‘Multiverse of Madness’ brings(mostly) family-friendly horror to the MCU
I’m sure there’s a universe out there where Dr. Strange: In the Multiverse of Madness is a brilliantly inventive, endlessly enthralling classic. But here on Earth-616, it’s just another colorful cog in the Marvel machine: loud and boisterous, action-packed and amiably soulless. There’s also an undercurrent of prefab ennui buttressed by the nagging—and naggingly banal—question: “Are you happy?” The characters keep asking each other that, which I guess is inevitable when there’s an infinite amount of parallel universes where iterations of yourself are living endless variations of your own life.
Multiverse of Madness has essentially a MacGuffin-driven story, which involves stopping Wanda Maximov (Elizabeth Olsen), aka Scarlet Witch, from getting her hands on multiverse-skipper America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez). Wanda’s obsession comes on the heels of her trauma in suburban Westview, in which she lost the chance to live in deluded bliss with her magically conjured twin 10-year-old sons. So now she’s myopically driven to find a universe out there where her boys are still alive in order to be reunited.
That said, Multiverse of Madness, as with essentially all the other non-origin-story MCU films, is mostly just another installment in the studio’s perpetually serialized storytelling. Which means more Soho smackdowns right near Strange’s Greenwich Village manor; more visits to Kathmandu’s Kamar-Taj, the Nepalese Hogwarts for those studying to be a master of the Mystic Arts; and more digs at other superheroes’ expenses.
Strange bemoans having to work with “bug-themed crime-fighters,” while America, whose universe doesn’t have quite so many, is repulsed by the idea of a man with spider powers. “Doe he shoot webs out of his butt?!?” she yells in disgust. Strange seems genuinely curious himself.
DR. STRANGE: IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Sam Raimi
Written by: Michael Waldron
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, Xochitl Gomez, Michael Stuhlbarg, Rachel McAdams
Running time: 126 mins
Prepare for obligatory property damage, including ancient shrines blasted to bits, city streets used as battle grounds, and high-tech facilities turned into rubble. None of it really matters, of course, because the film’s structure is an endlessly elastic middle-of-the-book approach that allows not only for demolition showcases but also for fan-service cameos, one-off plot twists, and a parade of endearing characters that goad each other in gently deprecating ways.
Does that mean that a certain yellow-wheelchaired X-Man, a very pliable member of the Fantastic Four, and a What If…? shield-wielding superheroine pop up? Maybe, maybe not, but also definitely yes. And they do so in ways that allow for anything to happen. Also, as Dr. Strange helpfully points out, there’s an Other Me, an Other Other Me, and Another Other Other Me. “Somewhere out there, I had a ponytail,” Dr. Strange ponders soberly. Diehard fans will kvell at the debut of the Illuminati. But what will they make of the almost gleefully graphic bloodbath that ensues? It’s enough to drive you mad. Because multiverse!
The film’s one main novelty—which it impressively embraces—is its downright macabre characters, incidents, and visual design. This is arguably the scariest-looking Marvel movie ever made, with animated rotting corpses, lumbering demonic creatures and soaring souls of the damned. Those who only thought director Sam Raimi would be bringing his gee-whiz original-franchise Spider-Man chops to the production should know he also throws in dollops of his early-career Evil Dead chills.
It helps, too, that Multiverse of Madness features two tomes: the sinister how-to-evil manual Darkhold and its mystical antithesis, the Book of the Vishanti. Considering that the Evil Dead movies revolve around the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis, it’s fair to say that Raimi is comfortable with the narrative influences of supernatural literature.
Despite all the eye-popping sorcerial shenanigans, Multiverse of Madness traffics in fundamentally comforting messages. The Godlike Scarlet Witch simply wants to do the dishes and snuggle up with her Nintendo-playing kids. Superheroes—they’re just like us! And even though the multiverse is a mind-bending place, our world apparently has the wisest, most compassionate version of Dr. Strange out there. There’s no room here for the kind of hilariously haunting existentialist despair that Rick and Morty showcase every time they explore the multiverse. Turns out Earth-616 is the best Earth. Rest easy, moviegoers. You can be happy here—as long as you keep watching Marvel movies.