When I first heard Sam Raimi would be directing Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, my first thought was – yes, he is exactly what the MCU needs. I knew we would be in for something substantially different to anything we’ve experienced so far in the MCU. Raimi’s history in both the superhero and horror genres made him more than qualified to helm what is quite possibly the MCU’s darkest and maddest film yet. His ability to maintain the integrity and grandeur of superheroism in his golden Spider-Man trilogy whilst incorporating elements of his horror roots set expectations for Multiverse of Madness to be one of the least MCU-esque films in all the right ways. Taking the reins on a story about one of Marvel’s most unique and mystical characters somehow seemed fit for the director, not to mention how the comic source material pushes the physical boundaries of the Marvel universe. So, was Multiverse of Madness the rollercoaster ride through the Marvel universe(s) it was expected to be? Let’s just say the rollercoaster took an ominous detour through the haunted house.
In Multiverse of Madness, Benedict Cumberbatch reprises his role as the (ex) Sorcerer Supreme for what seems like the umpteenth time, yet this being only his second solo outing. Cumberbatch maintains the appealing charisma of Stephen Strange, yet shows despite all his power how much of a flawed character he is. He always seems one finger lift away from causing diabolical consequences in the name of the greater good. To me, this has always has made Cumberbatch to Strange what Robert Downey Junior was to Iron Man, and something that Marvel always excels at; giving us flawed but likeable characters. Strange crosses paths with America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a teenager with the ability to punch holes through the multiverse, and attempts to protect her from demonic forces looking to steal her power. MCU regulars Benedict Wong and Elizabeth Olsen also join the cast as Wong and Wanda/Scarlett Witch respectively, in addition to some returning faces we haven’t seen since the first Doctor Strange.
Strange’s relationship with Chavez is somewhere between friendship and mentor-mentee, providing a majority of the quippy MCU humour in the film we’ve become so accustomed to. They also bring some heart in the right moments, and their backstories are unexpectedly similar in interesting ways. Wong maintains his status as an underrated Marvel favourite of mine, his chemistry with Strange proving yet again to be one of the most enjoyable aspects of the film. It was also nice to see Rachel McAdams back as Strange’s periodic love interest Christine. The film provides us with a little more depth into their relationship and shows us how much Christine still means to Strange despite his new life as the world’s most powerful wizard. However, the real highlight of the cast in Multiverse of Madness was Olsen’s performance as the Scarlett Witch. Whilst providing us with a sympathetic plight, she delivers a new, edgy side to the character we have so far only had hints at. Without revealing the details of said plight, she shows us how far someone is willing to go in the name of love.
One of the main attractions of this rollercoaster ride is the visuals. Multiverse of Madness is possibly one of the most visually experimental films of the MCU. The visual atmosphere sells the otherworldly feel very effectively, reminiscent of Steve Ditko’s original illustrations of Strange’s world in the comics. The film plunges you through the multiverse with a plethora of colours and textures disassembled and assembled in different combinations; illustrating that when it comes to the multiverse, anything is possible. The visuals also display how truly powerful Strange and Wanda are, showing the full extent of what kind of house-of-mirrors tricks they have up their sleeves. I often see a lot of complaints about Marvel films being overly reliant on CGI. Whilst I can understand not everyone is keen on a substantial amount of CGI in films, to me, Marvel films have boasted some of the most impressive visual effects in the last decade, and Multiverse of Madness is no exception. The only effective way to stay true to the colourful, visual story-telling of the comics is to utilise modern technology. Make the most of CGI to express the scale of these stories as if they were real, and create an other-worldly feeling of escapism which is exactly what made the comics so popular in the first place.
As if the unique visuals weren’t enough, Multiverse of Madness also has one of the darkest atmospheres in the MCU’s history. As previously mentioned, the film illustrates how truly powerful Strange and Wanda are, and the film stretches its 12A rating to show us how far they’re willing to divulge in darker magic. The film is undoubtedly the closest thing we’ve had to a Marvel horror film since the Blade movies of the late 90s and early 2000s (except perhaps the recent Morbius). As the film progresses, you can see more and more of Sam Raimi’s sprinkles of horror and the supernatural. From unique cinematography to striking visuals, the film boasts some genuinely unsettling sequences in all the right ways. Be forewarned, the violence in the film is almost akin to fully adult-rated superhero content like Amazon Prime’s The Boys or Invincible. Anything in the superhero genre which isn’t afraid to go all out with the level of violence is something I always appreciate. It shows us how powerful the characters truly are beyond their conventional family friendly settings. The dark atmosphere of the film is only elevated by Danny Elfman’s hair-raising musical score, and I don’t think anyone else could’ve possibly been a better fit to score the film. Elfman’s signature supernatural style is very prominent here, using strings and choir to show of the film’s comic book grandeur whilst maintaining it’s frightening atmosphere. I was particularly impressed by some of the musical cues, with some high-pitched string sound effects elevating jump scares (yes, this film has jump scares) which almost reminded me of the Insidious films. If I’m comparing an MCU film to quite possibly one of the scariest horror movie franchises in recent years, you know you’re in for something special.
Whilst Multiverse of Madness was a thoroughly enjoyable film, I will acknowledge that it won’t be for everyone. Being the first MCU film after the cameo-filled phenomenon that was Spider-Man: No Way Home, I think Multiverse of Madness has become a victim of overhype. During the months leading up to its release, the internet was bubbling with fan-theories and rumours about the film’s cast and plot, and many came to believe it would top No Way Home with it’s level of cameos and crossovers. Whilst the film has it’s fair share of surprises, I couldn’t help but feel like it certainly would’ve left many fans wanting more. Personally, the fact that it may have been a little overhyped didn’t affect my enjoyment. It deconstructs the superhero genre and shows how much Sam Raimi excels as a director. It shows us that the multiverse isn’t about breathtaking cameos and plot twists, it plays with the idea that somewhere, somehow, there is a universe where we’re ‘happier’. Perhaps somewhere where things have worked out for the better, somewhere where we’re living out our ideal lives. So, the film asks; at what cost? This fundamental question gave the film a level of depth I was pleasantly surprised by.
The dark themes of Multiverse of Madness gave me the impression Marvel are experimenting with different genres; testing the waters to see how audiences react to a horror-themed MCU film. This is undoubtedly a good thing, as I’ve also seen complaints about the MCU becoming rather formulaic and substantially reliant on it’s humour. Multiverse of Madness has very little humour. It is a dark film which takes the MCU to places it hasn’t ventured before, and whilst it may not be the cameo-filled phenomenon that fans hoped it to be, it proves that after so many years Marvel are still willing to keep their franchise fresh and find new ways to make it appealing.