It’s fitting that the film’s release date was Mother’s Day Weekend, and that its acronym is MoM, because it’s all about warped mothering instincts. It actually seems to be pitting a Bad Mom against a Good Dad, which I’d be fine with if the story was stronger. Unfortunately, this is one of the rare Marvel movies that I couldn’t really buy into. This is a particular bummer because I’ve loved Sam Raimi since I saw the first Evil Dead back when I was… twelve? Thirteen? And I LOVE the first two Spider-Man films, and I’ll make a case for about half of the third one, and I was excited to see what he’d do with Strange.
And to be clear, there is a good movie trapped inside Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness—but we only see glimpses of it, a rad Yeti appearing in the blurry background of a polaroid.
[Spoilers for Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness below.]
To dispense with the plot: Stephen Strange is deeply unhappy. We know that because people keep asking him if he’s happy, and he says “Yes” with all the brittle delusion of a Raymond Carver character. He attends Christine Palmer’s wedding, and somehow thinks it’s appropriate to bring up their long-gone relationship during a five-minute conversation. (Christine also drinks red wine while she mingles with guests in her white wedding gown. Christine is the bravest person in the MCU.)
Of course, there’s a monster attack, and Strange has to swing into action float down to the street with his cloak, battle a monster, banter with Wong, and have a superheroic meet-cute with America Chavez, the monster’s intended victim. America talks Stephen and Wong through the concept of Multiverses, the fact that she’s able to move through them, but can’t control this power, and the fact that at least one AU Stephen betrayed her and destroyed her trust in him.
Strange attempts to get help from another hero, his plan goes awry, and he and America flee through the Multiverse, meeting other heroes while Stephen tries to come to terms with himself. If he’s a good person—and he thinks he is—why are so many of the AU Stranges terrible? Is it possible that he’s as big a villain as the person pursuing America? Is it possible that that villain isn’t really a villain at all?
These are interesting questions, and I’m sad to report that the film doesn’t deliver on them. There are some excellent setpieces, and wonderful Raimi horror imagery, but I think this is the first Marvel movie since Age of Ultron that I just couldn’t engage with.
If you’ve been on social media at all, or followed the Marvel Disney+ shows, it should be obvious that the person Stephen approaches for help is Wanda. He only realizes after he’s said wayyy too much that she’s the powerful force that’s pursuing America across the Multiverse. Her motive is simple: she wants to take America’s power to hop into another part of the Multiverse, where she can be with her boys. The fact that this will mean killing a young girl and displacing another version of herself is not enough to slow her down, let alone stop her. So we’re left with two hours of a woman who used to be one of the most complex characters in the MCU losing her mind because she doesn’t have children.
I’ll admit that this whole arc doesn’t sit too well with me, over Mother’s Day weekend, at this exact moment in U.S. history.
But again it could have been great, and Elizabeth Olsen does an incredible job both with giving the role emotional nuance, and with diving fully into the film’s horror aspects. Knowing that she dreams of Billy and Tommy every night is a gutpunch. When she finally meets up with a version of the boys, and they scream in terror at the witch who has invaded their home, it’s heartbreaking. But tying that grief to Wanda’s Terminator-esque determination to murder another child for her own needs, and her relentless killing of anyone who stands in her way, finally tips her too far into villain territory for her arc to have real depth. And since the film somewhat mirrors her howling rage with Strange’s lukewarm romance with Christine Palmer, the film’s emotional arc gets bumpier and bumpier as it goes. We’re given Wanda, willing to destroy reality itself if it means she gets Billy and Tommy back, and Strange, mumbling about how Christine gave him a watch one time.
Meanwhile America Chavez has a much more compelling storyline just sitting there, and rather than chase that down, the movie uses it as a way to humanize Strange by forcing him into Cool Surrogate Dad mode—you know, the thing the MCU just did with Tony Stark? And then we get into the Multiverse itself, which sucks all the stakes out of everything,
If Wanda gets America and takes her power, America will die, and the Multiverse might be… destroyed, I think? Or realities will collide, causing an incursion? But I only have a foothold in the Multiverse from watching What If…? and Spider-Man: No Way Home. I only care about Wanda because of WandaVision—and this Wanda does not seem like the character who felt genuine remorse at the end of her television series. I’ve only just met America, and she seems cool, but her backstory is buried in so much exposition that I can’t completely care about her, either. And after everything I’ve watched Stephen Strange go through, living through Endgame however many thousands of times, I’m supposed to care about whether he gets back together with a woman he had already broken up with before his first movie? Where, again, this plot was already done in the cartoon that I saw on Disney+ nine months ago?
Meanwhile, the thing I was invested in, the continuation of his journey as Doctor Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts, is completely buried. We can see he’s miffed that Wong is Sorcerer Supreme, but he doesn’t seem to be working to improve on his own Mystical Mastery. We see him meet an AU Mordo, whom he immediately trusts and accepts despite their history together. There’s a battle at Kamar-Taj, but there’s no indication why one wizard is more powerful than another. There’s a fun freefall through the Multiverse, but I feel like Into the Spider-Verse did this in a way more inventive way.
