There’s something amiss in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I fear it has become a victim of its own success.
After setting box office records with 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame,” the culmination of a three-phase, 22-movie plan to conquer the international film landscape, Disney-owned Marvel has stumbled badly with its Phase 4 entries, delivering one worthy feature (“Shang-Chi”) and two lackluster efforts (“Black Widow,” “The Eternals”). But really, it was an unrealistic expectation to think it would reach the pop-culture heights it did after two epic films that brought its many characters together, many suffering fates that effectively ended their big-screen usefulness. Once you get the whole gang together, it’s going to be pretty hard to impress with solo adventures focused on second-string heroes.
Still and all, “Dr Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” seems to have everything needed to right Marvel’s listing ship — a fan-favorite character, a veteran genre director and the promise of breaking exciting new narrative ground.
Unfortunately, the magic is missing, as Sam Raimi’s curious misstep never has a feeling of urgency, the film spinning its wheels and falling into the trap all of this ilk are susceptible to — namely, leaning on prolonged, needless action sequences meant to distract us from its flimsy narrative.
The story is as thin as onion skin — Strange (the indispensable Benedict Cumberbatch) must trip across various universes to stop former ally Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olson), who’s wreaking all sorts of havoc. Not having learned her lessons from the trials she endured during “WandaVision,” she wants to find a world where she can live life as a suburban mother.
Problem is, she can’t get to where she needs to go without a bit of help, which is where America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) comes in, a visitor from another dimension with the power Wanda needs to go to any other universe. Strange realizes she’s too unstable to have this power and pursues her and her hostage through various dimensions.
That’s it. Nothing more.
Having teased fans with three Spider-Men traipsing about in “No Way Home,” the expectation here is that various incarnations of Thor, Hulk, Iron Man and the lot would be on full display. After all, we get three Dr. Stranges for the price of one! Unfortunately, that is not the case and proves to be a major disappointment.
Yes, we’re introduced to two different versions of established heroes, a long-missing favorite and a HUGE surprise once Strange is forced to answer to the group known as the Illuminati for his universe-tripping transgressions. It’s a show-stopping moment, to be sure, but it’s wasted as these characters are soon brushed aside, a move that compounds the viewer’s previous frustration.
To be sure, there are moments. It’s good to have Rachel McAdams back as Strange’s lost love, Christine, with her courage a good counterpoint to Strange’s arrogance, while the film’s theme of being true to yourself and those around you, while obvious, isn’t belabored.
However, these films have fallen into the trap of adhering to a structure that’s grown predictable and passe. The massive, extended battles that end each act, the last-minute act of redemption, even the post-credits sequences — all have grown stale, at least in now three of the Phase 4 features. The makers of these films are coasting, following the template, which stifles inspiration and ingenuity.
What with the first three “Spider-Man” films to his credit, I expected more from Raimi. I suspect his distinctive style was quashed by Marvel’s corporate imperative and the result is a very expensive missed opportunity.