In Marvel’s latest superhero actioner, universes collide and haunts dominate, albeit to shaky effect.
There has long appeared to be an appetite from Marvel to produce something eerie. The studio chose horror director Scott Derrickson (Sinister, The Exorcism of Emily Rose) for Doctor Strange’s first feature in 2016, although that film ended up playing more supernatural than spooky. It is promising to see Marvel, so too in its selection of Taika Waititi and Chloé Zhao, hedge their bet on filmmakers with distinctive signatures, even if they reign back into a narrative blueprint.
With a director like Sam Raimi, you are all but assured to enter into some spooky territory. (Heck, even Raimi’s Spider-Man films feature some pretty hectic horror blips.) From hauntings to possessions, to jolting door slams and ominous creaks, few directors tease a crowd as masterfully as Raimi – and his efforts in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness prove to be an apt – albeit sanitised – expression in his horror oeuvre. That said, while certain visuals suggest otherwise, this remains a Marvel film, so going in expecting the terror and gore of Evil Dead would be to misunderstand the Mouse House’s desire to be broad. Menace lingers but the scares – by design – refuse to sting.
While the promise of Raimi operating on multiple layers of horror storytelling (the most exciting being when the film functions as a slasher) opens up a whole new world for Marvel, it is just as quickly jettisoned back into its familiar foray of “shocking” cameos and IP cross-pollination. However you take to these gasp-inducing theatrics will ultimately form your opinion of the film. It is because of this that it becomes a rather tricky endeavour to review based on the plot, with the general gist of MoM following the titular silver-streaked sorcerer (Benedict Cumberbatch) journeying between universes to protect a teenager, America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), who is being hunted down for her ability to travel between multiverses.
The film’s predecessor delivered one of the MCU’s most thrilling set pieces, finding Strange traversing through dimensions as though he were falling through a Kubrickian glass ceiling. While we never reach these kaleidoscopic visual highs, we are treated to Raimi’s macabre vision; an array of dimly lit enclosed spaces and brooding red visual motifs. Accentuating this nightmarish vibe is longtime Raimi collaborator Danny Elfman, whose score is equal parts ominous as it is exhilarating. (The dazzling synergy between music and action is best presented in one of the film’s final tussles.) The use of ‘madness’ in the title is both understandable and somewhat of a bait and switch; the studio clearly wants this to be their lean into horror, although only to a point.
As exciting as these production elements are, they, unfortunately, can’t compensate for a tepid mid-section; a common issue of Marvel films flinging characters to alien locations for extended periods. It is here where the sense of worldbuilding collapses, creating a static set-piece (featuring one of the most jarringly convenient tools to explain backstory) that doesn’t capture the full potential of its Multiverse setting. A sense of inconsistency extends to the abilities of its magical leads with the film frequently downplaying their abilities to flagrant effect. Of course, you don’t have an actioner without conflict, yet when the story so aggressively bends over backwards to make itself work it becomes apparent that some additional screenplay tweaks are required.
The cast of MoM does a fine job portraying characters thrown into peril, with the film’s deeper theme of moving on from loss – each character owning some responsibility from past trauma – offering some of the most vulnerable performances we have seen in the MCU. While newcomer Chavez proves a natural, this is very much the Strange and Wanda/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) show; the latter demonstrating the biggest range and holding down the emotional crux of the film. Rounding out the supporting cast is a slew of familiar faces, including the talented likes of Benedict Wong, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, and Hillary Clinton. (Okay, maybe not the last, but do expect some surprise faces.)
Overall, MoM is an enjoyable ride, and with Easter eggs and fan service aplenty, MCU aficionados will no doubt find plenty to enjoy. On a more critical note: While MoM showcases new spaces for Marvel superheroes to frolic and brawl, it reinforces Marvel’s hesitancy to deviate from its repertoire – a feat that wouldn’t be so glaring had the film not presented itself as otherwise. It’s a Marvel film built with clear commitment to a carefully configured audience – and an example of Marvel holding those reins tight, no matter who you are as a filmmaker. (Now that is scary.)
‘Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’ opened in Australian cinemas on May 5th and U.S. cinemas on May 6th.