at depicting the impossible wonders of other universes, while the most mundane details of our own universe hover stubbornly beyond its reach.
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