Hear the cry of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) loyalist: “Oh you’re all ‘make original Marvel film with proper directors,’ but when you get one you’re all ‘No, not like that!’”
Well, that's pretty much it. A fair case could be made – and I'd be the one to make it – that Chloé Zhao, Oscar-winner, and Sam Raimi, populist master, have directed two of the MCU's weakest films. Zhao's aesthetic worked against the nap of the misbegotten Eternals, but there was every reason to believe Raimi, untouchable from The Evil Dead through Sony's Spider-Man and up to Drag Me to Hell, had the stuff to make something of the second Doctor Strange film. We were promised a dash of horror, a smidgeon of psychedelia and a splat of black humour. Those things are there but they have been allowed to curdle in the no-jeopardy CGI pottage.
A lot has happened since Scott Derrickson’s fine Doctor Strange from 2016. Yes, half the Avengers died before those remaining used magic jewels to kill a giant maniac. More to the current point, Disney+ emerged and the MCU shifted from being a mere franchise to a media epidemic. To be fair, you don’t need to have seen WandaVision to follow the plot of Multiverse of Madness, but those who come with no such prior knowledge of that TV show will find themselves working to fill in the gaps.
Raimi is allowed a few moments of characteristic invention. But nothing here suggests there is much room to manoeuvre within the Marvel straitjacket
Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) visits Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) at her bucolic farm after a terrifying encounter with a giant one-eyed octopus in New York City. He has been introduced to America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a gay-coded teenager who can travel between multi-verses, and feels Wanda can help them disentangle the complex many-worlds scenario the considerably more lucid Spider-Man No Way Home teased at Christmas.
Heaven alone knows what happens then. But, 20 minutes after the opening credits, we are thrust into a mind-bendingly confusing Saturday-morning-cartoon hallucination that takes us from spooky mountain to anti-New York and on to a meta-haunted house. Suggestions in the pre-publicity that this is Marvel’s first horror film prove to be so much eyewash. After a good hour and a half, Raimi gets to rework some of his greatest hits, but those sequences are crudely grafted on to an adventure that never ventures far from Marvel’s signature middle-to-lowbrow. You may think it beneath me to make a joke about Scooby and the gang ripping off a rubber mask to uncover the creepy fairground owner, but it seems life is full of disappointments.
Strange himself remains pitched between pastiche and pulp. Waving his arms in front of his face as if directing the world’s tiniest traffic, Cumberbatch can’t quite shake the impression of an old-school conjurer in a tacky end-of-the-pier revue. Olsen works damn hard in a series of parallel roles that write whole volumes of footnotes beneath the Scarlet Witch’s biography. Gomez does all she can do with Robin to the Doc’s Batman. But the multi-verse conceit – allowing almost any character to survive elsewhere if killed here – strips the film of even the superficial jeopardy that usually hangs around such things. It is impossible to care.
And then there is, heaven spare us, the fan service. We are not allowed to be specific, but a mid-film sequence featuring surprising variations on familiar characters – imagine Daffy Duck as a rooster, SpongeBob SquarePants as a donkey and Dracula as a vicar – serves little purpose other than to tempt wiseacres into recreational spoilage. All this is rendered in endlessly alienating computer-generated imagery that allows backgrounds no solidity.
The film is not a dead loss. The sheer chaos of the thing is welcome in an age when big-budget films travel along too-straight lines. Raimi is allowed a few moments of characteristic invention. But nothing here suggests there is much room to manoeuvre within the Marvel straitjacket. A disappointment.
Released on May 5th