Recent Movie: Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
There's a moment early in the new Doctor Strange movie that seems to promise something genuinely dark. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is attending the wedding of his ex-girlfriend Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). He ends up seated next to Nic (Michael Stuhlbarg), a former colleague from his days as a surgeon, who informs Strange that during the five year interregnum when they were both reduced to dust by Thanos, his brother died. Was there, Nic asks, really no other way to defat Thanos than the one Strange chose?
And for a moment, you feel it. The sheer existential terror, the crippling despair, of existing in a universe in which the very fabric of your reality is subject to the whims—or even the considered decisions—of not just cosmic beings like Thanos, but ordinary people like Strange. The sort of people you might end up chatting to at a wedding, while having to swallow the knowledge that they have determined the course of your life—often without even knowing that you exist. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness has been billed as the MCU's first horror movie, and it indeed has no shortage of jump-scares, monsters, and gory death scenes. But to my mind, nothing in the movie matches the intimation of horror in this early scene—which is perhaps why it almost instantly turns away from it.
Strange doesn't have time to consider Nic's question, or to dwell on his sorrow over having screwed things up with Christine, because before the canapés have even been served, a giant tentacle monster appears on the streets of New York, in pursuit of America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a teenager with the power to jump between alternate universes. America is being hunted by a creature who wants her power for itself, and has already been helped by one alternate Strange, who died in the attempt. Our Strange decides to consult Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), who is licking her wounds in rustic seclusion after having (unwittingly?) imprisoned and tortured thousands of people, as depicted in WandaVision. But Wanda almost instantly turns out to be the creature pursuing America. Somewhere in the multiverse, she explains, versions of the sons she created by magic and then lost still exist. She wants to absorb America's powers (killing the girl in the process) in order to travel to that universe and supplant the Wanda who lives there.
If Multiverse of Madness has one key virtue, it is that it's a movie that moves. It's one of the shortest MCU movies in years, but it also feels genuinely fleet-footed, its plot in constant motion. With America in tow, Strange bounces from one universe to the next trying to escape Wanda's relentless pursuit. Sam Raimi, who is superhero film royalty for having directed the first Spider-Man trilogy, shows off his stuff here not only in envisioning these alternate Earths—Earth 838, an eco-utopia where the streets of New York are dripping with greenery and pizza comes in ball form; a destroyed, nameless Earth where the buildings and landscape are eroding into the mists; a quick flip though a dozen universes as Strange and America fly through them, including one where everyone is a cartoon, and another where people are blobs of paint—but in constructing elaborate, dynamic set pieces within them. Strange and America escape Wanda from the fortress of Kamar-Taj, through tunnels under the river, and in a broken space between universes where they bounce from one bit of wreckage to another. Along the way, Wanda gets the opportunity to kill characters both familiar and new in a variety of inventive and gruesome ways.
It's perhaps because of all this forward motion that Multiverse of Madness ends up shortchanging its characters, even when their growth and self-discovery are clearly the very heart of the movie. America is charming enough, but fails to pop in a way that has become worryingly common with potential phase four headliners like Shang-Chi and the Eternals. More importantly, for a movie that is ultimately about Strange figuring himself out by getting a glimpse of all the many paths he could have taken, Multiverse of Madness seems pretty vague on the notion of who its title character actually is.
One by one, Strange's alternates turn out to have surrendered to evil—like Wanda, they've used the evil codex, the Darkhold, to explore their alternate lives, and become consumed by envy and regret. There's a potentially interesting idea here. By wallowing in pain—Strange's heartbreak; Wanda's grief—and cutting oneself off from humanity, one becomes susceptible to evil. Strange is able to withstand the pull to evil that his alternates succumbed to because he connects with America and learns to value her life above his own desires. (Wanda, on the other hand, looks at a lost, motherless child—into whom she could have put the love and care she has for her lost sons—and sees a battery.) But the execution is thin and unconvincing, for the simple reason that we don't know Strange well enough to buy either his alternates' fall to darkness or "our" version's ability to withstand that pull. After six years and as many movies, he still feels like a collection of tics wrapped in a sentient cape. And the rush of plot in Multiverse of Madness leaves no space to develop the character, much less persuasively argue that his experiences with America and Wanda have led him to some sort of emotional breakthrough.
A developing consensus around the film is that it "does Wanda dirty" by making her such an out-and-out villain. (Or by rooting her motivation in motherhood, an objection I find bizarre on its own, but all the more so given the absence of similar objections to WandaVision, in which Wanda cast herself as a sitcom housewife.) I find this claim baffling. As I wrote in my review of WandaVision, Wanda is a person who has experienced terrible loss, and who has repeatedly felt justified in hurting innocents in response. Using America in order to get what she wants—and lacking the basic compassion to see that what she should have done is help her—feels entirely in character. Still, much like Strange's redemption, Wanda's descent doesn't quite land. The film—perhaps cognizant of the fact that Olsen might still be persuaded to appear in more movies—is clearly pulling its punches, always a little too sympathetic towards her. A little too willing to accept that her actions—slaughtering the monks of Kamar-Taj, gruesomely working her way through half a dozen heroes, trying to kill America, all in the service of kidnapping two boys who aren't even really her sons—are commensurate to the greatness of her loss. When, as that scene with Nic at the beginning of the movie reminds us, everyone on the planet has experienced similar grief over the last five years.
Still, that's not a problem with the character, or even the movie. That's a problem with the MCU itself. As we've been saying since the bizarre decision to ignore the consequences of Thanos's snap in Avengers: Endgame, and as I discussed in my WandaVision piece, it has increasingly become clear that no one in this universe, beside the headliners, is real. If we admitted their reality—if we took a moment to think about people like Nic—we'd end up curled up on the floor in the fetal position. We wouldn't be able to enjoy the adventures of Stephen Strange, sorcerer and man-about-town, because we'd be aware of how much damage he and people like him leave in their wake.
At the end of the film, Strange admits to the Christine from Earth-838 that he wants to open himself up to other people, but is afraid to. It should be a big moment, but it's hobbled by our awareness, even if it's only subconscious, that there isn't really anyone to connect to. Doctor Strange and Multiverse of Madness starts from a solid premise: take the two Avengers who are the most self-absorbed, the least driven by compassion, and challenge them to be a little less narcissistic. But you can't do that when the fictional universe your story is set in has had narcissism woven into its very fabric. The problem isn't that Strange can't change—it's that the world around him isn't built to allow him to.
For all the technical flair that he brings to this movie, it's a bit sad to see Raimi—who gave us the bridge scene in Spider-Man, and the train scene in Spider-Man 2—forced to work with such thin material. Those earlier films understood that the essence of superheroes is that they love people. The MCU knew this back in the day—you see it in Avengers or in Iron Man 3. But somewhere along the way it lost that knowledge. At some point, the only people who matter became the ones with superpowers. And the result has been that the entire fictional universe started losing its soul. It will take more than one stylish movie to fix that.