After six years of anticipation, speculation, and multiple cameos in other films, Doctor Strange finally returns in one of Marvel Studios’ well-hidden jewels – Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness. But, does the long-awaited sequel manage to captivate audiences and critics with the same charms? Is it just another film in the grand scheme of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, created merely to gratify the fan-tasy? And, can Doctor Strange bring the magic back to the Marvel Cinematic Universe?
*This article contains spoilers of the film, so read at your discretion.
A New Chapter
After the cinematic concoctions also known as Avengers: Endgame and Spider-man: No Way Home, Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is back and more heartbroken than ever as he witnesses the love of his life, Christine (Rachel McAdams), get married, and, spoiler alert, he’s not the groom-to-be. Doctor Strange, however, has something else to keep him occupied: after her “experiment” in Westview the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) has now decided to realize her happy family in another universe by kidnapping America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a universal being who can travel the multiverse. Thus, Doctor Strange comes to the rescue to stop the Scarlet Witch from potentially f**king up the entire multiverse. Since the multiverse concept has been unlocked with Marvel’s previous films and series circa Loki, WandaVision, and Spider-man: No Way Home, the new Doctor Strange film expands on this idea and adds new layers to the ever-growing MCU with brand new characters and unexpected special cameos.
As a half-ass Marvel fan, I am obliged to start my deep dive into this film with two major caveats. First, I have not seen any of the Marvel TV series because my commitment ends with the movies. Second, my expectations were probably too high because of how long I waited for it. I saw the first film when I was in grade 10 and now I’m almost graduating college. Nevertheless, like any school presentation, let’s begin with the positives.
What single-handedly elevated this movie were the superb performances from Benedict Cumberbatch and Elizabeth Olsen – emotional, heart-wrenching, and immersive. After the suffering she endured and the devastation she unleashed in previous Marvel installments and WandaVision, the film neatly wraps up Wanda’s story arc with her self-realization and retribution (I’ll leave it at that). However, the film glossed over aspects of her character development, which I suppose the series already covered. Another saving grace was Doctor Strange’s closure with Christine, or “the one that got away.” As a sucker for bittersweet romance (though not what Marvel is necessarily known for), I was surprised by the intricate ending to their story as soulmates who will always love each other “in every universe” even if they are not together. The film also draws subtle parallels between Doctor Strange’s unfulfilled love and the Scarlet Witch’s hopelessness and trauma. Ultimately, in any reality, if things are not meant to be they won’t ever be, so we need to learn to move on from our haunted past and make sacrifices to do the right thing.
Less is More
Regardless, we need to address the elephant in the room, not only with this film but also with recent Marvel films (I’m looking at you, Infinity War and Endgame). There is too much to process – too many characters, plotlines, and loose ends left untied. Newer Marvel movies in the extended MCU are trying too hard to construct an extremely complicated web of connected characters and storylines without actually putting effort into developing them. A million things are happening in this Doctor Strange film, yet nothing reaches its maximum efficiency as it is laden with inconsistencies. Off the top of my head, I can already name five sub-plots that the film grapples to tie together: Scarlet Witch trying to steal the family of another Wanda, Doctor Strange traveling through the multiverse and learning about his other selves, Doctor Strange protecting America and becoming her mentor, Doctor Strange dealing with his failed love life, and America entering the MCU. The last plotline was particularly disappointing as this seemingly powerful being was not adequately explored and reduced to a very minimal role. She could have been replaced with anyone or anything else, and still her role in the plot would not have changed significantly.
Therefore, the ending naturally became too messy and rushed, and the resolution was anti-climatic. The climax entails America finally learning to control her superpower and defeating the Scarlet Witch. This in itself already deviates from the typical hero’s journey because she doesn’t go through or overcome any significant struggle in the film to earn the right to her hero status. Thus, I couldn’t sympathize with the character because there was nothing for me to resonate with emotionally. Another missed opportunity is when Scarlet Witch finally realizes her wrongdoings and faces a Wanda from another universe (whose body she had possessed for most of the film’s runtime). What could have been a vulnerable and pivotal moment for the character was brushed aside and the audience wasn’t given enough time to process its weight and significance.
Give us Meaning and Substance
Since Doctor Strange still belongs to the MCU, it could not escape the same overused tropes that almost destroyed the film’s tone. While I understand that Marvel films’ commercial interests dictate their creative choices, the writing has significantly deteriorated with misused and misplaced quips and banter. When I watched the first Doctor Strange movie, I was so intrigued by this mysterious and charismatic character. The MCU finally had a smart, snarky, and serious hero with the right kind of intelligence and temperament to protect the world (sorry, Iron Man). I loved how it was suspenseful, mythical, and dark with an appropriate amount of humor. Sadly, this was not the case with this Doctor Strange film, where the jokes made the emotional moments oddly underwhelming.
Yes, Marvel films are made for die-hard fans who show up to behold the marvelous CGI, action-packed sequences, and beloved characters. And, to put it mildly, writing has never been their forte. So while I was not expecting an Oscar-worthy script, I could not help but be annoyed with the lackluster writing, cluttered with filler and light-hearted but meaningless banter, which detracted from the film’s overall tone. Marvel Studios in general struggles with sustaining the intensity of serious and reflective moments. Why can’t superhero movies be both dark and funny? What is the need for light-heartedness when the story calls for seriousness? What’s the point of crafting intricate storylines when the execution cannot preserve the tension? And did I forget to mention the Illuminati gang, whose sole purpose was for fan service?
Since this film had so much untapped potential, I wish they could have focused more on one particular arc and really driven that storyline home. As the film already works on the premise of the multiverse, the surface-level exploration of other Doctor Stranges, including the evil ones, was regrettable, when it should have explored the psychology of their already established characters. And while the film has managed to flirt with many genres like action, comedy, horror, and romance, this was not a resoundingly successful attempt and still fell victim to typical Marvel conventions. They are playing it safe and are unwilling to experiment with a darker and more serious tone, but I guess that is left for DC to pick up the slack with their surprisingly artistic The Batman film.
Something To Look Forward To
Despite my overwhelmingly unfavorable critique, did I hate this film? No. I still thoroughly enjoyed it as a Marvel superhero film. I was only somewhat unsatisfied because it felt much duller compared to its predecessor, which already set the bar way too high. It also lacked those endearing “oh yes” moments where you wholeheartedly root and cheer for the characters. Overall, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness feels like a transitional movie which opens up new possibilities for our journey with the characters in the multiverse.
Generally speaking, Marvel films have not wowed me as of late because I can no longer keep up with the constant roll-out of movies and TV series required for understanding the MCU in its chaotic entirety. While these have been an absolute treat for some fans, the sheer volume of content has prevented me from delving into this out-of-hand multiverse. But, I know the madness won’t stop and I sincerely hope that I will fall in love with one of their creations again some day.
Cover photo: Collider
Edited by: Hana Maurer