Director Sam Raimi created one of the greatest superhero films of all time. It’s a sequel, so it doesn’t have to spend much time establishing character backstories. The villain’s origin is full of tragedy while the character themself is immensely likable. The hero is a quip machine with the charisma of a young Tom Cruise. Above all, despite often being a campy comic book movie, it has solid horror elements embedded into it. It is unmistakably a Sam Raimi production and doesn’t feel like it was poked or prodded by studio executives. That masterpiece’s name is… Spider-Man 2.
This is why, when it was announced that Raimi would be taking over directing duties from Scott Derickson on the sequel to Doctor Strange, excitement was high. When the trailers finally started appearing, it seemed as if Multiverse of Madness would be a much darker tale than any in the MCU, and it was… so why doesn’t it feel like a top-tier Marvel production?
The plot sees Dr. Stephen Strange attempting to save multiverse-hopping-teen America Chavez from the clutches of The Scarlett Witch (aka Wanda Maximoff). Despite a promising premise, there is very little of the multiverse actually being explored. The first time that Strange and Chavez jump to a different universe they crash through 20 separate universes, but they will spend the majority of the runtime in the final one they land in. These universes look absolutely stunning, and they are brimming with potential as well as looking like they could house an interesting story. Instead, the plot is split between the universe they land in, dubbed 838, and the one they came from, dubbed 616 (a cute comic nod as the actual designation is 19999). It allows more time to be spent with the 838 characters, which is fine as they’re all interesting enough, but it’s difficult not to feel a little disappointed when you’re promised a multiverse. Using more universes could have further demonstrated how ruthless, powerful, and merciless The Scarlett Witch is. It could have shown off more variations of Stephen and Wong (who is sorely lacking in the rest of the plot) as proof that 19999 Stephen is the only nice one. It could have been an opportunity to shove in more cameos, should the studio be inclined.
This doesn’t mean that there are no shoe-horned cameos. It’s a move that’s sure to divide audiences on several different levels. There will be people who feel like the plot doesn’t warrant these cameos, those who disagree with the characters chosen, those who disagree with the actors chosen for these roles, and those who disagree with how these characters are utilised. Personally, I only disagree with having the characters present, but to say any more would be to venture into spoiler territory, which is also the case with The Scarlett Witch. Throughout this piece, she has not been referred to as Wanda Maximoff because Wanda hasn’t been present. The film robs her of any real agency which, in turn, prevents her from being a sympathetic villain, which is a shame because this may be the defining performance of actress Elizabeth Olsen’s career. Wanda, as with most MCU women, has taken a backseat to her male counterparts but Olsen has always been terrific in the role. She was really allowed to display the full range of her capabilities in the show Wandavision which earned her deserved acclaim. It’s present here too, with The Scarlett Witch being one of the gravest threats any hero has ever faced and providing some truly chilling moments.
Divisiveness is rife in Multiverse of Madness. The aspects that don’t work (Wanda, presence of cameos, pacing, some of the humour) are noticeable but the moments that do work provide some MCU highlights. When Sam Raimi’s signature voice is allowed to shine through, it provides a comic-book vibe similar to his work on Spider-Man and an MCU experience like no other. Many have suggested that the film is too scary for a 12 rating but scaring young people (if the film does so) is a good thing, as if children aren’t allowed to experience fear then they don’t learn how to cope with that fear. Besides, many children enjoy the rush that comes with being scared. Saying that, although the film may not have earned a 15 rating, it may have been better had it been allowed one. Raimi can work well within restrictions, but if he’s being allowed to craft a horror film then he should be allowed to craft a full-Raimi horror film. When his voice comes through, it provides some wonderfully dark stuff and Zombie Strange is straight-up one of the best characters in the MCU. Partnered with Danny Elfman’s beautifully chilling and occasionally triumphant score, it provides some stellar storytelling. Where it falls apart is in the “MCU” of it all.
Perhaps the future should be a little less multiversal and a little more mad.