At times like this, I find myself wishing that Iron Man and Captain America were still around.
Not because they are iconic characters, but because they can carry the entire MCU on their backs when needed. Since Avengers: Endgame, the franchise has been flailing about trying to find a new leader. It couldn’t be Thor since he is fronting whatever magic Taika Waititi has next, it couldn’t be Spider-Man because Sony wanted to big a piece of the proverbial pie, and Far From Home showed how stupid it would be for a teenager to take up Iron Man’s mantle. It couldn’t be Hawkeye because no one has ever wanted that, ever. So, now it is the turn of the former Sorcerer Supreme (I’m so happy Wong’s promotion stuck), Doctor Steven Strange, to have a go.
Multiverse of Madness is a complete mess of a movie, even for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It has all the ingredients of a great blockbuster: sequel to a successful origin story, starring an actor who has had his best reviews in his already impressive career as well as his second Oscar nomination, a brilliant director returning to his comic book roots, and an excellent choice for the main villain. Except not a single aspect of this works the way it is supposed to.
I liked the first Doctor Strange movie, but it was just a basic origin story with visuals that did an okay job at dressing up the very standard stuff that was going on. The sequel tries to build on this, including Strange’s appearance in the last two Avengers movies, and somehow seems more shallow than the previous movie. There is a question that Steven is asked a lot in the movie: “are you happy?” That’s a stupidly humungous question that doesn’t sustain the kind of yes/no answer a blockbuster needs to keep ticking. Also, I found myself giving a total of no shits as to how Strange was feeling because he isn’t a very deep character to begin with.
I think my apathy towards the character is partly the fault of the writing and also the typecasting of Benedict Cumberbatch. I think he is a great actor – I frothed at the mouth at his talent in Sherlock like everyone else – but he is just playing yet another one of his obnoxious geniuses that it’s all getting a bit boring to watch. There is good ideas here: considering the power level of Strange, his happiness and abillity to change reality is a genuine concern. The fact that the MCU version of the character is the most heroic of the multiverse is a nice touch too, but it all feels so shallow.
Sam Riami is one of my favourite directors of all time and his first two Spider-Man movies wipe the floor with most of the MCU, but the house style and factory settings of Marvel dampened his directorial voice here. Madness has the director self-consciously trying to jam his hits into proceedings as if desperately reminding us all that he is the director. We have Evil Dead references, Bruce Campbell cameos, a giant Xena statue (which I loved) and jokes about Spider-Man’s webbing, none of which made the kind of impact they should have. Give him Spider-Man 4 and leave him the fuck alone to do it.
Ticking the Romance Box
Christine is lucky she is played by Rachel McAdams – that way she isn’t a total non-entity, but I have to ask: does anyone care whether her and Strange get together? This might be the dullest MCU romance yet because at least Jane gets to be Thor.
The Conflicted Villain Corner
I’m conflicted about Wanda being the villain. I thought she was easily the best thing about the movie, with her rampage allowing a bit of full Raimi, and Elizabeth Olsen is as compelling as ever, BUT IT DIDNT MAKE ANY SENSE! This isn’t so much the fault of Multiverse of Madness as it was of the poor planning between the end of WandaVision and now. When we meet Wanda, she has been taken over by the Darkhold, the MCU’s book of evil that she took from Agatha. She is now the embodiment of the Scarlet Witch fueled by the same grief that was thoroughly explored in her own show.
The problem is that, by the end of WandaVision, Wanda was kind of let off the hook despite taking over a town and using its people to act out her coping strategy. The show felt like it was saying “it okay, you sad”, something that soured me on a really great show up to that point. All of this means that the really important bit, how and why the Darkhold got its claws into Wanda, happens offscreen. Simply put, the MCU took one of its best characters and gave her the same treatment as their worst villains. It certainly doesn’t help that Wanda and Steven have no previous connection except that they both use magic.
Wanda was always going to become the Scarlet Witch, but she is completely wasted on a movie and hero that doesn’t fit her. If anything, she should be the Thanos of this Phase. She’s the only Avenger who properly lost everything in the Infinity Saga, meaning that a turn to the dark side, battling her former friends was always going to be powerful. All of that potential, like everything else in this movie, is wasted here.
Despite everything it had going for it, Multiverse of Madness is the worst movie of Phase Four so far. I hope it can only go up from here – but I’m not confident.
(header image via The Guardian)