Tom Santilli is a respected journalist and member of the Critics Choice Association, Detroit Film Critics Society and Online Film Critics Society since 2010. Tom is the Executive Producer and co-host of the syndicated TV show, "Movie Show Plus," which has been on the air for 20+ years in the Metro-Detroit market and Mid-West. He is also the film critic for WXYZ-TV. Twitter: @tomsantilli, Facebook & Instagram: @filmsurvivor.
Those in search of some real answers following the recent string of Marvel's Disney+ series, will find "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness" ("DSITMOM") to be a maddening experience indeed.
But as a sheer piece of blockbuster entertainment, this film delivers, with a wild, rapid pace and some of the best visuals ever created thus far in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). There are clearly some geniuses that work for Marvel Studios...but their collective effort seems unable to keep the MCU continuity from tangling itself up in giant knots, resulting in a truly dizzying - and increasingly tiring - exercise for the loyal viewers to take part in.
(Plot Spoilers to follow...you've been warned!)
Call it "Marvel fatigue," but it seems harder than ever to keep track of what exactly has been going on in the MCU since the events of "Avengers: End Game." That film - the biggest movie in box office history - is now three-years-old, and the entirety of the MCU since then seems like it has been spinning its wheels. Don't get me wrong, there has been some incredible content and story-telling, from "WandaVision" to "Loki" and to the recent "Moon Knight" on Disney+. But everything seems to be setting us up for whatever that "next big thing" is. And for many of us, we had hoped that this new Doctor Strange movie would start tying loose ends together.
"DSITMOM" is now the 28th (!!!) film in the MCU, but unlike pre-2019, we have more than just movies to catch up on if we want to be "in the know." And who doesn't? One does not invest an entire decade of their lives to a film franchise just to quit now. But the confusion and increasingly complexity within the MCU is becoming palpable. A popular viral joke in the past week had people online trying to inform others as to what movies were required viewing heading into "DSITMOM." It's funny, because we all are experiencing the same thing. Do I need to cram in the most recent MCU film, "The Eternals," before seeing the new Doctor Strange? (The answer is no). How about "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings," or "Black Widow"? (Also no). "Spider-Man: No Way Home"? (Not required, but it is referenced).
The frustrating magic that Disney and Marvel Studios has conjured up, is that it makes us want to consume EVERYTHING, because we don't want to miss out on what might be important. But no longer are we getting an "Avengers" movie every couple years, each of which pushed the story forward yet tied-in all of the stand-alone films that preceded it. Thanos, for example, first appeared in the MCU during an end-credit scene of "The Avengers" back in 2012, with that storyline not wrapping up until 2019! So it's not that the fandom can't handle a slowly-building storyline...it's just that we do need to see progress forward...an over-arching connective tissue that propels a "main" storyline into the future.
You might be able to pick up on where I'm going with this. The title alone - "Into the Multiverse of Madness" - teases us that we're finally going to get real answers about the multi-verse...a concept that has been around in the MCU since the first "Doctor Strange" film released back in 2016, and which was heavily expanded upon in the "Loki" and "WandaVision" series. Incredulously, nothing - and I mean nothing - from "Loki" is relevant to "DSITMOM." "WandaVision" instead, is the main required viewing heading into this film, and mainly because it informs us as to the Scarlet With/Wanda Maximoff character (brilliantly played by Elizabeth Olsen) and her motivations. Also, the surprisingly amazing animated series, "What If?" becomes relevant, even if not in the way most of us might have thought.
It's one thing to have to watch a few films to get ready for an "Avengers" film every couple years, but the added weight of having to not only watch a few films, but several 6-10 hour-long streaming series as well, is quite the ask. We are ready for the MCU to take the next step towards the "next big thing." But worst of all, this incredibly complicated "multiverse" isn't exactly straight-forward story-telling, and the audience needs to be educated on how this concept works within the MCU. We accept what we learned about it in "Loki," and what "What If?" expanded on. "DSITMOM" seems to take the limited knowledge we have about the multiverse and throws it out the continuity window.
In "DSITMOM," (the second actual film in the "Doctor Strange" film series), we find Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) having terribly upsetting dreams. He's still second-fiddle to the actual Sorcerer Supreme, Wong (Benedict Wong), and Strange is still brooding over his old flame, Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). At the beginning of "DSITMOM," Strange attends Palmer's wedding, as a guest. That's when a giant octopus creature shows up, along with a multiverse-jumping teenage girl, America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez). Sensing that there is foul magic involved, Strange seeks out his old Avenger pal, Wanda Maximoff, but realizes that Wander - er, The Scarlet Witch - is actually behind the octopus creature, and she needs to harvest Chavez's powers in order to get her two young children back...who exist in other planes of the multiverse but not the one where she currently resides.
The remainder of the film becomes a ride through the mind-bending multiverse, as Strange and Wong try to protect Chavez from Scarlet Witch. They encounter a different universe where Baron Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) - Strange's friend-turned-foe back in his original timeline - introduces Strange to a secret team of minds calling themselves "The Illuminati," who have come together to try to regulate and make sense of the multiverse...I guess. During The Illuminati sequence, there were two major audible GASPS, followed by applause, when two different well-known characters made their first canonical MCU appearances. I won't spoil that.
