Five months after Spider-Man: No Way Home first opened up the doors between universes (in a spectacularly fun fashion), Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness follows on from those events, though things don’t proceed in the way I expected. Not by a long shot.
That’s not to say this is a bad thing, but I suspect I’m not alone in having different expectations. We get multiversal travel, we get a few other Stephen Stranges, and we see a few alternate versions of established characters, but not necessarily in the way I for one wanted. Multiverse of Madness underwent changes in writing and directing staff, due to creative differences, which the first film’s director leaving the project early on. In came Sam Rami (famous for the Evil Dead and Toby Maguire’s Spider-Man films), who lends a unique new approach to Marvel’s universe.
We get more scares in this film, more intensity. There are jokes, but they are not as frequent. There are quite a few jumpy moments. Strange is put through his paces, and the highly-driven villain is put through theirs. Visually it’s crazy, and it’s an entertaining enough movie – but I can’t call it a great one.
Perhaps that’s because the film doesn’t crossover with other, established universes, regarding other Marvel properties. The trailer teased Sir Patrick Stewart’s involvement as Professor Xavier, who he played in the X-Men film franchise, so naturally fans believed he’d be reprising that role. Instead, he plays a different version of Xavier. The belief that we might be getting a true X-Men crossover doesn’t materialise. Instead we’re treated to a couple of universes that comtend with Strange’s arrogance and desire to control everything, leading the MCU’s Strange to confront some dangerous variants of himself, but the true villain is both one of the scariest villains in the MCU, and one of the most disappointing, from a character journey perspective.
That’s not to fault the acting, which is absolutely fine. Elizabeth Olsen reprises her role as Wanda Maximoff, and after learning to let go of what she can’t control in Wandavision (one might say she learns to let go of the illusion), she takes a huge step backwards as a character. Instead of moving forward, she reverts to being consumed by grief, which is not completely unrealistic, but I can’t help but wish they’d done something different. Nonetheless, she makes for a challenging and fearsome villain, easily one of the most dangerous to appear in the MCU so far. She dispatches several heroes of another universe with contemptuous ease. Anson Mount appears as Black Bolt (who he played in the short-lived Inhumans TV show), and Bolt bows out in swift, gruesome fashion here (as does John Krasinski’s Reed Richards, aka Mr Fantastic). Xavier is no match for Wanda, and nor is Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter (in her Captain Britain incarnation), or Lashana Lynch’s Maria Rambeau (Captain Marvel).
We’re treated to a visual, mind-bending feast, as Strange tumbles through the multiverse, and at one point music becomes a weapon in a fight against one of his own variants (one of the best parts of the movie). However, it feels like the film was holding back on the whole madness angle too. There are some great moments – Strange possessing a dead version of himself, and demons confronting him and Wanda make for for a creepy moment – but I wanted to see him stretched and bewildered as he experienced other universes more fully, rather than focusing largely on one, previously-unexplored universe. There was the potential to take true risks and do some dramatic things – like, for example, linking the MCU to Marvel’s primary comic universe. Confusingly, the denizens of universe-838 (where we meet Xavier and Reed Richards, Captain Carter, Black Bolt and Captain Marvel) refer to the MCU as the ‘616 universe’, which is the name Marvel themselves gave to their original comic book universe.
So, in the end, I can’t held but feel the risk-taking and bold adventuring that would have made this film truly epic was scaled back for reasons unknown. The hoped-for crossovers with the X-Men (cameos from the ‘real’ Xavier, or Wolverine, or Deadpool, would have sent audiences into a meltdown) did not materialise. Of course, with the multiverse open for business, all things remain possible. America Chavez (played by Xochitl Gomez) is introduced in this film, and she has the power to travel between universes. She is the target for Wanda, who wants to use her power to find her children (or more precisely, get them back). With Chavez remaining in play at the end of the film, it’s possible we’ll see her wield her powers again, or we might see Strange end up getting into more multiversal adventures. We may also get to learn more of her character, as we don’t really get to know her very well here.
In the end, we got a film that delivered more scares than previous MCU fare. We got hints of true chaos. We had grief, and pain, shadowing the characters. There could have been so much more depth (an early conversation between Strange and surgeon Nicodemus West spoke of whether or not Strange could have found another way to stop Thanos), but it feels like the film started to go there… then wimped out a little. It was good, but not great. The true potential of the multiverse remains untapped, for now.