If the multiverse is as this film says it is, there will be a universe somewhere in which this film is good. After all, the film introduces the idea that if you can, or have, dreamed it then it exists somewhere (a tantalising promise the film does not deliver on). When watching Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, viewers will constantly be yearning for, dreaming of perhaps, the film that almost exists, the good version of this locked up in this mess of a movie. After all, this Sam Raimi directed feature is full of promising moments, and even has some conceptually great sequences. Hell, it even has some straight-up great sequences, just ones diminished by the thing around it barely being a film.
Abundant stories already exist of filming without a complete script or direction, and it shows. Doctor Strange keeps gesturing towards being a cogent work but then falls under the weight of assorted nonsense. Within this nonsense, Sam Raimi gets to go full Sam Raimi. This is surely the only Marvel movie with lengthy possession sequences, blood soaked revenge, brutal murders of superheroes, eye gouging, impalement and at least one head explosion. Somehow, even when weighed down by the soulless MCU machine, Sam Raimi remains Sam Raimi. But, only in disparate moments; he is still unable to wrestle together a cohesive product. Even the moments of fun sit incongruously in this film, at points even detracting from the overall experience as they feel like empty affections: weird moments of a different kind of cinema poking through an empty vessel.
It is also worth stating that even the fun Raimi stuff is fed through a Marvel distortion feature. Fans expecting scrungy practical effects and tactile filmmaking with impact, look elsewhere. Even the horror imagery comes out as weightless CGI nonsense, remarkable only because it is happening in a Marvel movie. Though, there are some scenes where Raimi finds his place in this universe, and uses the toybox effectively. A camera reminiscent of the spectral, pursuing POV shots in The Evil Dead (1981) darts around a room, visual trickery makes all things woozy and a simple teacup contains a literal storm. These smaller touches where the CG is additive are wonderful; on the whole, it is mostly big stuff. Very big stuff. Empty stuff; death by scale.
Luckily, the narrative is just as emptily large. Just as pointless. For some reason, we follow directly from the Disney Plus series, WandaVision (2021). A main character is Wanda Maximoff and, much like WandaVision, this is all about her continuing grief. Somehow, it is an even worse version of this than that show. It takes its one strength, a cogent arc about grief, and decides to tread it out again in a hyperbolised, and frankly rather offensive, manner. Without getting too specific, Wanda wishes to traverse multiverses so that she can live with her fictional children. The multiverse where everything is possible doesn’t push her to pursue Vision anymore, now she’s interested in fictional kids. I am being reductive, but the film encourages scornful takes. In this film, women are defined by motherhood and hysteria. It’s become a repeated Marvel thing, bringing back bad memories of how terrible Black Widow was treated, how she was presented as a failure because she couldn’t be a mother. Because, in this universe (nay, in this multiverse), women are so narrowly constructed and so offensively presented. The rage that persists throughout this film is laughable, a derisible reduction of femininity paired with another female character who exists to merely be the object of Doctor Strange’s affection in every conceivable universe (something that gives the Doctor some INCEL vibes).
It is telling that the only strong emotion this universe hopping film actually evokes is anger. When it is not being actively misogynistic, it is merely shallow and dull. It is such a promising idea: we can traverse unlimited universes. What we really do is go to three versions of New York, one of which has some cameos in it that are ultimately incredibly pointless. This feels like the beginning of a bolder, wilder and more creative work. It is actually the creative apex. That’s how soul suckingly dull Marvel Studios is, you give them infinite possibilities in which everything you dream is true somewhere. What they give you are the same predictable arcs, no narrative propulsion and no story worth telling. It is amazing how little any of this means, how the spiraling infinities merely reflect the narrow possibilities available in this franchise. Our most creative sequence is a thirty second hopping through possible realities which basically functions as a flashy loading screen to prepare more of the boring movie.
It’s all such a shame. An infuriating shame. There is a good film in here. There is actual fun in here. There is creativity in here and personality. But it never finds any form and the only cogent aspects are deeply distasteful. At the end, after witnessing infinity, we are left like Doctor Strange himself when he scans through every possible reality before making a decision. Here, we see every possible form a Marvel Studios film can take. They are all the same. They are all full of quirky nonsense. They are all stuffed with weightless CG. Nothing means anything in any of them. In the end, unlimited possibility boils down to nothing, nowhere all at once.