It’s a bird, it’s a plane, no, it’s a witch?… and oh look! It’s also Doctor Daddy Salt-N-Pepa Strange, back at it again with the stolen sling rings and sorcery!
In what feels like the 3,000th entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, especially now that we’ve all got the Television Universe to worry about, the latest movie Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness at least added some good ol’ fashioned B-movie horror to the franchise. (And so you’ll have to excuse me while I make a horror-tinged comparison.) Like a haunted house, the movie is full of fun-filled surprises, genuine scares, and long dark corridors that not only the character, but the audience too, have to travel to get to the menial plot on the other side. What I’m trying to say is; that though we’ve all paid the price of admission for some twenty-odd years now, not all haunted houses are worth the price of admission. And unfortunately, the titular Multiverse lacks not in frights, entertainment, or villainy but instead coherent theming. Something akin to asking: why was the haunted house built in the first place?
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness takes place a year or so after the events of WandaVision and some vague amount of time (months, maybe?) after Spider-Man: No Way Home, the latter of which is the least of our issues. The movie wastes no time introducing our MCU newcomer, the star-spangled and fast-moving America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a young teen who can traverse the multiverse at the cost of only being able to open portals when she’s under duress. After warding off multiversal demons and a conniving alternative version of Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) trying to steal her power, America is launched into the mainline MCU to ask our Doctor Strange for help. Unfortunately, though, Doctor Strange can’t exactly help America because runes, a.k.a witch magic, enchant the demons that are chasing her. At the behest of his loyal companion and Sorcerer Supreme Wong (Benedict Wong), Doctor Strange visits Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), who might be able to figure out which witch wants to steal America’s multiversal powers for themselves.
This is when all hex breaks loose.
You see, Doctor Strange finds a relatively calm Wanda, minding her business and trimming apple blossom branches nearby the isolated lush field house that we see her find at the end of WandaVision. But boy, do we find out in the span of a minute that things are neither chill nor is Wanda minding her own business. In fact, she reveals to the unsuspecting Doctor Strange that she is the witch after America’s powers because an ancient book called the Darkhold told her she could be with her kids (the ones that she put to rest in WandaVision) again. The only issue is that the kids exist in every other universe except the mainline, so she needs America’s powers in conjunction with the ancient text to be with them.
And here lies my problem with the film. During the 126 min runtime, the movie tries to convince those of us that watched WandaVision, and I guess Wanda herself, that Wanda had completely reverted back to her unavenged, grief-stricken, unhinged roots. Now, I want to be delicate and be as clear as I can with this hot debate topic online. I am not saying that a person cannot lapse back into grief or trauma or pain, even if it seems they might be healed. Grief and pain can be ongoing. However, what I am saying is that WandaVision was a fantastic nine-episode limited series that wonderfully tackled the many-layered and tragically psychosomatic mental state that she was in after the events of Avengers: Endgame. We saw her suffer, we saw her struggle, and we saw her claw her way through misery as she committed various atrocities against the enslaved townsfolk of West View. We saw her come to terms with the death of her parents, her brother, and her lover. We saw her reanimate Vision’s corpse; we saw her come to terms with the horrors of what she was putting him through and the consequences of the dicey morality of creating fake kids at the cost of having to destroy the picture-perfect family she so desperately craved.
“What is grief if not love preserving?” is one of the most iconic lines from the television series. It was said by Vision to Wanda in order to help her understand that you can grieve and maintain the love of the person you lost. And not to mention Wanda also stood up against her adversary, another powerful witch, Agatha (Kathryn Han), in hopes to prove to herself that she was not a bad person who would choose chaos magic to cause further harm to others. So what the hell was this character pivot in the Multiverse of Madness? She just becomes a giant, boss ass witch set on murdering everyone — including a teenager! — who gets in the way of her being with her children.
There had to be a better movie in there somewhere in which Wanda was not the main villain. Couldn’t it have been a continuation of the first Doctor Strange (directed by Scott Derrickson)? Something where Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is the multiversal threat because he wants to undo all the dark magic that the ancient one did prior, and then Doctor Strange and Wanda could have teamed up to take him down? By having them protecting America from the hands of Mordo and his henchmen, it provides a more natural segue for Wanda to then fall back into despair when she learns that the girl she’s protecting is also the key to getting her old life back.
