When director Scott Derrickson left the tentatively titled Doctor Strange 2 in 2020, my hope for the sequel was mostly lost. Derrickson both directed and co-wrote the original Doctor Strange, and it was a passion project for him. The massive stage of the Marvel Cinematic Universe launched Derrickson into a whole new chapter of his career. Doctor Strange was his vision, and with the sequel announced to be more horror-centric, losing one of the best horror directors working today seemed like a death knell. Later that year, Sam Raimi came aboard.
To say my expectations were massively elevated after Raimi joined the project would be an understatement. I’m a Raimi fan; I’m not scared to admit that. Being 21, Spider-Man was my introduction to his campy, horror-laced style. I grew up loving his Spider-Man trilogy, became a fan of the Evil Dead trilogy as a teen and appreciate everything he brings to the table. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness mostly benefits from its Raimi affliction, but it often feels like more style than actual substance.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness picks up some time after WandaVision, with Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) surprised by the arrival of a multiversal traveler, America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), who struggles to control her powers while being pursued by an evil entity that threatens the MCU and every adjacent universe. Strange enlists the help of Wong (Benedict Wong) and Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) to help him both understand and contain the threat and Chavez.
This review contains no spoilers for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.
I was greatly entertained by Multiverse of Madness; whether or not it’s actually a good movie, I’m not sure. This is a Sam Raimi film, through and through, for better and worse. You get all the bold editing choices, funky camerawork, brutal violence and unbridled campiness, alongside some truly scary moments. Raimi delivered on making Marvel’s first horror film. It's much darker and more violent than the typical Marvel film, earning its PG-13 rating.
There is much debate over whether the film should’ve been given an R rating because of its violence and horror elements. Some report that children aren’t taking well to some scenes in the film, but this isn’t a children’s film and was never marketed as one. To me, this film has broken open an issue with the American film rating system that’s been mostly ignored by the public; the PG-13 rating has been completely mishandled.
The rating began as a midpoint between PG and R, with nudity, blood, and coarse language being allowed. It was created in response to outrage over Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom being too extreme and intense for its PG rating. I would say that Multiverse of Madness is about on par with that film in violence, maybe even less graphic.
The main issue with PG-13 is how it’s essentially become what the PG rating once was. I would argue that none of the MCU films, up until now, have warranted a PG-13 rating. The violence is rarely graphic and often bloodless, there’s little to no sexual content or nudity and the adult language never goes past the occasional use of “shit” and “damn” (even if a single f-word is technically allowed under the PG-13 guidelines). There are a very small number of films being rated G or PG every year, most of them being animated. G, in particular, has been essentially abandoned. If you look at modern blockbusters, they’re all rated PG-13, though none of them should be. Even the more recent Jurassic World films are less violent and graphic than Jurassic Park was over 20 years ago; so why are they the same rating? All of this is to say that the outrage towards this film needs to be placed on the real issues with the rating system.
Multiverse of Madness is a relatively hard PG-13 compared to most other similarly rated films, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it's better for it. Yes, I enjoyed seeing Marvel go a bit darker and more violent than they usually do, but I doubt it will happen again soon.
This film marks the reunion of director Sam Raimi and composer Danny Elfman, who haven’t worked together since Oz the Great and Powerful in 2013, and before that, Spider-Man 2 in 2004. Their collaboration here is fantastic. It’s the first time in a long time that I’ve actively noticed the score and music cues in an MCU film. Usually, MCU scores are very bland and simple, but this one is over the top, ridiculous and just goes for it. There’s a musical fight scene that’s probably the best action scene in the film and it’s easily the most creative. I can appreciate what the two are going for here, but it’s definitely not for everyone.
Inversely, this film lacked creativity. To be titled Multiverse of Madness, there’s not a lot of madness or many universes. The film primarily takes place in two different universes, including the mainline MCU, with the rest being shown in flashes. This isn’t an issue, as the film avoids the trap of overfilling itself with cameos and fan service and instead goes for simplicity. I want a multiverse film to be a bit more complicated and have more going on conceptually. If you’re looking for that, I’d recommend seeing Everything Everywhere All at Once, which is a much better multiverse film than this one, and a better movie overall.
The greatest strength of the film, Raimi’s style, is also its biggest downfall. The previously mentioned music cues are a bit too much at times, the same goes for a lot of the editing choices. Several shots taken from the Evil Dead franchise, the most egregious being a recreation of the deadite POV sequence from the original. It’s a lot to take in and accept.
The performances in this film are all great. Elizabeth Olsen and Xochitl Gomez are the true standouts here. I really enjoyed Gomez’s energy and presence. At 16 years old, she holds her own among a massively talented cast of multiple Oscar nominees, which is as much as one could hope. Olsen is great as always and she and buys into Raimi’s campy sensibilities. Speaking on this anymore would go into spoiler territory.
The visual effects are also fantastic, which is great, following a Disney+ series in Moon Knight that often struggled to have adequate and believable effects week-to-week. This is a much better-looking MCU movie than the usual, from the camerawork to the color palette. You could place this among the Guardians of the Galaxy films and Eternals as the best-looking MCU films.
While I think Multiverse of Madness is a massively enjoyable film, especially in a packed crowd of Marvel fans, it isn’t as good as it could be. Many will say the same thing because they didn’t get the cameos they wanted, but I’m saying it because the script and creativity aren’t there. The film could’ve used another draft or two. Some of the lines are absolutely ridiculous, and others make no sense, especially during a couple of the cameo sequences. Regardless, I think it’s definitely worth a watch, especially because it has one of the best post-credits scenes in the history of the MCU.
After seeing Multiverse of Madness, I’m much more excited for what the MCU has down the line. While it doesn’t set up everything I wished it would, it does move in the right direction both in plot and in the area of the filmmakers behind the scenes. Phase Four has been more creator-driven than any other in the MCU. With Eternals, this film and soon Thor: Love and Thunder, letting the creatives take the reigns to tell good stories in a stylistically stimulating way should be the MCU’s ticket to the future, avoiding the inevitable superhero fatigue for a tad longer.