The powers-that-be of the Marvel Cinematic Universe may not want to admit it, but the COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc with their Phase 4 plans. As laid out in 2019, the new Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness was originally scheduled for May 2021, where it would have come directly after the WandaVision Disney+ series and followed shortly by the Loki series.
The world had other ideas, of course, and now the Doctor Strange sequel is not only coming well after both of those series initially streamed, but also after Spider-Man: No Way Home, a universally acclaimed film that stole this movie’s thunder when it comes to movies dealing with the multiverse. Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) played a big part in that film, where he conjured a spell that literally cracked open the sky, presumably leading to all sorts of multiversal possibilities in this film.
Except … that’s not exactly what happens. Directed by Sam Raimi (returning to filmmaking after a nine-year absence) and written by Loki creator Michael Waldron, Madness almost seems to pretend as if the events of No Way Home never happened. Instead, it shifts to a different way of accessing the multiverse via a brand-new character, America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), who has a power to open up portals to different universes, although she is unable to control it.
Through a semi-complicated situation, Strange is tasked with protecting her, and he seeks out assistance from Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), last seen in her series losing her mind in grief over a lost love and non-existent children. She’s obviously not over it, however, as she has plans of her own for Chavez. The film sets a crash course through multiple different realities, taking the story in a series of increasingly bizarre directions.
Right from the start, the filmmakers have difficulty setting the tone for the film. The opening scene wrong-foots the audience by throwing us in the middle of an insane sequence with no set-up whatsoever. Things don’t get better from there as Raimi and Waldron appear to be making things up as they go, using clunky dialogue to bring in familiar characters and illogical storytelling to move the story from place to place, with none of it generating any kind of excitement.
One of the beauties of using the multiverse as a storytelling device is you can create whatever you want, as Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Spider-Man: No Way Home, and Everything Everywhere All At Once demonstrated beautifully. What those films understood that Madness does not is that you have to pair the off-the-wall creativity with some kind of grounded story to lend at least a semblance of logic to the story.
What this film offers in its place is a bunch of elements that seem meant to appease the wildest fantasies of Marvel fans and Raimi acolytes, with little thought as to how any of it makes for a coherent story. At times, the movie feels like the Marvel version of a horror film, which makes a certain kind of sense given Raimi’s horror roots, but does nothing to make this particular story any better. Add in the overload of CGI and it comes off as just the filmmaking version of playing with toys; it may provide some fun distraction, but it’s ultimately meaningless.
Cumberbatch has always been an odd fit with the character of Doctor Strange, but here he sticks out like a sore thumb. He appears to just be going through the motions, with no real enthusiasm for making the character (or his multiverse alter egos) special. The one bright spot of the film is Gomez, who has a real brightness to her despite being saddled by an odd storyline. She and her character deserved a better origin story than this.
Where the MCU goes from here is anyone’s guess, but we now have a new answer for what the worst film they’ve put out is. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is an oddly-named, poorly-written, and too-bizarre-for-its-own-good movie that may end up only being enjoyed by those who love the comic books.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness opens in theaters on May 5.