How much horror can be injected into the Marvel Cinematic Universe? The answer with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse is quite a bit more than I expected. Coming from director Sam Raimi, a director with a rich history in exhilarating horror with Evil Dead, there’s a solid smorgasbord of horror filmmaking panache present. It’s a good-looking picture but makes one wish it were just an inch more brutal and dynamic to become the horror superhero movie the MCU deserves.
Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) still feels like more of a passenger in his own story despite seeming to be at the center. It would seem he has a more personal mountain to climb with his relationship with Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). While he tries to come to terms with this part of his past, the multiverse is in peril! A mysterious girl, America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), shows up in Stephen’s neighborhood and has some explaining to do about the multiverse and monsters.
The adventure itself sends Strange to more trippy worlds of kaleidoscopic realms, shifting gravity, dark magic, and zombies. He’ll also encounter the returning Avenger of Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), who has a new look and a different perspective on her personal goals. Without giving too much away, her arc is the most intriguing for favoring more of the horror aspects that seemed present but rarely tapped in WandaVision.
The dabbling in the multiverse feels more like a paddle than a plunge considering what’s explored. We only get to see glimpses of the truly trippy ones that involve animation and liquid. The universe we do settle on is only really surprising for the cameos they unearth, not too different from the reunion of villains in Spider-Man: No Way Home.
While I dare not reveal the roster that Strange encounters, their presence feels more par for the course in terms of their reveal. After No Way Home, having so many returning characters feels more standard than surprising, especially when the film places a big bow on this scene, opting for the loudest collective gasp and cheer from the comic book crowd. I can at least appreciate that these additions are better woven into the horror narrative and share some of the more experimental grounds present in the Marvel anthology series What If.
The sad problem with such a picture is that it doesn’t really give much room to expand with the characters. Benedict Wong is still a charming presence as Stephen’s superior sidekick of Wong (still acting as sorcerer supreme) but he doesn’t have much change in his character besides being an all-around great sorcerer. Strange’s previous nemesis of Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) fits far too snugly into his role. Chavez also struggles to be little more than her greater role in the central conflict of the multiverse, existing more as a prop than a player at times.
The biggest strength of the film is clearly Raimi’s direction. Plenty of dutch angles, disorienting zooms, and cackling monsters populate this picture. Visually, the film looks gorgeous and colorful with its dark staging of multiple universes and terror of the dark magical forces. Yet this aspect feels frustrating because of how much the film looks like a Raimi movie but rarely has the same dynamic as his previous pictures.
Strange just can’t muster the wit as the straight-faced wizard with nobody to play off of as he did in Spider-Man: No Way Home. It’d be an understandable choice if this film went deeper down the dark hole of horror but Raimi’s films always have this giddy approach to horror. Those finer touches of the absurd seem muted by a serious arc for our hero despite going down some downright goofy and grotesque avenues. There’s one particular scene that is an absolute hoot of horror staging and yet the punchline delivered for this amazing moment is a mere “I don’t even wanna know.”
This is a frustrating film for almost being a wild horror entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe but never going further than some visual flourishes. It certainly does feel like a Sam Raimi film with more than a few of his hallmarks populating this picture, which should put the Raimi fans at ease. But it also feels like a film that is a mess of busy characters who rarely have a moment to piece together their personalities when they’re not piecing together the multiverse. It’s still a real treat for the eyes but it’s clear that there was a lot more effort put into staging Doctor Strange fighting a weird cyclops monster than his interpersonal struggles.