For the past few decades, major label superhero comics have made an annual tradition of the Big Summer Crossover Event. This usually takes the form of a core miniseries wherein you’ll find all the important plot beats and shocking reveals (this year it’s Dark Crisis at DC, Avengers vs. X-Men vs. Eternals at Marvel), while the repercussions on each character’s individual lives and ongoing storylines are handled either in tie-in issues of their own ongoing titles or in separate, concurrent miniseries. Summer crossovers can be read on their own, but they’re usually built up to for months in the pages of other titles, encouraging completists to pick up books they might not ordinarily buy in order to get the full context of the event, and they usually also lead to new titles addressing the fallout or new status quo left after the crossover’s world-shaking finale.
When you’re a young comics fan who’s new to the weekly comics hustle, these summer events are thrilling. Some of my fondest high school memories are of gathering with friends in a secluded hallway during our lunch hour to trade our hauls from the comics shop so that we could keep up to date with the events of that year’s sprawling, multi-title epic. (I was not dating much.) But, once you’ve been around the block a few times, this constant repeating cycle of expensive, high-stakes events after which “Nothing will ever be the same!” start to wear you out. They’re all built from the same template and the big twist of every fifth event is to undo the big twist of the one five years prior. DC and Marvel can maintain this cycle because they expect readers to age in and out of their audience regularly. Kids graduate from young reader titles into the core books in middle school and high school, and then most either move on to the more interesting and diverse world of indie comics or find other interests in college. Those who hang on are usually jaded from the big events and just hope they won’t interrupt their favorite titles.
Marvel Studios owes much of the success of its Marvel Cinematic Universe to the way producer Kevin Feige and company have adapted this pattern of publication for the screen. 2012’s The Avengers was a big comics crossover event for cinemas, as was each of its direct sequels. But, just like in the comics, these events start to feel less urgent with repetition, and the amount of both homework and fanservice baked into each of them becomes less exciting and more exhausting. At the same time, Marvel Studios is pumping out streaming television, which offers smaller-scale stories more akin to normal monthly comics titles. Even some of Marvel’s other Phase Four theatrical releases, like Black Widow or Shang-Chi benefit from having contained stakes and less prerequisite viewing. Nothing Marvel has released in the aftermath of Avengers: Endgame has been all that good (save for the undeniably crowd-pleasing Sony co-production Spider-Man: No Way Home), but I have to say, looking out at the upcoming MCU release calendar and seeing nothing resembling an Avengers-scale crossover inspires a sigh of relief.
Except, there’s still a problem — the current overarching story in the MCU centers around the ever-splintering Marvel Multiverse, a device that can immediately explode the scale of any solo feature into a Big Crossover Event of its own. Marvel’s latest, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness feels exactly like a six-issue event comic, and while that’s arguably what you want out of a superhero movie, it comes with a lot of drawbacks. It’s stuffed to the gutters with spectacle and mayhem, but it’s also exhausting, particularly coming so soon after No Way Home, another non-Avengers film with Avengers-level hype and scale. There’s the sense that the best character work is being done elsewhere, and some of it is. There’s a talented author at the helm (director Sam Raimi), but working under difficult creative restraints. Most of all, it’s a film that feels like it’s all plot, constantly lurching forward and never really amounting to anything more than, “Dang, that’s cool!” And it is cool, but the cool isn’t really in service to anything. 14 years into the MCU, you can only get away with that so often.
Some spoilers ahead, as the plot of the film differs almost immediately from what’s been teased in marketing.
They’ve All Come to Look For America
Famous world-saving wizard Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is in sort of a rut, but he wouldn’t admit it. He’s not the Sorcerer Supreme — that would be his buddy Wong (Benedict Wong) — and he finds himself a guest at the wedding of the love of his life, Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). But before the audience can really settle into his ennui, a dilemma of cosmic import lands in his lap in the form of America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a teenager who reflexively ports between alternate dimensions when threatened. It seems that someone is trying to kill America and steal her powers for themselves, and since their methods reek of witchcraft, Strange seeks the aid of the foremost expert he knows, Wanda Maximoff, a.k.a. the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). Before you can say “Hey, maybe she’s the bad guy,” Wanda outs herself as the bad guy. This is our End of Issue 1 twist, like the sort that you’d give the whole final page.
