WARNING: Spoilers Ahead.

Dr Strange’s second solo outing, the Multiverse of Madness (MoM), is here. The trailers looked great, and Strange’s first solo movie was a surprising and visually mind-bending affair. So, my hopes were fairly high. And… it was okay.

Sam Raimi, whom I am most familiar with for his original Spiderman movies, directs, and Loki writer Michael Waldron bring us a 2hr feast of jumping through the multiverse, lots of cameos and fan service, a living MacGuffin, universe-sized stakes, and the regulation third act CGI-fest battle.

Of the things I liked in the movie:

  • The cameos – I won’t say too much more on this, but Marvel continues to listen to its fanbase and desires – I hope we’ll see much more from these cameos in the future. Stand-alone features from different multiverses are not out of the question.
  • There are some nice call-backs and references to those who have followed along in the Disney Plus series of ‘WandaVision’ and ‘What If’, as well as the most recent Spiderman movie. While it’s not overly necessary to see those series before watching the movie, it will substantially help in understanding the motivations of Wanda and Strange.
  • The witty dialogue and quips are still there – this is Stephen Strange after all – but it felt far more toned down than in previous movies. Not a bad thing, and perhaps a helpful move for Marvel to save up their quips for good moments.

So, what made this movie okay – not great, but not terrible?

Director and Cinematography

Let me start with the director, Sam Raimi. Raimi was picked to helm this production, from what I understand, primarily because of his horror sensibilities. I heard rumours early that MoM was going to lean into this darker genre – and in some ways looking back on this movie, it was ripe for this. The story had plenty of elements and the potential to be quite scary.

Only, it wasn’t.

The jump scares weren’t jumpy enough. The gore was kept off-screen. The tension just wasn’t built up. Some elements were discomforting – visuals, such as the Sanctum Santorum in one of the multiverses looking not only dishevelled but with doors that opened up to stormy seaside and staircase leading ominously upwards. It was a beautiful set piece. But then it descended into two Dr’s fighting each other with musical notes and accompanying orchestral score to match. The tone in this battle just didn’t work.

The direction and camera work are also quite… normal. For an attempted horror styled genre it felt flat. I mention this because I quickly recall this fantastic video from Nerdwriter1 on how director Alfonso Cuaron changed up the style and tone of the Harry Potter franchise through his direction. It’s a wonderful study of how to use the camera to convey a sense of unease.

MoM needed more of this.

The MacGuffin: America Chavez

Next, is the introduction of America Chavez. While this outing was only an introduction to her character in this movie – and I’m interested to see how her story gets developed – she plays the role of the MacGuffin in a straight way with very little agency. While some exploration into her backstory was attempted, it still wasn’t quite enough to help us connect and engage with her. So, every time her life was on the line it didn’t feel that big – and the small arc she is given at the end didn’t feel earned. It was all a bit rushed.

What she lacks in agency she more than makes up with screams and terror as she’s constantly hounded. Tis the life of a living MacGuffin I suppose.

The Stakes

On a related note, Chavez’s character plays a central role in Wanda’s plans and motivations. But the stakes are once again super high – the universe is on the line. Mucking around with the multiverse in this way opens up our universe to potential destruction.

Marvel – please, you’ve got to stop this. The stakes don’t need to be so big so often. In fact, it seems in the most recent movies that the stakes work best when they are much smaller – for instance, in Spiderman No Way Home. Sure, there were big stakes in regards to multiverse characters entering our universe, but the movie’s stakes centred primarily around Peter’s friendships. Smaller in size yet still very weighty, more personal, and with a greater ability for audiences to connect. We know what it’s like to have friends and fear losing them – and No Way Home played on that well.

So, enough with the entire universe being at stake – or even the multiverse. Give us some real personal stakes.

Wanda’s Character Arc

But probably my biggest gripe with the movie is Wanda’s character arc.

While the movie doesn’t totally rely on the viewer having seen WandaVision you will do yourself a big favour to do so. If you haven’t seen WandaVision, I don’t think it’s a big spoiler to say that the series very cleverly walks through the 5 stages of grief (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance) with each episode, culminating in a big battle against a fun villain.

The arc of Wanda in that short series was highly satisfying. After the events of Avengers Infinity War/Endgame have finished, and with time to reflect, Wanda’s grief becomes all-consuming. The loss of the love of her life, Vision, leads her down a dark path as she enslaves an entire town to create a life and world for herself in which she is married to Vision and have children together. Through each episode we see her go from denial of any pain, bargaining to keep her family life, anger in defence of her family, depression as she realises her world is not what she hoped it would be, to full acceptance that the townspeople are suffering because of her and she must let go of her children and Vision to make things right. By the end of the series, we have satisfyingly walked through grief with her to a place where the loss is still there but she has embraced it.

