Spoiler free review of the most divisive film of the spring
Jakob Eiseman, Editor-in-Chief
Header Image: Marvel Studios
Shot on Disney’s Volume studio, the visuals of “Multiverse of Madness” are really the key.
I have gone through a bit of a “hater phase” when it comes to Marvel Studios and their constant month-after-month output. Starting as a fan in my youth, naturally I followed the series of what is now well over 30 projects, including their recent forays into television through Disney+, and as time went on I was less and less impressed, chalking it up to me just losing my younger days and accepting that these movies really are mostly for children.
Most of their recent projects have disappointed me to such a degree that I regret going to the movie theater to see them or following them week to week on Disney+, and going to the theater or relaxing for TV nights are some of my favorite pastimes. I enjoyed “Spider-Man No Way Home” for the nostalgia, but other than that, I’ve been pretty bummed on Marvel for a long time.
“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” is a sequel to 2016’s “Doctor Strange,” which follows the titular Dr. Stephen Strange, played by Benedict Cumberbatch (“The Imitation Game,” “Sherlock,”) with a terrible, terrible American accent, a master of sorcery and magic who frequently pops up in these Marvel movies as a helper or savior character due to his wide set of abilities. While I loved “Doctor Strange,” due to its witty dialogue and stunning CG visuals, his appearance in other films left a bad taste in my mouth and I was not in any desperate need of a sequel.
“Multiverse” also serves as a direct sequel to Disney+’s 2021 series “WandaVision,” starring Elizabeth Olsen (“Wind River,” “Godzilla,”) as another magical weirdo, Wanda Maximoff. “WandaVision” is a series that started amazingly, dealing with horror, genre and form breaking, concepts of grief and loss, parenting and other very thought-provoking themes, but eventually descended into poorly choreographed, low-budget “pew pew” CG magic fights for far too long, boring me, and receiving a begrudgingly “good” rating from the Collegian.
I still held some, likely overly-elevated, expectations for their most recent project, and shoved off to the theater on opening night like a Stockholm victim in order to review it for the Collegian, and I am happy to report that this movie was not what I expected, was not what I wanted, but is still getting a glowing review, and I’m happy to have seen it when I did.
So, judging from the fact that this is a Marvel movie review, you can probably assume that I’m not as much of a cinephile or film snob (a term of endearment, I promise) as some of the other members of the Arts and Entertainment staff. I like watching movies for the spectacle, and while I love to dive into plot criticism, learn and feel a connection to characters and feel that I have built up a deep knowledge of filmmaking and filmic language to genuinely debate visual texts, when I go to the theater or commit to a Blu Ray purchase, usually I just want to come out knowing I spent my money on an experience I won’t forget above all else, and that I will want to watch again.
The main crux of “Multiverse” is that it deals with Strange traveling through parallel dimensions to quell a multi-world threat, propping him up again as a hero of his own story, while also resolving the character arc of Maximoff set up in “WandaVision,” and while I can say that this high-concept sci-fi, bizarro world setup seems “too zany,” they handle it well by leaning into the ridiculousness of it, and make it a spectacle of both visuals and rapid-fire storytelling.
While I don’t think the plot is necessarily great, it won’t be winning any screenplay awards, and the writing is cheesy as all hell, that actually added to its appeal for me. This is a popcorn movie, it is a point at the screen and laugh or scream at a cheap jumpscare movie. It’s funny, it’s genuinely scary in moments, it’s over-the-top and all of it is tied together with visuals coming from pouring millions upon millions of dollars into some of the industries best graphic production studios.
The score is also a highlight for me, accentuating memorable themes from previous Marvel projects while also adding in humorous twangs and frightening chords at the right moment. Musician Danny Elfman (“Men in Black,” “Edward ScissorHands,”) composed “Multiverse’s,” score, and as a big Elfman fan, I can earnestly say that while it does not top the harpsichord, mysterious score from the first “Doctor Strange,” it perfectly sets the tone for what this film is, and is consistently good throughout.
But, going back to its Marvel-isms, one of the best parts about “Multiverse” is that after it settles into its second act, it drops the formulaic superhero nonsense, and becomes its own directorial vision that is just so fresh, and proves to me that these movies don’t all have to just be recycled material aimed at making kids cheer. They can be for different audiences, and luckily this one was for me.
I’ll be the first to admit that this movie might have the worst acting I have ever seen from big name actors like Cumberbatch and Olsen, as well as a few cameo actors that won’t be named. Somehow Cumberbatch’s American accent sounds even more over-the-top than normal, and Olsen is totally phoning it in for the first half of the movie. The writing for these characters, as well as the newly introduced super-character America Chavez, played by Xochitl Gomez (“Gentefied,” “The Baby-Sitters Club,”) did them no favors. Chavez particularly got the short end of the stick, with a majority of her lines being so surface level that they aren’t memorable or so deeply emotional, but not earned because of the previous dialogue. I liked Gomez as Chavez and am excited to see more of her in the future, but in this film she did not have a good chance to flex her acting skills.
Once the pace is upped and it becomes more of a horror movie with a breakneck length between scenes, this goofy dialogue adds to its charm, but it takes about 40 minutes of listening to people act like robots to get there in what are supposed to be serious or humorous scenes that just feel like words being read from a sheet.
Honestly, the whole first act of “Multiverse” made me want to leave the theater. It’s the same exact flow as the beginning of any other big budget sci-fi movie, and made every character annoying and every plot point seem inconsequential.
