After “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” I was a little apprehensive about the Marvel Cinematic Universe exploring more of the Multiverse. Sure, seeing guest stars from two other universes was great and all, but I was (and still am) worried that the MCU will use the Multiverse as an excuse to do whatever it wants. Years of continuity can be undone with the writers just shrugging and saying, “The Multiverse.” Don’t get me wrong, some course corrections may be worth making (can we get Michael B. Jordan’s “Black Panther” villain Erik Killmonger back somehow?), but if they’re overdone, the movies will become stakeless and uninteresting.
The good news is that “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” doesn’t fall into this trap. Aside from a rapid-fire sequence in the middle, this movie only spends significant time in four or five universes. We get a variety of settings without the movie overdoing it, like the imaginative-but-cluttered “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” For a movie about the Multiverse, this movie was a lot more grounded than I expected, and I mean that in a good way. The bad news is that I couldn’t really get invested in the story in any universe, and of course I don’t mean that in a good way.
Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is unsatisfied with his life post-“Avengers: Endgame” People blame him for the completely-necessary five year “blip,” his former girlfriend Christine (Rachel McAdams) is getting married to someone else, and he has a recurring nightmare in which he’s unable to save America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a teenager with the ability to jump between universes.
Chavez is being hunted by Wanda “Scarlet Witch” Maximoff, who wants to fatally drain her of her powers so she can hop to another universe and reclaim her children, who were born and lost in the MCU TV series “WandaVision.” Best case scenario: Chavez is in life-threatening danger. Worst case scenario: the fate of multiple universes is in danger.
Strange and his temple’s army, led by Wong (Benedict Wong) fight diligently to protect Chavez from Scarlet Witch, but ultimately it is decided that a change of venue is in order. Strange and Chavez hop universes, and end up in one where Strange is put on trial before a council of other Marvel characters. This lineup includes a returning Mondo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), though most have yet to be seen in the Disney-owned MCU. I had heard in advance of one cameo, so I wasn’t taken off-guard, only to be taken completely off-guard by another one I hadn’t heard about. Sadly none of the council members put up much of a fight against Scarlet Witch, who has never been treated as more than a B-level Avenger at best.
I know I said the fate of multiple universes “might” be in danger, but the stakes never seem to involve more than the lives of the core cast of characters. And sorry, but these are not the most interesting characters in the MCU. Chavez is just a scared teenager, Christine a standard love interest, Scarlet Witch a glorified entitled brat. Even Strange himself has never been a favorite of mine, with a demeanor too similar to Iron Man’s, though Cumberbatch and his unconvincing American accent can never match Robert Downey Jr’s charm. Their lives don’t mean much to me, is what I’m saying.
It all adds up to an absolutely typical MCU movie, save for some creative, sometimes shockingly violent touches from director Sam Raimi. But even he seems to be on autopilot at times, often revisiting familiar tropes like a Macguffin-y book, zombies, evil doppelgangers, and a cameo by an actor he likes. Granted, it’s a funny cameo, maybe the funniest part of the movie, but it’s completely expected from Raimi. For a movie whose very title tells us to be prepared for anything, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” can never quite deliver the right amount of chaos.
“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, frightening images, and some language. Its running time is 126 minutes.
Robert R. Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. His weekly movie reviews have been published since 2006.