Xochitl Gomez does her best with a thankless role, where she’s either explaining that she doesn’t know how to control her powers, being A Sarcastic Teen in a Sam Raimi Movie, or screaming her head off because she’s being murdered. The only characterization she gets is that she blames herself for the loss of her mothers—she opened a portal by accident and they were sucked through it together, and then she, too, went cartwheeling through the multiverse. (Again, happy Mother’s Day weekend!) She assumes they’re dead, but my more pressing question was: how the hell has she survived all these years? And why is she so clean? And not an utter traumatized wreck? The one time we see her steal food she immediately gets caught. She’s willing to open up to Strange and Wong, and seems to genuinely care about Strange’s feelings for Christine Palmer, when really I don’t think she’d care about anything but finding a place to live, and eat, and try to plan a search for her mothers.
One thing that especially bothered me: Strange’s hands only shake occasionally, he punches things, gets in an actual brawl with Mordo. I speak now as a person with several disabilities, one of which is centered in my hands—I don’t punch anything, ever (and not just ’cause of the pacifism). When it was really bad, back in high school, I literally walked with my right hand tucked into my stomach, like I’d been shot, to make sure no one would graze against it in the halls—because that could mean hours of pain. An even now, when the pain is usually only an echo of what it used to be, even if I’m having a good day, even if I’m having a good month, I don’t punch, I don’t slap, I don’t high five. My issues? Nowhere near as severe as the damage Stephen dealt with in his first film. I’m nowhere near as traumatized as he was, and I really don’t buy that he’s going to engage in wizard fisticuffs.
Also why are the wizards punching each other??? Use magic, you dorks.
And okay I could see that maybe that seems a little nitpicky, but my point is that I was looking for anything to hold on to in this film. And moments that felt human, or real, or like they mattered. I knew that as soon as Marvel went full multiverse stakes and consequences would be thin on the ground, but I didn’t expect to feel like I was in freefall the whole movie.
And finally (deep breath). If you’ve read any of my stuff on this site, you’ll know that my particular fascination is religion and the way it intersects with pop culture. Obviously, Strange was always going to deal with this a bit—it’s about magic, a man who is forced to reject his former materialism for sorcery, and who goes on a quest that is kind of an update of the old ‘70s hippie trail, following mystical teachings and hints of transcendence until they lead him to Tibet Nepal Shangri La Apple Corp Kamar-Taj.
And that’s fine! Or it would be if the movie committed to exploring how that magic intersects with the rest of the MCU. But here what we get (a week after Moon Knight seemed to imply that a ton of people who do not subscribe to the worship of the Ancient Egyptian pantheon still end up in an Ancient Egyptian afterlife) is a Doctor Strange who can “dream-walk” using the Darkhold, but in order to dream-walk he has to evade the “souls of the damned” who will try to—I assume, given this is Raimi—drag him to Hell?
Okay, but… what? What does Hell mean in this context? Is it a physical place, a part of the Multiverse that people can travel to? And who damned these souls, anyway? Is there a special feature on Thor: Ragnarok that I never saw, where the literal Asgardian gods pass judgement on the souls of the dead? And why is Stephen Strange, a white rural US-ian who moved to the big city and became a doctor, using a mystical technique that’s actually a real thing done by some Indigenous cultures and some New Age-y Wiccans? Strange is already part of a weird riff on Tibetan Buddhism that he learned from an Ancient Celt, so I know, we’re pretty far afield—but then why not just make up a dream-travelling practice? Why use a term that describes something that real people do in our world?
To go back to Thor: Ragnarok, we see Thor (and Loki, a little) praying for Odin in Valhalla, and later, when Thor battles Hela, it’s implied that Odin speaks to his son in a near-death vision. Cool! The gods of Asgard do the things that inspired Norse religion! This makes sense! In Moon Knight, there’s all sorts of stuff where people who are, for various reasons, invested in Egyptian religion interact with gods and realms from that pantheon. Again, cool! The Egyptian pantheon is, it turns out, also literally real, and interacting with humanity! This also makes sense until you think about how Marc Spector is Jewish, but I am NOT getting into that here! But still: Why is Strange battling the souls of the damned? Who’s damned, and why? Like, are Hitler and Thanos and Ulysses Klaue and Blackbeard and the starting line of the 1976 Philadelphia Flyers all trying to grab Strange? And why do they care that Strange is using the Darkhold?
Maybe not everyone cares about this stuff the way I do. But I’m already living in a world where Thor can turn out to be real, a Jewish mercenary can face the judgement of Osiris rather than Yahweh, and Matt Murdock can still think he’s a good Catholic even after killing like eight billion ninjas, and I just need some solid ground here.