Anyway, if we kind of remove ourselves from the “evil” Wanda of it all, there are a great many positives here for the film that do hold up.
Under the direction of Sam Raimi (Spider-Man, Drag Me To Hell), the unbalanced but fun script penned by Michael Waldron (Rick and Morty, Loki) shines during moments of heavy exposition. While it’s not clear what’s going on with Wanda’s trajectory from TV to film or why a street vendor named Pizza Poppa (a great cameo appearance by Raimi darling, Bruce Campbell) carries mustard as a condiment, it is clear that Multiverse of Madness is less of a direct continuation of the first movie and is very much a vehicle to get us through the rest of Phase 4 while setting up Phase 5. And that’s a damn shame, but you couldn’t have cast a better director to handle the goofiness of the quintessential superhero movie and combine that so wonderfully with the macabre. Seeing Wanda just straight up dismember and shred members of the Illuminati as if they were paper mache was equal parts terrifying and thrilling; seeing some straight-up Drag Me to Hell style demons materialize to consume the soul of Doctor Strange after he did some witchy-woo-woo shit he should have known better than to be doing, priceless.
But the true moment of sheer bonkers behavior, and honestly my favorite scene in the film, comes during another moment of heavy exposition between our mainline Doctor Strange and an alternative version of himself who sports disheveled hair, guy-liner, and a crooked smile. In this universe, the emo-Strange ™ has been corrupted by the Darkhold, and after a series of offscreen decisions before Doctor Strange’s arrival, emoStrange™ reveals several things in quick succession. Firstly, due to a bad case of egomania, he lost a chance at being happy with the love of his life, Christine (Rachel McAdams). Secondly, because he was alone, he confined himself to a rather cursed and incredibly bleak wood-rotting gothic “goddamn haunted house” to just stare out the corroded window and look angry, I guess. And Lastly, because he had nothing better to do other than being mad about his poor life choices to feed his power hunger, he used the Darkhold to go around killing other versions of Doctor Strange from different universes. Once Doctor Strange swallows all that crazy-ass information down, emo-Strange™ takes a lunge at him, but Doctor Strange quickly enters his maestro era. In an unbelievably choreographed fight scene, Doctor Strange uses musical notes — found on various music sheets just haphazardly laying about the nearly desecrated “goddamn haunted house” — to fight emoStrange to the death. As the notes swirl around in vibrant yellows, oranges, and purples, they also carry notes from classical piano scores to help enhance the horror and triumph of the moment. It’s very Fantasia 2000. It’s as brilliant as it is mad, and to try to describe it any further would do it a disservice.
Overall, I think I like the film’s third act much better than its first. Just because the latter moves at such a breakneck speed for you to understand the last half of the movie. And, somehow, there’s a lot I didn’t go into with this review about the way it wonderfully portrays Doctor Strange’s own inner turmoil after the events of Endgame or how he confronts his own insecurities and fears in his relationship with Christine. Or how I enjoyed America’s silly banter with Strange and Wong (Yes! Please keep pairing Doctor Strange with children!). Despite its plot issues, the film is undeniably a fun popcorn film full of that classic Marvel action magic.
But I just can’t help but come back to its overarching thread for Wanda and how, in the act of incredible sadness and desperation, she had no one to help save her from the corruption of the Darkhold. Vision wasn’t present; again, I ask why? Why did it have to be this way? We saw a version of Vision float off at the end of WandaVision, and why didn’t he exist in the other multiverses with the children? Once again, we saw Wanda have to reconcile with the fact that she could not have her happily ever after, especially not after she killed so many along the way just to get it. And I just don’t understand why. emoStrange ™ might have thought he was living in a “goddamn haunted house,” but after seeing Wanda decide to end her life (whether permanently or not, the Marvel machine has not decided) to atone for what she did, I felt the film trapped us all in the makings of a grief-ridden haunted house, a multiverse of sadness, for further character development from her character indefinitely.
[originally published on The Black Cape]