'Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness' Is a Creepily Great Time
Director Sam Raimi's signature style is all over this one.
The toughest villain the Marvel Cinematic Universe currently faces isn't a bunch of baddies gate-crashing from another film series, or a race of all-powerful godlike beings that use the Earth as an incubator, or the looming threat of Kang the Conqueror—it's the persistent creep of same-ness, of Marvel's grayscale in-house style and anonymous visual effects turning stale as we near the fifteen-year mark of superheroes dominating the box office. The franchise has attempted to mitigate this by hiring artier directors in recent years: Chloé Zhao was hot off her Oscar win when Eternals debuted in theaters, and we all remember the electric zing when Taika Waititi brought his irreverent wit to the Norse gods of Thor: Ragnarok. Fans' excitement when none other than Sam Raimi was announced to direct Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness was twofold: he's responsible for some of the best superhero movies ever with his Spider-Man trilogy, and, with the Evil Deads and Drag Me to Hell under his belt, he's well suited for the horror-ish movie Multiverse of Madness was styled to be. Everyone's excitement welcoming Raimi back to the superhero fold was well worth it.
Doctor Strange is fine. He's fine!! He saved the world a bunch of times, he's so powerful he doesn't even need the title of Sorcerer Supreme, and he's pals with the remaining Avengers who generally keep things around these parts pretty peaceful. He's fine. So what if he lives in an enormous mansion all by himself with only a rude cloak for company and has to watch as everyone, including maybe the love of his life, moves on without him? Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness introduces a more introspective Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) who isn't sure how to answer the question "Are you happy?" Well, he can answer it, but he's not sure if he's telling the truth. In times like these, a teen girl named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) possessing the uncontrollable ability to universe-hop showing up out of the blue and claiming to have met another, darker version of himself while on the run from a demonic force is a welcome distraction.
To help the kid out, Strange hits up Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), now recovering from the ordeal laid out in WandaVision, which might not be the best idea—especially when the lure of a universe in which Wanda and her family are happily together becomes too much to resist. Strange and America Chavez are blooped around different worlds in the multiverse, searching for a way for America to learn how to control her powers while finding out some dark truths about Strange's many selves.
Those of us who have been around this series for a while probably remember when Scott Derrickson's Doctor Strange premiered and finally gave our lizard brains some genuine colors and Inception-esque setpieces to gobble up. Multiverse of Madness has a similar effect, but from a craftsmanship standpoint: Sam Raimi is all over this movie, once you get past the first few dutiful story-building sequences and it leans into straight-up horror B-movie territory. Body parts move in ways they shouldn't, characters are chased down dark hallways by bloody, shuffling menaces, and actors scream straight into the camera like Bruce Campbell in Evil Dead II. In other words, a total delight!! (We should mention that this is the MCU's version of a horror movie, so, parents, don't be too concerned about it being too scary for children.) Not for nothing, Raimi's frequent collaborator Danny Elfman even supplies the score, which all but takes over one particularly thrilling fight scene.
If you're the sort who follows along with Marvel's project announcements and schedule reorganizing, you can tell where the bits and pieces of an earlier draft of this movie would have fit in. Multiverse of Madness was supposed to come out before much of the Phase 4 entries we've already seen, including WandaVision, which, given what the emotional stakes of this movie try to accomplish, would have made more logical sense. As it stands now, much of the plot of Multiverse of Madness, when not following Strange and Chavez gallivanting around parallel worlds, is stuck repeating certain beats from WandaVision that we've more or less already seen, and loosely attempting to tie that together with Strange's conflicted feelings about sacrificing his own happiness for the greater good. As such, the emotional pathway Multiverse of Madness walks feels like it isn't as good as it could have been. Still, every time things start to slow down, there's an action scene with outrageously canted camera angles to get your blood pumping again.
What's great about Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is that some real imagination went into this beyond the requisite cameos (and there are some fun ones) and storytelling acrobatics that tie this self-contained story into the broader film series. The worry that followed the announcement that Raimi would be at the helm here was that Marvel wouldn't let him play around with his personal style, but, for the most part, they've found the best of both worlds (universes?). A director known for his love for and mastery over horror cinema is, oddly enough, the perfect choice for a movie that deals in supernatural forces and body horror and threats of unthinkably horrible deaths from alternate dimensions. Marvel's latest entry is worth seeing just to watch an adept at his craft cast his signature dark magic.