Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) By Sam Raimi - Movie Review
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) Director: Sam Raimi Writer: Michael Waldron Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen, Xochitl Gomez, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jett Klyne, Julian Hilliard, Hayley Atwell, Anson Mount, Lashana Lynch, John Krasinski, Patrick Stewart, Charlize Theron, Bruce Campbell Runtime: 126min Rated: PG (Canada) PG-13 (MPAA) for intense sequences of violence and action, frightening images and some language.
Listen here for audio of radio interviews about films from a Christian perspective with Pastors Ted Giese and Todd Wilken on IssuesEtc.org where Christianity meets culture. (This review includes some spoilers - in the radio interview Ted also mentions that Sam Raimi made a baseball movie "For Love of the Game" (1999) which stars Kevin Costner and Kelly Preston)
A lot has happened to the character between the first film and this film: He helped defeat the Malthusian intergalactic villain Thanos (Josh Brolin) in Anthony and Joe Russo’s Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Endgame (2019) and became foolishly entangled in Spider-Man’s multiversal-web in Jon Watts’ Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021). Due to ‘the blip’ caused by Thanos’ use of the Infinity Gauntlet, Doctor Strange, along with half of everyone in the universe, vanished for five years. During that time his fellow Kamar-Taj sorcerer Wong (Benedict Wong) was elevated to the role of Sorcerer Supreme basically demoting Doctor Strange. In Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness Wong and Strange — who because of Spider-man have some multiversal experience — team up to protect a teenage girl with the power to traverse the multiverse, America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), who is on the run from an unknown evil seeking to steal her powers.
It is quickly revealed that the villain seeking Chavez is The Scarlet Witch an evil alternate dissociative identity of the Avenger Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen). She is still grief stricken over the loss of her partner The Vision (Paul Bettany), and apparently psychologically broken by the events of Jac Schaeffer's WandaVision (2021), the Disney+ TV mini-series. In that story Maximoff had conjured up a kind of ‘bubble universe’ enslaving the small town of Westfield in which she and The Vision lived happily ever after as an American sitcom family complete with two precocious young boys Tommy and Billy Maximoff (Jett Klyne, Julian Hilliard). After Maximoff utilized the evil magical grimoire called The Darkhold, her dissociated self —The Scarlet Witch—emerged. In this film she uses magical dream-walking to seek a universe in the multiverse where her imaginary boys are real and she can be their mother even if it means murdering a multiverse version of herself. The Scarlet Witch believes absorbing Chavez’ power is the key to make her fantasy a reality.
Are all these details important to keep straight? Not really! Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness resembles an intricate sandcastle or perhaps a big swath of cotton candy; the moment it rains it all dissolves. This is the kind of disposable film that rewards low expectations and the more it is contemplated the less impressive it becomes. For some it will be exciting and visually compelling in the moment but will likely fade away quickly because in addition to its disposable nature the film feels like a place holder and not a cohesive story of its own. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness seems more interested in advertising where Disney is going with the MCU as it bridges various MARVEL products than in telling the continuing story of Doctor Stephen Strange.
Who is America Chavez? Intending to appeal to Disney’s idea of what a stereotypical young person might want to see, the multiverse traveling Latina character is a teenage girl with a pride flag badge on her faded American-flag-inspired denim jean jacket complete with the phrase “amor es amor” Spanish for "love is love," and Mexican Day of the Dead sugar skull detailing. She’s also a bit of a socialist espousing disparaging ideas about having to pay for food which apparently isn’t the case in any other multiverse she’s visited. Readers of the comic books in which she was introduced in 2011 will know she is a lesbian, and her mothers are lesbians and while they apparently meet their demise heroically in the comic books here in the Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness they are accidently sucked into a star portal when Chavez first discovers she has the power to open star portals between multiverses. She doesn’t know how to control this power at first because it only happens when she is frightened, but by the end of the film she is given the generic bland advice to “Trust yourself, trust your power,” which unlocks the greatness that was there all along. All of this, by the way, is rather boring and could easily be just as boring to the very audience it’s intended to excite or appease.
The America Chavez character essentially operates in three ways:
First, she is a walking MacGuffin. A MacGuffin is a material plot device that drives the story; without it the story would be a different story. Think the small lead falcon statue of John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941) or the stolen data-tapes of plans for the Death Star in George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977) or the fictionalized Ark of the Covenant from Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) or the infinity stones and gauntlet in the MARVEL films culminated in Anthony Russo & Joe Russo’s Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Endgame (2019). (Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness has two more MacGuffins but hang in there, they will be dealt with later.) Here Chavez is the MacGuffin that The Scarlet Witch is trying to catch and use while at the same time she is the MacGuffin that Doctor Stephen Strange is trying to protect and keep from danger. As the MacGuffin, Chavez is also the key to everything; hence everyone is interested in her.
