Most of Marvel Studios’ movies are meant to be at least somewhat accessible regardless of how much familiarity one has with the larger MCU or the comics a film is loosely based on. To a certain extent, this is also true of director Sam Raimi’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, a crossover event-style film that goes all-in on the concept of alternate universes. Multiverse of Madness often feels like it wants to be a fresh starting point for a new phase of Marvel storytelling; what it actually is, though, is a testament to how easy it is for these sorts of sprawling franchise projects to collapse under their own weight when they get too big.
Because Benedict Cumberbatch’s Stephen Strange played such a crucial role in the Infinity Saga and then almost immediately became the MCU’s new de facto fatherly mentor figure in Spider-Man: No Way Home, it’s easy to forget how little time the character’s really spent in the spotlight by himself. Strange gets precious little alone time in Multiverse of Madness, but the film opens on a dazzling and disorienting set piece that recaptures some of the Jack Kirby-esque magic that made Scott Derrickson’s 2016 Doctor Strange sparkle.
Having faced down Dormammu, helped defeat Thanos, and pulled reality back together after breaking it with Spider-Man, present day Stephen Strange doesn’t really think much about the vivid nightmares he keeps having in which he’s not exactly himself. Horrific dreams filled with enchanted beasts are the sort of thing that experienced practitioners of the mystic arts like Strange and Earth’s Sorcerer Supreme Wong (Benedict Wong) are accustomed to. But Strange can’t help but feel that something’s deeply amiss when one of his night terrors takes a turn so grim that he’s jolted awake and left wondering who the mysterious young girl from his dream is.
Rather than specifying when exactly after WandaVision and No Way Home it takes place, Multiverse of Madness instead clues you in through small details about the world around Stephen, where he’s become known as one of the heroes who saved the universe. Where so many of Marvel’s post-Endgame stories have seemed comfortable digging through the immediate aftermath and chaos of Thanos’ snap, Multiverse of Madness feels almost pointedly focused on emphasizing how much people have moved on with their lives since then.
Were it not for Strange and the Avengers, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) and her fellow surgeon Nicodemus West (Michael Stuhlbarg) would still be dust, and they’re all deeply thankful to the sorcerer for his good deeds. But with people’s lives returning to something like normal, it’s hard for Stephen and those around him to make peace with the whole of who he’s become: a powerful — but not the most powerful — magician whose ex-girlfriend ended up marrying someone else. Stephen Strange’s comics accurate assholery returns in Multiverse of Madness, both as a reminder of what kind of haughty jerk he’s always been and as a crystallization of how alienating his life as a superhero is. Whereas Strange’s glibness with patients and his peers made him unlikable almost to ridiculousness in the first Doctor Strange, here it plays much more like pithiness Cumberbatch is occasionally able to accent with charm.
Multiverse of Madness does not truly get rolling until America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) unintentionally crash-lands in Strange’s home universe while being chased by a demonic creature from one of Strange’s nightmares. In addition to bringing a new level of understanding about the multiverse as a concept to Earth’s heroes, America’s also Multiverse of Madness’ closest thing to an audience surrogate. Though Gomez’s America is a promising and powerful presence in scenes where she’s interacting with Strange and Wong, her chunks of exposition heavy dialogue do little to distract you from the reality that she’s also one of the movie’s MacGuffins.
America’s uncontrolled ability to naturally travel between universes — visualized stunningly as her creating star-shaped rifts in space — makes her the target for an unseen magical menace that’s hellbent on killing her, and there’s little she can do to stop it. Like Spider-Man: No Way Home before it, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness very heavy handedly leads with the idea that Stephen Strange has picked up where Tony Stark left off in terms of becoming a mentor to wayward super children.
Multiverse of Madness knows that very little about the MCU’s Doctor Strange has at all suggested that he’d be inclined to look after a child, which is likely why it often feels as if the movie’s knowingly slowing down to show you how he comes to care for America. In those moments where it’s slowing down, however, Multiverse of Madness never finds the time to let America be much more than a quippy kid who needs to be saved, which has the unintended effect of making Strange’s care for her feel that much more difficult to buy.
Far more compelling than Strange’s nascent paternal instincts is Multiverse of Madness’s take on Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), yet another powerful magic user whose dreams have become distressingly vivid and lifelike. Thankfully, Multiverse of Madness avoids rehashing too much of WandaVision’s plot and uses the logic of comic books to reasonably bring its magical brain trust together early on in the movie. But there is such a pronounced breezing past the specifics of what happened in WandaVision that the Scarlet Witch’s motivations and her relatively newfound grasp of magic might not make much sense to anyone who didn’t watch the show. Even though it’s not really explained, what does make sense and feel much more “right” is the overall tone and energy of Olsen’s Maximoff, which feels more like a reflection of the character actually being given things to do in a movie for once.
With magic now even more fully on the narrative table, Multiverse of Madness is able to get much more imaginative and cerebral in its depictions of monsters, and many of the whimsical enchantments that defined early Doctor Strange comics like the Flames of the Faltine and the Icy Tendrils of Ikthalon. Because this is still a Marvel Studios production, however, Multiverse of Madness’ more fantastical battle sequences involving magic do have a way of getting too busy for their own good. It’s important to note that despite its Marvel-esque stylistic sensibilities, Multiverse of Madness is also very much a Sam Raimi film in which the director’s unmistakable personal tastes rush to the forefront in moments that feel like Marvel gave him the clear to get really wild and into his specific brand of messed up.
It would be dishonest to say that Multiverse of Madness is a horror film. Rather, it’s another very big, very expensive superhero movie in which a spooky and sometimes genuinely alarming filter is applied with varying degrees of success. While some of Multiverse of Madness’ scares come across as gags, far more of them are disturbing and clever examples of what all magicians can pull off with a bit of imagination, and Raimi tries to mirror that idea with a mixed bag of ambitious but not always successful shots from bold angles. The situation is similarly uneven with Danny Elfman’s aggressive score that dramatically oscillates between different degrees of florid excess — none of which ever fully manage to complement Multiverse of Madness’ sound design.
Many moviegoers will be showing up for Multiverse of Madness for no other reason than to see just how many cameos there are and figure out who all that multiverse brings into the MCU. To its credit, the movie delivers on that front with a handful of featured players who bring an interesting energy to the film that it could use just a little bit more of. If you’ve seen Spider-Man: No Way Home, then you already have an idea of what Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’ reaching into other universes is meant to do within the context of its own story. It’s a fun and flashy storytelling trick that simultaneously makes you long for the past and wonder what’s coming next. Unlike No Way Home, though, where the multiverse was framed as being more like part of the landscape its heroes had to navigate, Multiverse of Madness treats the concept like a plot device meant to move its story forward.
Watching Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, you do get the distinct sense that you’re seeing the beginning of a new chapter for Stephen Strange and his associates, which is interesting given how listless the MCU has sometimes felt following the Infinity Saga. Clearly, Marvel’s already planning for a future that’s filled with even more of Strange’s brand of magic and far-flung characters you wouldn’t have dreamed of seeing in the MCU just a few years back. What seems less and less clear, though, is how Marvel Studios plans to get to that point.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness also stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Julian Hilliard, Jett Klyne. The movie hits theaters on May 6th.