But remember when I said there’s a good movie in here? I meant that. There are moments when Raimi goes full Raimi that are fantastic. The eye creature that attacks America is fun as hell. Watching Wanda take out the Illuminati was incredible. First the film introduces John Krasinski as Reed Richards, Lashana Lynch as Captain Marvel, Hayley Atwell as Captain Carter, Anson Mount as Black Bolt, and, of course, Patrick Stewart as Charles Xavier. There are pauses for the audience to applaud. (My audience did not.) And then, having set up their import, we get to watch Wanda tear through them all like tissue paper, and it’s fun, at least if you’re a sick bastard like me. Reed Richards is streeeeeetched and bisected until he’s torn apart; Black Bolt’s voice is directed back into his own head so his brains burst inside his skull; Peggy Carter is sliced almost in half with her shield, which then lodges in a stone pillar; Wanda snaps Charles’ neck when he ventures inside her host’s mind. But nothing gold can stay, and the dark fun is cut short by the fight with Captain Marvel. Two overpowered characters just pummel each other with ever bright beams of light, until Wanda finally drops a statue on top of the other woman.
Wanda possesses another version of herself and shuffles through a prison facility like we’re suddenly in a superpowered Resident Evil, which is great, but only a preview for Raimi’s commitment to giving us more Marvel zombies. The scene where Strange dream-walks into his alternate self’s corpse and pilots it over to a final battle with Wanda never quite hit the heights of Ash vs. Evil Ash in Army of Darkness, but it came damn close. Watching Zombie!Strange break free of his grave and shamble up to the camera with a half-rotted face? Heck yeah! Seeing him defeat the souls of the damned and fashion them into wings to fly himself over to Wanda for the final fight? Excellent. And then to turn the souls themselves into a prison for Wanda, who has used the Darkhold way more than him? Gorgeous. No notes. (Except for the part about why are there damned souls in this universe and why do they care about the Darkhold and what is cosmology here? Okay, so three notes.)
And then there’s my favorite thing, the thing that I wished could have been most of the movie. Stephen finds yet another version of himself hiding away in a beautiful, crumbling gothic manor version of the Sanctum Sanctorum, and fights himself. They have an intense conversation, and Gothic Stephen opens a third eye in the middle of his forehead that calls some excellent Evil Dead moments to mind, and then they circle each other for a wizard fight. But unlike the battles with Wanda and Mordo, this isn’t just people either flinging balls of light at each other, or people punching. Instead, they fight with music. They lift notation from sheet music, and pluck sounds from piano keys and harp strings, and hurl actual music at each other like Dark Universe Fantasia characters, and it’s beautiful. (I’d say “no notes” again, but there are a lot of notes!)
And of course I can’t leave this review without giving special accolades to the King himself, Bruce Campbell, who has an adorable cameo as a pizza ball seller (And seriously, Marvel, if you want to market this stuff maybe give us pizza balls? I want a pizza ball.) and proves he’s still extremely good at beating the crap out of himself for Sam Raimi’s amusement.
I also guess I should weigh in on the horror element, since people seem to be worried about it. There was not a single thing in this movie that scared me. Hell, there wasn’t a single thing in this movie that would have scared me when I was ten. The only images that I could see lodging itself in someone’s consciousness are maybe the eye monster’s defeat (if you happen to have an issue with eye stuff, but we’re not talking about Fulci’s Zombie here) and, more likely, the scenes with Black Bolt. The scene where he executes an AU Strange by whispering the words “I’m sorry” is genuinely upsetting, and Black Bolt’s final scene, when Wanda turns his words back on him to kill him, was the one moment when our theater gasped aloud. But nothing here has the impact of, say, the Tree Scene in Evil Dead, or any of the insect stuff from Drag Me to Hell, or, to speak of purely PG-13 matters, the heart-ripping scene in Temple of Doom, the intensity of Jurassic Park, the jumpscares in Arachnophobia… the horror here is almost all fun riffing, and doesn’t feel designed to actually scare anyone.
But this overall, this is what I’ve been afraid of. Expanding the Marvel Cinematic Universe, bringing in the concept of the Multiverse, throwing pantheons at the wall to see which ones stick—it’s feeling more and more unwieldy with each film. I enjoyed Spider-Man: No Way Home a lot, because there was a real beating heart in there—but I do have to admit that if I didn’t go in loving Tobey Maguire’s and Andrew Garfield’s Peters Parker it might have fallen flat. I thought The Eternals asked some fascinating questions, but it was impossible for me to lose myself in it the way I lost myself in, say, Winter Soldier or Black Panther. I liked Shang-Chi a lot, but it was another goddamn origin story.
I also want to be super clear that I’m only being this critical because I love Sam Raimi’s work, and I like what Benedict Cumberbatch has done with Stephen Strange. I was excited by the promise of a Doctor Strange story that was a gonzo horror film—I think that movie got lost in the machinations of the MCU.