Second, Chavez operates as Disney’s virtue signal within the MCU because secular and leftist North American society and ideology values many of the things her character embodies: not male, not conservative, not ethnically or racially ‘white,’ not from a patriarchal family and not ‘cisgender’ in her sexuality. The Disney entertainment empire has doubled down on including this kind of representation in its films, parks, publishing, and streaming service. For some this will be welcome, for others it will not have gone far enough, and for many it will come across as pandering. Clearly, North Americans no longer live in a monoculture and this puts Disney in a bit of a financial pickle if it wants to attract the widest possible audience. All of this leads to one of the most unintentionally amusing lines in the film when the multiverse Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel Mcadams) asks: "Is America ok?" This may be a sort of litmus test for viewers if they hear the question as a non-sequitur about the state of the United States of America. Also, having Chavez’s first name as America leads to people saying things like “we have to save America,” which sounds just a little odd.
Third, Chavez seems intended to operate as an audience surrogate. In literature this is a proxy for the reader; a character who asks the things the reader may want to ask or says and does things the reader would either do or fantasize about being able to do. This is typical in super-hero comics, films, and TV programs. Who wouldn’t want to be the most special person in the universe (multiverse) and the key to everything with special powers to boot? Mileage will vary on this third aspect of Chavez’s character basically because the character is so perfectly tailored to fit a particular ideological profile.
What are the other two MacGuffins in the film and how do they fit into the plot? They are two books. The first is an evil one previously mentioned called The Darkhold; the other is a good magical book called The Book of Vishanti. This fabled second book is supposed to give readers exactly what they need to solve their problem whatever it might be. In this case Strange hopes to use The Book of Vishanti to stop The Scarlet Witch from capturing America Chavez and absorbing her powers potentially wreaking havoc through the multiverse. A good chunk of the film revolves around obtaining The Book of Vishanti only to have it turn out to be a red herring. Doctor Strange can’t use the book and in the end must fight fire with fire using a multiverse copy of The Darkhold to use the same sorts of dark arts magic used by The Scarlet Witch in an attempt to defeat her before it’s too late.
Sam Raimi, who famously directed the horror films The Evil Dead (1981) Evil Dead II (1987) and Army of Darkness (1992) which all involve the MacGuffin of an evil Lovecraftian magical book called The Necronomicon, would seem a good fit to make the over the top and often slapstick Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness with its possessions and magical incantations. He’s also the director of Spider-Man (2002) Spider-Man 2 (2004) and Spider-Man 3 (2007). However, whatever Raimi’s vision was for this film seems lost in translation. There could be an interesting story here—somewhere—but it’s so convoluted with fan service and multiverse winks and nods that it’s almost obscured beyond view. For instance, Doctor Strange isn’t even the hero of his own movie. He only helps support Chavez who sets up a scenario in which The Scarlet Witch defeats herself. So, each of the three central characters are essentially fighting themselves. In a scene reminiscent of the James Algar The Sorcerer's Apprentice segment in Fantasia (1940) Doctor Strange fights an evil three-eyed multiverse version of himself using musical notes; Chavez for her part needs to learn how to believe in herself to defeat her fears and poor self-esteem in relation to her super hero powers thereby in a way overcoming herself; lastly The Scarlet Witch is defeated when she is shown the error of her ways by a multiverse Wanda Maximoff after which she chooses to destroy herself to protect everyone thus defeating herself in the process. If it wasn’t for the special effects and wiz-bang CGI this plot would sort of be like three people playing solitaire next to each other occasionally sharing hints about which card to play. From a Gnostic point of view this sort of self struggle amounts to each character engaging in a kind of alchemical Magnum Opus or spiritual transmutation.
