Benedict Cumberbatch is back as everyone’s favourite sorcerer, but the superhero fatigue is setting in as even Sam Raimi can’t conjure up anything unique.
A word of advice: do your homework. As in, do your maths homework and then do your Marvel homework. You’ll need to press play on at least the following: Doctor Strange, Avengers: Infinity War & Endgame, Spider-Man: No Way Home, WandaVision and What If…
Those are the minimum requirements to understand and enjoy Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness. Perhaps I’m too harsh, but the narrative feels incomplete without the broader knowledge of the MCU, the character dynamics and the history. If you’re up to date on everything, you’ll probably at least enjoy Doctor Strange 2, but some of it might ring hollow and confusing if you’re unfamiliar with the aforementioned examples.
Doctor Strange 2 begins with a bang; Doctor Strange and an unknown teenage girl are running in space from a monster, trying to get to a glowing book which holds the key to defeating the monster. Just as Doctor Strange is about to perish at the hands of this monster, our Doctor Strange wakes up, perfectly safe in his bed. It was but a dream after all.
But soon enough, another monster attacks and targets the girl from Strange’s dream. This sends the pair, along with Wong and Wanda AKA Scarlet Witch on a pretty trippy adventure across the multiverse.
There is a lot to love in Doctor Strange 2. Benedict Cumberbatch seems to have a particularly good grip on his character and his chemistry with his co-stars is dynamic and interesting. Benedict Wong, playing Wong, is the MVP, providing both lighthearted humour as well as reminding us of the bigger picture and stakes.
While Xochitl Gomez is delightful as new recruit America Chavez, her character is reduced to a plot point. She’s captured, then freed, then captured and tied up again until someone frees her. She lacks agency and a personality, as hard as Gomez is trying to infuse her with some. But Gomez is likeable enough to promise great things for the character in the future.
The star of the show is Elizabeth Olsen. Olsen portrayed Wanda Maximoff, the powerful Scarlet Witch, in Avengers: Age of Ultron in 2015 for the first time and it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. Fans of WandaVision will be rewarded here with an emotional conclusion to all the themes left in the air at the very last episode of that show, even if Wanda’s journey feels like a subplot, something worthy of its own film or perhaps another season of WandaVision.
Sam Raimi, director of Evil Dead and the very first Spider-Man from 20 years ago, does his best to inject some sort of style and flavour into the flaccid Marvel machinery. There is plenty of horror in Doctor Strange 2 and these moments are among the best in the film. Doctor Strange 2 goes about as far as Marvel can when it comes to frightful thrills and gore. The gnarliness is only implied but sometimes implied is enough and here’s where Raimi excels.
The biggest problem with Doctor Strange 2 is just how messy and tonally uneven it is. Don’t get me wrong, I whooped and hollered in the cinema because I am not above getting excited over some pretty spectacular cameos. But the cameos at times feel like manipulative tools, designed to win over our affection and admiration and ignore the poorly developed characters or erratic plot.
Even though Doctor Strange 2, at 2 hours 6 minutes, is one of the shortest Marvel films, it feels drawn out. There might be plenty of trippy imagery and Raimi’s style bleeds through, but this is a film with more style than substance. When Doctor Strange 2 works, it really works, but more often than not, it just doesn’t. And I take no pride or pleasure in saying that. Wanda’s arc and Olsen’s performance carry the film and I can’t wait to watch it again, but mostly for her.