Marvel accelerates its masterplan as Raimi red-lines the rating limits in Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness
Although it pays lip service to the ongoing ramifications of The Blip, DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS is the first of Marvel’s Phase Four films to exist outside the shadow of the many lingering questions left by the sudden disappearance and later reappearance of half the world’s population. Not because it had been dealt with comprehensively and satisfyingly onscreen but because real life events over the eighteen months preceding its release had definitively proved that global civilisation could and would just carry on as normal after enduring an unprecedented collective emotional, social and economic trauma as if it never happened. Basically, Covid fixed the MCU’s biggest plot hole.
Fresh from fiddling with the fabric of reality on Spider-Man’s behalf, Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) find himself plagued by nightmarish visions of alternative lives. But when an extra-dimensional monster attacks a young girl, disrupting Christine Walker’s wedding, Doctor Strange and Wong turn to Wanda Maximoff for help only to find that their hoped-for ally may be their greatest enemy.
If you want a TL;DR version of how successful I think DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS is, then it’s probably worth knowing that, coming out of WANDAVISION, the only thing I wanted from the upcoming sequel was that Wanda wouldn’t see another heal turn. And despite the fact that’s exactly what we see, I came out of the film not only satisfied but delighted. Because, you see, Wanda isn’t actually the villain of the piece: the Darkhold is.
Temptation, regret and paths not taken are at the heart of the tragedy which drives both Wanda and Strange’s arc through the movie and while it might seem like a retrograde step for the Scarlet Witch to fall to darkness after freeing herself from Agatha Harkness’ clutches it’s doesn’t feel an unnatural continuation of the very end of the Disney+ series where we see the Darkhold already exerting its malign influence. Grief untempered by solace and twisted by malignant supernatural power is enough to drive anyone insane. In invoking WANDAVISION, though, the film does leave one burning question unanswered, the answer to which would likely have set this adventure on a very different track: where is Vision?
Perhaps the greatest strength of DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS, though, lies in its director. Sam Raimi, a veteran of the horror, fantasy and superhero genres here gets the opportunity to blend them in a way that’s never been done before and he really goes for it, pushing the boundaries of the coveted PG-13/ 12A rating to its very limit. It doesn’t pull its punches in its visuals or set pieces and the shockingly brutal annihilation of the Illuminati at Wanda’s hands jeopardises any hope of redemption the character might have in the as-yet-unknown future of the MCU. Raimi brings his A-game to bear on the multi-dimensional aesthetics of the MCU, infusing the action with sly and macabre wit while letting characters old, new and, well, different, shine through like never before.
Cumberbatch fits the role of Strange like a glove by this point, as Olsen does Wanda while Benedict Wong continues the irrepressible rise of Wong as the secret MVP of Marvel’s Phase Four and beyond. Xochitl Gomez makes an instant impression as America Chavez even if her character is a little underdeveloped for audience members unfamiliar with her comic book counterpart but of course, the real buzz-generating cameos are those of The Illuminati. The group may conveniently give a reason for the so-far underserved Chiwetel Ejiofor to return as Mordo but it’s John Krasinski and Patrick Stewart who really steal the limelight here. While it’s undeniably fun to see the variations on show – especially Anson Mount being given a chance to redeem Black Bolt after the egregiously ill-judged INHUMANS – there’s a very definite sense of Marvel providing fanservice as a courtesy (in the form of John Krasinski’s appearance, all but confirming he won’t be the Prime MCU’s Reed Richards) and also laying to rest the icons of the past (Patrick Stewart appearing not just as Professor Charles Xavier for one last time but heavily implied to be the Professor X of the beloved 1990s X-MEN cartoon). Likewise, Lashana Lynch and Hayley Atwell are nods to popular alternatives but I suspect the chances of seeing them again are fairly remote, at least in the live-action MCU.
There’s a devious subversion of the early MCU formula of heroes fighting their darker versions by having the villain of the piece – remember, that’s the Darkhold – defeated by the hero harnessing that same dark power in what might just be superhero cinema’s grisliest set-piece as Doctor Strange possesses and reanimates his own corpse for the final, climactic showdown – a showdown that still finds room to suggest – in a brief scarlet flash – that Wanda may have survived, if the knowledge that an uncorrupted Wanda exists in an alternative universe isn’t sufficient comfort for Scarlet Witch fans.
Now Mrs Craggus – already established as not a fan of superheroes fighting each other – also feels that multiverses are something of a cop-out. And while it’s true it diminishes the spectre of death by implying an almost unending supply of spares, I think Marvel have judged – correctly – that their fans are more discerning about their favourite ‘flavours’ of each character and so the adventure remains undimmed.
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS, though, is how clearly it sets the stage for the finale of this saga – months before the official announcement – as the narrative bedrock is laid for the forthcoming SECRET WARS.