Also, I mentioned that the visuals are the key to “Multiverse’s” success, because for a large part, they are very good, and while not believable, are still a visual feast for those interested in CG technology. A criticism I do have, though, is that this film was almost entirely shot on Disney’s new studio The Volume, which uses giant LED panels to create what was previously a greenscreen background, giving actors something to naturally react to and also helping cinematographers more properly place cameras and light shots. It works, but it is definitely new.
For the most part, the backgrounds appear at least as believable as they were on greenscreen, if not more. But, I believe that production crews at Disney are still getting used to The Volume, and many of the fully CG-background shots were lit terribly, and looked so unnatural and off putting that I laughed out loud in the theater, probably to the chagrin of the packed opening-night crowd.
My final general criticism is that despite being called “Multiverse of Madness” there were only a few universes shown, and there really wasn’t that much madness. The first “Doctor Strange” film has about a 10-minute segment that was nominated for a visual effects Academy Award that takes Strange through so many unique, horrifying, perplexing and visually mesmerizing worlds, all while employing filmmaking techniques to make the audience feel as though they are experiencing it, and immersing them in a fully unbelievable and fantastical world.
In those 10 minutes, I feel like I went on way more of a trip through a realm of ‘madness’ than I did at any point in “Multiverse,” and I also feel like I expected to see dozens of unique and fascinating backgrounds and visually unique landscapes in the sequel, but we only saw about 10 total, and only three different settings were used as tentpole locations for the plot.
And the Raimi
One of my favorite spectacle-first franchises is “Evil Dead,” and any adjacent campy horror-action b movies, and to my surprise, that’s exactly what “Multiverse of Madness” is, albeit with a much, much higher budget. Both “Evil Dead” and “Multiverse” are directed by Sam Raimi (“Army of Darkness,” “Spider-Man (2002),”) and Disney, much to my surprise, did not hold him back from doing what he does best: making a movie that you won’t forget, with editing, story beats, a visual style and overall unity that just make you go “okay, go off Raimi, I see what you’re going for here and I can’t believe someone paid you to do it.”
Raimi is known for his “horror” movies, but I am even hesitant to call them that. Because, while Raimi toys with some frightening concepts and source material, he usually stretches the scares so far that they are mostly a joke, causing me to jump at a loud noise, but immediately start laughing instead of walking home with my head on a swivel. There are jumpscares in “Multiverse,” and there are moments that made me sick to my stomach in terms of body horror (with the PG-13 rating actually making it a bit scarier, because what isn’t shown is sometimes more grotesque than what is) but I would never in conversation call this a horror movie.
By the end, every scene can’t overstay its welcome because the story and set pieces just fly by so fast that you just have to let Raimi pick you up and take you on his wild ride. There are so many made up words, unbelievable mystical elements that break reality and any defined rules within the fiction and moments of violence or spectacle that are so insanely cheesy and riddled with self-referential humor or excitement, that eventually I just let my critical guard down and became a brain-dead audience piece pointing at the screen and cheering for an actor covered from head to toe in prosthetics doing some of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen on a movie screen, and I loved it.
Raimi is not without criticism though, I think most people agree. He has a vision, he commits to it and not a single concession is made by him to not reach it, no matter if it makes the film seem like an 80s b movie as a result. The most egregious example of this over-commitment to the Raimi style is in the editing. Like I mentioned earlier, many scenes are so fast that they aren’t even needed, but beyond this, the transitions and nature of the film being presented could not be more bizarre.
There is a circle wipe in this movie during a serious, important scene (yet another moment of me cracking up in a quiet theater), there are faces dissolving into scenes, the screen is stretched and pulled, there are extreme close-ups on nothing and most of all, there are so many times where we cut from one plane of action to another in asynchronous presentation, but are given no frame of reference for what point in time we are.
Also, again, Rami and his screenplay team are terrible writers of dialogue, and while this adds to the cheeseball movie experience, it does ruin some of the moments that are meant to be heartfelt, serious or grow the Marvel universe for sequels and spin-offs. Additionally, the treatment of some older fan-favorite characters, including Strange himself and Maximoff in many cases is repetitive, and shoves its message of self-discovery and forgiveness down your throat to the point where I want to un-discover myself by the end and never forgive Raimi for how he handled the story in this film.
Should you see it?
Yes, I really think “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” is worth a watch… in just a few specific cases. If you love Raimi’s other work like I do (We don’t talk about “Spider-Man,”) you can’t be disappointed by this, even with its slow opening, because you don’t need character and you don’t need story to enjoy it for that, you just need to sit in awe at the fact that he made millions to make people hit each other with CG magic. If you are a Marvel fan, I also can’t say you shouldn’t watch this. Sure, you’ll probably hate the story and then go whine about it on every forum known to man, but there’s still a lot to love, Raimi-isms withstanding, and I think it’s a satisfying continuation of Strange and Maximoff’s stories.
If you’re neither of those things, which is admittedly an ever shrinking portion of the pop culture audience, do not see this movie. It isn’t for you and you will hate it, I actually promise. You will either not understand the plot or the visual language or both, and will likely feel like you wasted your time and money watching a British man fail to be American while jumping around a technicolor, sometimes poorly lit background for two hours. Might I suggest you watch “Evil Dead,” instead?
For me, personally, as a perfect cross-section of my childhood love for Marvel and my modern love for Raimi, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” is great, I can’t wait to see it again, and I’m giving it a shockingly high 7/10 for my final score.
Come yell at me with your concerns at JDEiseman1@gmail.com.
Editor’s Note: The only reason I chose to review “Multiverse” is because my first article written for the Collegian was a review of another Marvel film, “Captain Marvel,” and I wanted to see how I’ve grown as a writer and editor since. Thank you to everyone who has read my media reviews during my years with the Collegian. I look forward to writing many more, even after I graduate.