In a film that feels like a giant cul-de-sac there are a couple other convoluted dead-ends thrown at the viewer, one being the incorporation of elements from the multiversal Bryan Andrews Disney+ What If...? (2021) TV mini-series in which Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) is Captain Carter with the Union Jack on her vibranium shield (Episode 1) and a grief-stricken Doctor Strange uses the Eye of Agamotto in a dangerous effort to stop Christine Palmer from dying so they can be together only to devolve into a villain (Episode 4). In Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness viewers find Captain Carter along with the Fantastic Four’s Reed Richards (John Krasinski), the X-Men’s Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), Black Bolt (Anson Mount), Baron Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Captain Marvel (Lashana Lynch) as part of The Illuminati—a multiverse variation on The Avengers. In this segment The Scarlet Witch fights and defeats each member of The Illuminati in a woke order of privilege starting with the white male Reed Richards and ending with the multiverse version of Captain Marvel. Apart from Professor X verifying that Wanda Maximoff is truly suffering from dissociative disorder the whole thing basically ends up operating as a way to advertize how Disney may be planning to incorporate their newly acquired properties of MARVEL’s Fantastic Four and X-Men previously franchised to 20th Century Fox.
Strangely the one multiverse/time-travel franchise not touched on in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is Michael Waldron's Loki TV mini-series (2021) which is likely for the best. This is strange because Waldron is the writer of both this film and the Loki series which suggested that there would be some continuity between the two. This oddity only further highlights one of this film’s greatest weaknesses: even with all these points of connection between other MARVEL films, comics, and TV shows the whole endeavour seems to lack a firm grounding in the franchise. The film has no heart and soul! The one thing that might have provided that emotional grounding would have been a scene between The Vision and Wanda. He is mentioned in passing but strangely The Scarlet Witch is more focused on finding a way to her imaginary children than on the original source of her grief: the death of Wanda Maximoff’s soul mate.
Are there elements from which a Christian viewer can glean any insight? Doctor Strange’s choice to fight fire with fire regarding The Scarlet Witch shows a kind of hubris Christians should avoid. He uses The Darkhold occult magic, believing so firmly in himself that, while other versions of himself and other individuals like Wanda Maximoff had been harmed using it, he of course would not. This approach proves faulty and his use of The Darkhold only proves that the book, as he was warned, “exacts a heavy toll,” from those who use it. Scripture forbids Christians from involving themselves in the occult (Exodus 22:18 Galatians 5:19-21 Revelation 21:8). The Acts of the Apostles even gives an account of people giving up their sorcery to become Christians and burning their occult books (Acts 19:19). Also, Scripture specifically forbids a Christian’s involvement in necromancy (Leviticus 19:31 and 20:6; 2 Kings 23:24) which this film portrays with Doctor Strange manipulating a zombie version of one of his multiverse selves. When people are enticed toward using the occult, regardless of the effectiveness of such attempts, Scripture encourages them to turn instead to their God (Isaiah 8:19). As obvious as it might seem it is also good to remember that when Doctor Strange reanimates the corpse of one of his multiverse selves this is not Christian resurrection of the dead. The Bible doesn’t teach that Jesus re-animates the corpse of His body following His crucifixion. His resurrection is not that of a zombie; it is perfect and whole not a dead marionette manipulated from afar by dark magic.
Another thing to consider, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness continues to slip metaphysics in the back door. All through this review there is talk of occult books and magic, sorcerers and witches and the film also talks about demons and gods. The MCU already has the pantheon of Norse gods with its Thor films and recently introduced the pantheon of Egyptian gods in its Doug Moench Moon Knight (2022) Disney+ TV mini-series starring Oscar Isaac and Ethan Hawke. MARVEL is no longer dealing with concrete materialism as was the case with films like Jon Favreau's Iron Man (2008); now it’s dealing with questions of life and death, and abstract concepts like identity, time, space, and what it means to be and to know. On the one hand this is a good thing because it keeps the conversation about these things alive in the public square of ideas on the other hand the direction this film takes follows a dark path forbidden to Christians. This by the way is not new to Doctor Strange and has always been a part of the comic book series. Had Disney wanted to avoid these sorts of questions and themes they could have opted to avoid characters like Thor and Doctor Strange.
With that in mind every viewer, regardless of their personal beliefs, will need to measure what they know and confess is true against what they watch. As silly and shallow as Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness might seem it’s no exception. Another rather obvious way this film deals with metaphysical ideas is in its assertion that “Dreams are windows into other multiverse universes” and what a person dreams is true somewhere in some other universe for a different multiverse version of themselves. This sort of premise is based on an assumed probability. But probability is not reality. The effect this approach has within this film is to suggest that whatever is up in one universe might be down in the next and with a multiplicity of universes what is good in one place may be evil in the next, in this way Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is underpinned by the moral relativism of postmodernism. If the absurd nature of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness invites viewers to honestly wrestle with the reality of the world they live in that would be good.