Of the 27 films released in the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far, if there was one flavour these films lacked or rather did not play with was horror. In comes director, Sam Raimi, and the standard template of MCU transforms into a terrifying, gritty, and dark world. The new offering from Marvel Studios and the 28th MCU film, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, is visually stunning, refreshing, and scary — all in all a heady tempering peppered with moments of fan service.
Although Multiverse of Madness is a sequel to Doctor Strange (2016), the events of this film take place after the developments in Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) and Disney+ Hotstar web series WandaVision (2021).
At the end of No Way Home, Dr Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) had already cast a forbidden spell to open a portal to the multiverse. Now, while he struggles to restore the balance, he stumbles upon a young girl named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) who also possesses the power to travel through the multiverse.
The origin stories of most superheroes or supernatural beings are mostly alike, and America is no different. She is riddled with self-doubt, grief (as she learns that her parents died at the time she came to know about her superpower) and cluelessness about how to control her power. Dr Strange encounters America when she is chased by an enormous one-eyed octopus. This kind of ‘meet-cute’ between two superheroes or supernatural creatures is a segue into a more threatening phase. As the trailer shows, it is Wanda Maximoff, or rather, Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), who is wreaking havoc and is after America’s powers.
Unlike most MCU films — which are about saving the world — Multiverse of Madness may appear out of place. The film is more about ‘saving America’ and dealing with one’s inner demons. But in my opinion, this is where the film shines. The fight for the greater good has mutated into characters wrestling with their own inadequacies and grief. At various junctures in the film, the characters ask each other — “Are you happy?”. The answers are never simple and give us a glimpse into their messy lives.
Scarlet Witch in Doctor Strange’s world
There are several moments where I questioned the title of this 126-minute long film. Written by Michael Waldron and based on Marvel Comics, the film should appropriately be named ‘Scarlet Witch ft Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’. Not to say that Doctor Strange does not have enough screen presence. He is, of course, the spine of the film but it is the Scarlet Witch who outshines him on more than one occasion.
Olsen, who has portrayed the role in previous MCU films too, played the titular role in Marvel Studios’ maiden web series WandaVision. Wanda’s character picks up from where the web series ended.
For the uninitiated, Wanda’s alter-ego Scarlet Witch had discovered ‘Darkhold’ at the end of the Marvel show — a book possessing the evil magic that destroys whatever comes in its way. The book’s antithesis is another book — ‘The Book of Vishanti’ — that Dr Strange is on the lookout for.
If you study the ‘villains’ or antagonists of the last few MCU films such as Hela (Thor: Ragnarok, 2017), Mysterio (Spider-Man: Far From Home, 2019), Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus (Spider-Man: No Way Home), Thanos (Avengers: Infinity War, 2018 and Endgame, 2019), Erik Killmonger (Black Panther, 2018), Xu Wenwu (Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, 2021), you cannot blatantly label them as ‘wrong’ or ‘bad/evil’. Most of these characters are driven by their own version of ‘truth’ that does not seem unreasonable — a trait that makes these characters and films better and richer. But since we are in the superhero domain, the ‘Earth’s mightiest heroes’ must thrive (Avengers: Infinity War being a short-lived exception). At one point in Multiverse of Madness, Wanda says, “You [Dr Strange] break rules, you become a hero. I do the same, and I am the villain.”
The fan in me felt satiated seeing Scarlet Witch’s evolved characterisation but it was equally underwhelming to not see Dr Strange’s evil side — ‘the sinister Strange’. Perhaps Raimi will make up for it in the next installation (referring to the jaw-dropping cliff-hanger).
Imprints of Sam Raimi in MCU
With Multiverse of Madness, director Sam Raimi has officially joined the likes of Jon Favreau, Anthony and Joe Russo, Kenneth Branagh, Taika Waititi, and Ryan Coogler — who have directed one or more MCU films.
Although Raimi is not oblivious to the superhero genre (the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man trilogy), he is famously known as the ‘master of horror’. The Evil Dead series (1981, 1987 and 1992) and Drag Me to Hell (2009) are testament to his knack for creating scary, unhinged, and visually imaginative cinematic worlds.
The layered design and visually staggering shots are fantastical. In one particularly long sequence, when Wanda is chasing a few characters, her demeanour and the direction create some of the terrifying yet best scenes of the film. In another sequence, two characters use musical notes as weapons to attack each other with Danny Elfman’s score playing in the background. While it makes for a stunning visual, it does not cease to be a terrifying scene.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is an exquisite blend of horror and visual escapades delivered by MCU debutant Sam Raimi. Only if it was named after the Scarlet Witch rather than Dr Strange.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)