Unfortunately, MoM walks all of that back.

Where she seemed to embrace acceptance by the end of WandaVision, in MoM she’s back to being obsessively driven to see her children and will use anyone and everyone to get to her ends. She labels her search one of love, but what she does demonstrates anything but love – or at least a twisted and grotesque version of it. How did she end up there? There’s some explanation to the effect that the Darkhold (an ancient book of spells fed by the Dark Dimension) she is seen reading at the end of WandaVision has corrupted her, but it’s all given in exposition.

And it’s all too brief.

So, when Wanda acts in a villainous tone it comes across as unbelievable that the character we grew to know (and love) in WandaVision would suddenly act like this. And there’s one scene in particular where this could have been teased out, but MoM opted out.

It’s the scene towards the end of the movie where – spoiler alert – Professor Xavier (played by OG Professor X, Patrick Stewart) tries to help Wanda out of some rubble. Somewhere in Wanda’s subconscious Xavier is able to connect with her and recognise that she’s trapped. That could have been helpfully teased out, exploring how Wanda trapped herself by diving deeper into the Darkhold. But it was over too quickly, ending in (another spoiler) the Professor’s death – making Patrick Stewart’s appearance completely underutilised.

It’s not that this briefness was a problem endemic in the film – like it was for The Eternals. But it does, for me, become one of the major snags that drag this story down. For those who invested in Wanda through her series, to reverse all that without some good narrative to back it up is a disservice to her character.

Grief, Loss and the Search for Happiness

But does the movie succeed as an exploration of loss and grief – and the search for happiness? It’s the question posed a few times in the movie, ‘Are you happy?’

How does the movie answer this question?

The three main characters – Strange, Wanda, and Chavez – are each in pursuit of happiness. For Wanda, it is to be reunited with her children, which requires the life of Chavez. For Chavez, it’s to be freed from Wanda’s attacks and to find her parents. For Strange, it’s some finality to his feelings regarding Christine Palmer – his love interest carried over from Strange’s first movie.

In each case, the search for happiness is compounded by loss and grief. Wanda grieves her lost children, Strange grieves lost love, and Chavez is grieved by the loss of her parents.

So, the search for happiness in loss is essentially the heart of this movie’s main storyline.

How does each character finally find happiness? The answer is to embrace the present.

While each character’s weight of loss is different – perhaps one could argue that Wanda’s is the greatest weight – each ends up in the same place.

Sort of.

Despite the simplicity of this storyline, I think the film handles it in a clumsy way. The choices and decisions to get to this embrace happen so quickly and so fast, that it doesn’t seem real and authentic – despite the visuals distracting us from this.

Chavez – her mysterious powers are now the source of her identity after a brief gee-up from Strange. This brings her happiness as she’s able to join other students at the Kamar-taj. She hasn’t really dealt with the loss of her parents at all, and the fear that she’s experienced throughout the movie is suddenly alleviated with this short speech from Strange? I don’t know. Maybe she’ll get to explore her story a bit more in the future, but for now in MoM this final decision doesn’t make up for her general lack of agency throughout the movie.

Strange – he’s able to let go of Christine after he admits that he has always loved her. And kinda gets over it quickly.

Wanda – this is where her character arc confused me on how she was able to find peace. She has a disturbing encounter with the children that she loves and realises that she cannot be the mother she wants to be. So, that seems enough for the Darkhold to lose its grip on her and then for her to destroy the dark temple. She doesn’t quite find happiness, but she does embrace her present circumstances. Her death at the end, then, seems unnecessary, and neither is it poetic to the story nor her character arc. She not only could have easily collapsed the place from a distance, but she also doesn’t give the viewer any time to feel the impact of her decision to let her children go.

I felt ‘meh’ about her death. That should not be!

For such a human story – the search for happiness in grief and loss – the movie makes a hash of it. And I’m not sure that simply embracing the present is enough good news for those in deep grief and loss.

MoM left me yearning for that greater story of real hope in the face of grief and loss. A story which may take its time but unfolds in ways that engage my heart and mind in profoundly satisfying ways. Where the hero doesn’t use others for his own personal ends, like Wanda – but freely gives his own life to save others. A sacrifice that doesn’t just destroy the Darkhold, but destroys the hold that darkness has over our lives: sin and death. And a life which is raised indestructible, so that all those who trust and follow him may face trials and grief in this life… but can face it as those who have hope.

And wouldn’t it be nice to have the hero maintain a consistent character throughout the story? I think so.

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