A Manic, Middling Mess
For many people, Avengers: Endgame felt like the swansong of the MCU. This movie brought together a combination of everything that made the Marvel Universe great, producing a natural close to 10+ years of lore, character building and development. This beautifully written and poignant end involving Thanos will forever go down as one of the best moments in cinematic history. At least in recent times anyway.
With many of the core Avengers moving on, and a new roster of heroes ready to take their place, many speculated over what this new Phase of Marvel would entail.
With a certain virus spreading across the globe, Marvel turned its attention to small-screen projects instead, most notably WandaVision, Loki, Hawkeye and Moon Knight. Each had their own strengths and flaws, while the big-screen efforts largely feeling like misfires than genuine epic blockbusters.
Black Widow’s long-awaited big-screen appearance (that meant nothing because we ultimately know her fate) was quickly forgotten while Eternals, which admirably tried to do something new but felt slow, meandering and drawn out, failed to unite the fanbase.
In many ways, Mutliverse of Madness feels like the polar opposite of Eternals. At least in terms of pacing anyway. It’s a breathless, constant assault on the senses; a film that desperately needed a few more rewriters and at least 30 minutes more to give its narrative time to grow and give the characters some depth. What we get however, are a barrage of visually impressive action set pieces, drawn together by paper-thin characters and flimsy motivations.
Ironically, it’s not actually Doctor Strange that stands out here. I wouldn’t go so far as to say he plays second fiddle to his own movie, but there’s definitely emphasis on other people here for long stretches of the run-time.
Most notably, that accolade turns to Wanda, who soon becomes a much more integral part to Strange’s movie than Strange himself. The trailers feel like a massive misdirection over what this film’s story actually is too, and while I’m not about to go into spoiler territory here, it is important to know what you’re getting yourself in for before you turn up to theatres.
The story begins with an out-of-context chase sequence through the multiverse. Doctor Strange, sporting a ponytail, is joined by runaway teen America Chavez who happens to have the power to conjure forth portals into different universes. When her version of Strange dies, she jumps into our reality, bumping into Doctor Strange, courtesy of a massive octopus that threatens to destroy Earth.
It turns out this octopus has actually been hired as an otherworldly assassin by a much more powerful sorcerer that wants to harness America’s power to take over the multiverse. This, of course, is bad news for everyone.
So Doctor Strange enlists the help of Wanda – the most powerful witch he knows – to help him protect America and set the course of the universe straight. Only, he soon realizes that all is not what it seems.
Eventually this culminates in Doctor Strange and America tumbling through different realities desperate for answers to try and stop a larger threat that could well topple the very universe as we know it. The big bad however, is revealed very early in proceedings. I want to wager a guess that it was about 30 minutes in, but given I wasn’t about to check my phone in the cinema, it may be a little later.
The pace throughout never lets up, making it hard to gauge how much time has actually alloted, the jokes very rarely land and the dialogue is woeful at times.
Now, I appreciate that a comic book movie is going to have expository chatter; it comes with the territory. However, there are some particularly egregious examples here that actually feel insulting to fans.
Midway through the movie, a lingering camera stops on a statue, allowing one to read everything it says. The camera pans back to Strange and America…who then repeat, word for word, exactly what we’ve just read on the statue. We know, Raimi! We’ve just read that!
These little moments pop up constantly, and I genuinely can’t tell if Raimi and the writers believe their audience need everything spoon-fed or the screenplay is just poorly written. I’d wager on the latter.
Along the way there are plenty of cameos, easter eggs and nods to the larger MCU universe. Unlike No Way Home though, the nostalgia bait is vapid at best; a cheap way of point-scoring and getting some claps in the audience rather than making this integral to the plot.
The showing I attended, someone behind me clapped when a familiar face showed up, only to then utter “what was the point?” 15 minutes later.
I’m being careful not to spoil anything here but given the implications of the multiverse and what this film entails for Phase 5 in general, Marvel feel like they’ve written themselves into a very messy corner.
I’ll talk more about this in a different article but suffice to say die-hard Marvel fans and talented Youtubers are going to have an absolute field-day picking this one apart.
One of the more understated parts of this movie that doesn’t work is Elfman’s musical score. Now, Danny Elfman is well known for his grand, epic instrumental scores but for Multiverse of Madness it feels so… ill-fitting.
This isn’t helped by the fact the tone in this movie flits back and forth between creepy, dutch-tilt-a-thon jump-scare mania to quirky superhero action and then mind-bending thriller. But yet, the music constantly feels distracting through all of this.
For all of its faults, the cinematography and visuals of Multiverse of Madness are outstanding. The trippy jumps through the multiverse, interesting camera shots and hedonistic rotating shots make this one of the more visually interesting pictures to come from the MCU since, well, Doctor Strange.
That movie had glimmers of what this movie offers but Multiverse of Madness goes one step further. There are fade-shots, blurry edits, fish-eye lens, reflections, overlapping shots and more. It’s certainly quite impressive to see the cinematography in this but the more cynical side of me feels like it’s a distraction for the story.
The best allegory for how I felt watching Multiverse of Madness comes from a recurring gag involving a bewitched man in another universe. He’s forced to repeatedly punch himself in the face. If that’s not the best allegory for how you’ll feel at the end of this exhausting movie I don’t know what is.
A bombardment on the senses, Multiverse of Madness is a breathless, relentless, rushed action flick that doesn’t work. Somewhere out in the multiverse there’s a better version of this film. Unfortunately, the one left in our universe is a manic, messy missed opportunity.
Verdict - 4.5/10