Much is being made about director Sam Raimi's influence, and it's clear why he was chosen to tell this particular tale. With a resumé of not only massive, crowd-pleasing superhero blockbusters (he directed all three of the Tobey Maguire "Spider-Man" films, Raimi also brought the cult-favorite "Evil Dead" films to life (or to death?). "DSITMOM" delights in its PG-13-style horror, with zombies, monsters, evil spirits and other dastardly demons playing a large role in what goes down. What he creates from a visual standpoint is nothing short of breath-taking. Despite the whirlwind of CG and non-stop action, this film never feels muddled or over-cooked, which in and of itself is a massive achievement.
It is now clear that Wanda aka The Scarlet Witch is the most powerful being in at least our corner of the multiverse. She goes up against and shreds the best that Strange and "the good guys" have to offer. The only thing that can stop her (and her evil book of spells that she draws power from, called the Darkhold), is a magical book of "good," the antithesis to the Darkhold, which is located somewhere in the multiverse.
If you don't know what a "MacGuffin" is, it's an old term used in fiction to describe an object, or a device, that only exists to serve as a plot trigger. Think of "the Arc" in Indiana Jones, or The Tesseract in the earlier MCU films. Miraculously, "DSITMOM" utilizes TWO MacGuffins: The "book of good" that they continuously search for, but also the character of America Chavez herself. Chavez is so poorly developed and so disappointedly under-utilized that she is actually a walking, talking MacGuffin: She exists solely as a plot device, as something the other characters chase after and seek out, providing nothing substantial as an actual character. "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of MacGuffins"? "The MacGuffins of Madness"? Both would have equally been acceptable subtitles.
The disappointment comes from the tools and characters that Raimi COULD have had at his disposal but that someone at Marvel chose not to give to him. Are you kidding me that we're given a movie where there are multiple Doctor Stranges, and even a "Sinister Strange," but that we never see the "Dark Strange" character that stood out from the "What If?" series? If that character went to the literal ends of the universe only to discover that there was no way to save his love, Dr. Palmer, then how is there a timeline in this film where she has gone on to become a multiverse scientist?
In "What If?" we learned about "fix points" in the timelines, where certain things cannot be avoided regardless of which multiversal plan of existence you go to. Where was that concept here? And if there really are infinite parallel universes, now spinning out of control due to the events shown in "Loki," does any of this really matter? This movie must take place after "Loki," otherwise you'd think the Time Variant police would have been all over the place.
Marvel has backed itself into a narrative corner and has created a fatal paradox within the MCU: There are no longer any stakes, because anything that happens, we know there is a universe somewhere out there where it DIDN'T happen...characters can die only to be replaced with alternate versions from elsewhere. With all of this now exposed in the MCU, the entire Thanos saga loses its heft and emotional importance.
Wanda is so desperately wanting to be with her children in another timeline - a very specific timeline - and the "moral lightbulb" that goes off late in the film seems to be that she would never be able to be happy even if she were to replace the alternate version of herself. But with infinite timelines, isn't there any timelines out there where an alternate Wanda has children but is struck by a car and dies? Has cancer? Wants to commit suicide? Wouldn't it be a "clean swap" if our Wanda just came in at those exact moments and claimed the expired Wanda's personality and life? None of this "dream-jumping" nonsense would be necessary. And taking this further, couldn't Wanda simply reunite with Vision in some other timeline where Vision still lives?
The MCU created this mess, and the viewers are the ones that are being left to pick up the pieces at this point. But the longer time marches on without any real answers, or real resolutions to the seemingly millions of plot threads blowing throughout the MCU multiverse, the less patience I believe fans will end up having. There is simply too much content, and too much great storytelling elsewhere.
"Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness" is a fun, entertaining and sometimes horrifying bit of popcorn cinema. Taken on its own, it's a real trip. I'm really on the fence as to whether I find it "Fresh" or "Rotten" in the grand scheme of things, but I think it will be a better experience the second time around when my expectations for real answers subside.
In effect then, this is actually the invert of what is normally said about MCU films, where sometimes movies aren't a "complete film" and only exist for the larger narrative. This movie however, loses all credibility when viewed from the viewpoint of the larger narrative, and is at its best if you can think of it on its own, as if it exists in a vacuum.
Speaking of vacuums, "DSITMOM" definitely doesn't suck...but it sure left a big mess.
[This movie does contain two end-credit scenes, so stick around to the very end].
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Horror.
Run Time: 2 hours 6 minutes.
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen, Benedict Wong, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Xochitl Gomez.
Directed by Sam Raimi ("Oz the Great and Powerful," the Tobey Maguire "Spider-Man" trilogy, "The Quick and the Dead," "A Simple Plan," "Army of Darkness," The Evil Dead," "The Evil Dead II," "Darkman").
"Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness" is in theaters on Friday, May 6th, 2022.