There have been some whispers over the past year that post-Avengers: Endgame, Marvel Studios and the Marvel Cinematic Universe have been kind of… wobbly. Most of that hushed chatter is due to the less than stellar performances, both critically and financially, of films like Black Widow and Eternals, as well as the inconsistent quality of the studio’s Disney+ offerings. Was it possible that the mighty MCU might have lost its direction and momentum once the Infinity Saga ended?
Last December’s acclaimed Spider-Man: No Way Home put a lot of that speculation to rest, and now we’re here to tell you that Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness wraps it in a sack and buries it in a rooftop garden.
Directed by Sam Raimi, who is making his first Marvel movie and first superhero outing since completing his pre-MCU webslinging trilogy in 2007 with Spider-Man 3, Multiverse of Madness lives up to its title in all sorts of ways. This is indeed a wild, hang-on-to-your-hat ride through a deliciously weird and often bonkers house of mirrors known as the multiverse, full of mind-bending moments, trippy twists, and a fistful of surprises so genuine that even Danny Elfman’s majestic score might not blot out the sound of millions of diehard Marvel fans’ jaws shattering as they hit the theater floor.
It’s also very much a Sam Raimi movie, and perhaps the most singularly identifiable vision of an MCU director since James Gunn sprang Guardians of the Galaxy on us nearly eight years ago. And more to the point, it’s a Sam Raimi horror movie, or at least what one would look like in the Marvel sandbox. Demons, monsters, reanimated corpses, jump scares, doppelgangers, and supernatural manifestations fill every corner of the often Dutch-angled screen, as Raimi races from scene to scene with barely a breath in between.
Yet it’s also very much in line with Raimi’s ability to empathize with even the most lost souls in all his movies, a part of the director’s toolbox that’s supported by Michael Waldron’s zigzagging yet heartfelt script. Two storylines sit at the center of the madness: the unworkable and out-of-reach love affair between Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) and, more importantly, the obsessive quest of Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) to find her children somewhere out there in the multiverse… children that her fraying mind refuses to believe don’t actually exist.
It’s Wanda’s search for her two sons, directly following up the events of 2021’s WandaVision TV series, that makes it fortuitous when she crosses paths with America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a young woman who seems to be the only person in existence with the ability to travel between universes. But America’s power is also exceedingly dangerous to the existence of any universe through which she passes, forcing Strange, Sorcerer Supreme Wong (Benedict Wong), and Wanda to face some hard, strange choices as they realize the fate of all the realities is at stake.
We won’t reveal much more than that, but Multiverse of Madness rolls out its narrative in fits and starts, and Raimi’s headlong, head-spinning approach to storytelling occasionally leads the director to get in his own way. Reflecting its own title, Multiverse of Madness has a frantic, on-the-edge-of-losing-control feel that sends it careening toward its next set-piece while the rest of us catch up. Sometimes the movie forcefully stops for an exposition dump that’s jarring, but Raimi’s tilting, whirling camera quickly dashes off again to the next tableau.
It’s one of those tableaux, in which Doctor Strange is introduced to the famed Marvel Comics tribunal known as the Illuminati, that will make a number of heads in the audience explode. There is fan service here aplenty, some of it already hinted at and some unexpected (drawing astonished gasps from members of the audience at our screening).
It’s also a moment that feels like it’s right out of the comics, and if anything, Raimi leans hard into comic book imagery, even more so than in any of his three Spider-Man movies. In fact, Multiverse of Madness might be the most outright comic book-y film in the entire MCU to date, not an easy task in a film series based on more than six decades of the damn things. But whereas earlier MCU installments might have held back or spoon-fed their more bizarre elements, Multiverse of Madness throws it all against the wall in often messy yet gloriously bizarre fashion.
Cumberbatch has grown increasingly comfortable in Strange’s cloak with each of his now six live-action appearances in the MCU, and he’s ably assisted by Wong, who throws off a lot of his previous “funny sidekick” vibe in favor of a more substantial presence. McAdams, reduced to little more than a stand-in in the original 2016 Doctor Strange origin story, is also given more to do. Gomez, who’s got appealing screen presence and fits the part, is too often reduced to the role of exposition machine in the course of the film’s events, and her performance suffers for it.
The top acting honors, however, go to Olsen as Wanda, who brings real, palpable, heartbreaking grief to the part along with an electrifying single-mindedness that makes you believe she’s one of the most powerful creatures in the MCU. The arc started for Wanda way back in 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron reaches its summit here, and Olsen gives it her all with raw force.
Visually the film isn’t always striking but there are Raimi trademarks aplenty, including whip pans, sudden tilts, zooms, and inside-out viewpoints. It comes to life the most during its trippier sequences, including one showstopping plunge through a cascading series of universes that is psychedelic and strangely unnerving. Elfman’s score also adds a great deal to the sense of disorientation, mixing grandiose strings with discordant single notes on the piano, and even the occasional screeching guitar.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness probably won’t earn any new fans for the MCU, and it may even turn some moviegoers off as it’s definitely a harder, more violent, and macabre outing than we’ve seen from Marvel to date. It also doesn’t always land right; it’s shaggy and occasionally jumps its own tracks. But it will please the legions of established fans by embracing the comic book weirdness of it all with vigor and abandon, as Sam Raimi creates possibly the MCU’s most off-the-wall entry yet. Ironic that it would take such a crazily unsteady but rich movie to help steady the Marvel ship.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is out in theaters Friday, May 6.