Something I’ve thought about regarding the Marvel Cinematic Universe is how these characters embrace their powers. Most of them tend to have had some kind of traumatic backstory to get them to where they are, though characters like Tony Stark and Stephen Strange end up relishing the gifts they possess. Perhaps it’s tied to their belief that they have superior intellects. Or course, that sort of haughtiness is always what’s usually challenged in their solo adventures. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is the sort of sequel that wants to push Benedict Cumberbatch’s Master of the Mystic Arts deep into dangerous territory, where even his powers aren’t always the solution. As a result, the film delivers a madcap adventure that balances what we’ve come to expect from the MCU with a nice amount of horror.
Why horror? Well, why not? 2016’s Doctor Strange was directed and co-written by Scott Derrickson, a filmmaker with a background in the genre. While he stepped away for this sequel (likely due to how horrific he could make the film), none other than Spider-Man and Evil Dead director Sam Raimi was brought into the fold. Yes, this excited me, but I was curious if Raimi would be afforded the opportunity to let his distinctive directorial style come out within a franchise that tends to stay the course. Fortunately, from what I could tell, as far as seeing the MCU approximate other genres (Winter Soldier is a spy thriller, Ant-Man is a heist movie, etc.), this is Marvel making a gonzo Raimi horror flick.
The plot doesn’t try to hide what’s going on (nor does it make things too complicated). After reestablishing Strange as the former neurosurgeon/egomaniac who’s now a world-saving wizard/slightly less of an egomaniac, he finds himself saving the life of a teenager being chased by some kind of alien octopus. What’s going on here? Well, this young woman is America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), and she has the ability to travel through the multiverse. Someone or something is trying to take her powers from her, but why?
There are answers to these questions, and the film, fortunately, doesn’t hold onto its cards for too long. Without getting into the why of it all, I will say there are various interested parties regarding the nature of the multiverse. That includes Wanda Maximoff, aka Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). She is still dealing with the fallout from what occurred in both the Avengers films and the WandaVision TV series and has only grown more powerful since. There’s also Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo, another powerful sorcerer, who was last seen turning against Strange and making his own path by hunting other magic wielders. And then there’s Wong (Benedict Wong), the current Sorcerer Supreme, protector of Karmar-Taj, and a loyal ally of Strange.
Taking a second to focus on Wong, this guy has been a lot of fun to watch. Yes, the MCU relies heavily on undercutting the severity of its comic book drama with a healthy dose of humor. With that in mind, it also knows has fun properly packing these films with talented actors. Benedict Wong has been a continued delight, especially as Shang-Chi and Spider-Man: No Way Home have hinted at him going off on his own adventures. Why does this matter? The Multiverse of Madness doesn’t have a plot that’s all that deep. Even with the threats certain characters present, characters like Wong and even Stephen Strange put up a certain weariness to all they see. It’s not that they aren’t challenged by what’s being thrown at them, but I appreciate the leniency that comes with Strange, Wong, and these Strange films as far as the approach goes.
Between Raimi’s direction, the script by Michael Waldron, and how this whole enterprise has been put together, I was relieved by how the film seemingly understands where the emphasis should go. Do audiences really want to walk into a Doctor Strange movie and feel the impact of multiple intricate storylines layered on top of each other while also dealing with the nature of the multiverse? This film doesn’t believe that. Instead, by adequately establishing some basic ideas, viewers get more of Strange’s strange world through inventive visuals, violent action sequences, and the aforementioned horror.
Perhaps the MCU purists will wish for more sturdiness as far as building momentum towards whatever overall storyline is in the works. I can’t say having a fairly character/spectacle-driven standalone bothered me. Not when the heavy-lifting is handled as effectively as it is here by the visual effects work and at least one essential performance.
Bringing things back to the Raimi of it all, once this film really gets cookin’ (which doesn’t take long), I was happy to see some familiar camera zooms, swipes, overlays, sound distortion, straight-up gags, and lots of other recognizably Raimi aspects. There’s also earnestness, which is maybe the most challenging thing to attempt in an MCU feature. Late in the game, we are listening to sincere words spoken by a heavily deformed character. It’s the kind of thing that is only happening because this film has a director like Raimi on board, and I was all for it.
There’s also the vicious mean streak that I wasn’t necessarily expecting but was very happy to see come alive. This may be a PG-13 film that will bring in many of the same kids who watched Spider-Man, Thor, and Black Panther, but choices are made that are on the harsher side as far as many of the action set pieces go. Raimi’s penchant for horror is alive and well in the way he lets magic and spells be utilized by various heroes and especially villains for our viewing pleasure. And, sure, while the punchline may mean death in more instances than expected, some ingenious concepts such as a “music battle” end up feeling far more memorable than other fights within this cinematic universe.
Praise must also go to this cast, who provide the movie with a proper level of gravitas, whether things are at their darkest or silliest (sometimes one and the same). Cumberbatch made Strange a true highlight of this series once he started mingling with other Avengers. Here he gets to play a couple different versions of himself. I wish more time was devoted to that angle, but he’s still having fun.
Bringing Rachel McAdams back as Strange’s former colleague and giving her a lot more to do worked out as far as finding more ways to challenge the know-it-all wizard. Wong and Ejiofor are as reliable as ever. At the same time, newcomer Gomez does plenty right to fit in with this veteran cast. However, it really is Olsen who lends the film its most affecting angle. With her committed work and some clear enough construction, the movie works regardless of whether or not the viewer has seen WandaVision.
Where Strange is only facing so many life challenges, Wanda has had plenty of bad hands thrown her way. She has nothing but chaos magic to use as a counter, yet Olsen finds the depth needed to make her presence more complex. As a result, the way The Multiverse of Madness brings together all of these characters works better thanks to this one vital emotional anchor.
Having expectations for the MCU films can be weird. It’s such a consistent franchise that it’s really just how certain elements deliver that make me smile. As it stands, it’s not as though I expected The Multiverse of Madness to come anywhere close to the ingenuity found in 2022’s other popular multiverse film, Everything Everywhere All At Once. However, I was delightfully surprised by how much it leaned into its ghoulish angle, thanks to some signature Raimi horror moves and the wild visuals that come with them. Will that transfer over as a major success as far as the Marvel fandom’s concerned? I don’t know. Was I plenty satisfied with the Sorcerer Supreme vs. the Army of Strangeness? Very much so.