Multiverse of Madness has precious little time for anything that is not plot, relying on splashy reveals every twenty to thirty minutes to get Marvel fans applauding. The story bounces between big fight sequences and comic book callouts for the entire second act, with only the thinnest thematic thread woven throughout. The movie is ostensibly about both Strange and Wanda’s desire to control every part of their lives and pluck the outcomes they want from infinite possibilities. Strange’s need to feel in charge has cost him his relationship with Christine, which is apparently destined to fall apart in every universe. Wanda is haunted by the loss of her make-believe children in WandaVision, who like anything you see in your dreams, actually exist in other realities. (This is one of the film’s only nods to the bizarre and infinite potential of the multiverse as a concept, explored much better in this spring’s Everything Everywhere All at Once.) But, like so many of the plot threads in Multiverse of Madness, this theme is something that is subsumed by two-page spread busyness, only to rear its head occasionally to remind us it’s part of the story.
Totally lost in all of this is America Chavez, who is basically treated as a prop for most of the film. Within her lies the power to traverse the multiverse at will, but she can’t control it and everyone believes they can make better use of it than she can. Part of the lesson that Strange must learn throughout the film is that he needs to trust someone else to save the day, but when her big hero moment comes, it doesn’t feel nearly as triumphant as it should because America herself is still basically a blank slate. The film ultimately views her just as much as a means to an end as the villains do. Xochitl Gomez gets little opportunity to make a strong impression, a shame on its own that’s compounded considering that Marvel likely has big plans for her going forward. It’s disappointing that Multiverse of Madness will probably generate more hype for Fantastic Four than for America Chavez’s next appearance.
The Haunting of Wanda Maximoff
Throughout Multiverse of Madness, there’s a tug of war going on between the Marvel Studios house style and director Sam Raimi’s signature brand of quirky camp horror. Most of the first two acts don’t push too far outside the boundaries of the workmanlike, pre-viz-driven look that the studio has become known for, but there are occasional flashes of directorial flavor. When Raimi really gets to open up is in the climax, which indulges in some truly fun horror movie silliness. Still, given how much of the film is executed straight from the Kevin Feige playbook, the moments when Raimi indulges in his most dramatic signature moves — clever scene transitions, extreme close-ups at odd angles, sudden tilts and zooms — feel a little out of place. This is just another way in which the film resembles a big event comic, since it’s common for the art duties to change hands between pages in order to keep the book on deadline.
The greatest beneficiary of Raimi’s particular attention is Wanda Maximoff, who is essentially a horror movie monster for most of the film. Elizabeth Olsen gives an intense performance, which Raimi accentuates to make her as unnerving and threatening as the PG-13 rating will allow. Multiverse of Madness is never all the way scary and the obvious use of VFX keeps any of the moments of body horror from feeling truly visceral, but there are a few creepy concepts at play that feel appropriately unsettling. For instance, Wanda pursues America by “dream-walking,” essentially possessing the body of the Wanda who resides in the universe where America is hiding. When she first attempts this, we see it as much from the other Wanda’s point of view as from the one we know, and her fear and confusion as she loses herself to her evil counterpart is palpable.
Multiverse of Madness also takes a different approach to the depiction of magic than any of Doctor Strange’s previous MCU appearances. There are still golden threads and circles abound as well as a trip to the fractal mirror dimension, but there’s also a lot of nonsense, and I mean that in a good way. Strange conjures beasts, Wanda warps reality, there’s a battle that’s fought through the manipulation of music, and none of it is explained or expounded upon. Where the first Doctor Strange film sought to make the idea of magic approachable, Multiverse of Madness leans into its otherworldly nature for both shock and whimsy. But, predictably, nearly every magical battle of wills somehow devolves into your typical “beams vs. beams” showdown. That, sadly, is the best encapsulation of the film as a whole: There’s no shortage of cool things about Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, but at the end of the day, it’s the same thing you’re used to, and sooner or later, that’s going to get tired.
The saving grace of comic book crossover events is that, while the core titles are typically bloated and superficial, the smaller stories that build up or spin out of it are often much better. WandaVision, which one could now contextualize as a “Road to the Multiverse of Madness” series, offers a lot more depth to Wanda’s pain and motivation than the film, even if the two characterizations don’t totally line up. But, even if Marvel Studios could gear up more small-scale productions to flesh out their big blockbusters, that will likely only lead to the event films favoring spectacle over substance even more than they already do. There is no “Multiverse of Madness: Fallout” issue of Doctor Strange or America Chavez coming to give this film more texture, and there shouldn’t need to be. There must be limits as to how much Marvel transforms the movie business into the comics business. That way lies madness.