You don’t hire Sam Raimi to not make a Sam Raimi movie. While many will take that to mean “horror”, it’s a lot more than that. Like Raimi’s earlier Spider-Man films for Sony, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness embraces everything that’s great about comic books at their best. The weirdness, the goofiness, the bizarre, the humor, and yes, the horror of comics is all there in one of the most ambitious, and certainly the most terrifying, MCU films to date. Is it perfect? No, but it opens up a door to worlds of limitless possibilities and that’s exciting for a cinematic universe that has often felt stagnant.
Following on last year’s mega-hit Spider-Man: No Way Home, which took the concept of the multiverse and exploited it to fan-service heights, Multiverse of Madness takes all of that and shoves it into a magical blender. This is a film that takes place in multiple universes, sometimes all at once, and it’s the kind of nutty head trip that you might expect. There is no shortage of stuff going on at all times, all of it gigantic, and it can be as exhausting as it is exhilarating.
The film doesn’t waste time, either. Within the first few minutes, Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) has been a guest at Christine Palmer’s (Rachel McAdams) wedding, battled a giant one-eyed octopus thing that looks like Shuma-Gorath, and saved dimension-hopping kiddo America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) from capture and certain death. Did I mention the film begins in neck-snapping earnest with a demonic chase sequence in mystical reality? With Wong (Benedict Cumberbatch) in tow, Strange figures out that America’s pursuer is someone skilled in dark magic. Who does he know that might have some insight into this?
The introduction and character arc of Wanda Maximoff aka Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) is going to be controversial. To put it bluntly: she’s evil as Hell. The events of WandaVision, which saw her studying up on the all-powerful chaos magic of the “Darkhold“, have driven her over the edge. Consumed with desire to be reunited with her children, Billy (Julian Hilliard) and Tommy (Jett Klyne), Wanda will use America’s dimension-hopping powers to travel to another universe and make it a reality, no matter the cost. This is, in part, a story about how a mother’s love can be twisted and corrupted.
That’s the simple version of the plot but there’s a lot more going on, and I don’t envy casual fans coming to this expecting the relative simplicity they’ve come to expect from the MCU. But for the already-initiated, this film is a blast, and the fun Raimi is having is infectious. A trip to Kamar-Taj leads to a massive showdown between evil Wanda and the sorcerers-in-training. It’s one Hell of a spectacle; their golden force shields looking quite puny against Wanda’s crimson spells. From there, it’s a mad dash through multiple universes, including a paint world, a cartoon world, and some others that will look very familiar to eagle-eyed Marvel fans. It’s a jaw-dropping sequence that hints at what a live-action Into the Spider-Verse could look like.
The film is full of moments like this, that tease the potential for so much more. Marvel has already given away the presence of Master Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who is part of The Illuminati, joined by the bald leader of a certain group of mutants. There’s a reason why they were willing to spoil that, and it’s because that scene contains even bigger shocks. It’s also where the best pure superhero action sequence cranks the film up to another level, with shocking deaths that are more gruesome than anything Marvel has done before. It’s fan-servicey to the maximum and, if Marvel’s past is prelude, a tease for what we could be seeing in the near future.
Multiverse of Madness jumps from space to space at such a brisk pace that it never really finds its emotional core. There’s simply too much going on to dwell too long on Strange’s matters of the heart, which cross into multiple realities, or Wanda’s corrosive maternal instinct. America Chavez is an extremely cool character, one of my personal favorites on the page, and Gomez plays the role convincingly. But Chavez also comes across as a walking plot device at times, just kinda tagging along for the ride.
Strange, Wanda, Christine…everyone glimpses into these different universes and sees versions of themselves where they find the happiness they’ve been seeking. Will they ever find it for themselves, though? This question is grappled with ably by the performances of Cumberbatch, Gomez, and others, but it’s Olsen whose heartbreaking portrayal of Wanda might have you sympathizing with her turn to the dark side. She really is a boss here, making Strange, Wong, and many more look like weaklings at her mercy.
But this is indeed a Sam Raimi movie, so his fans will know to keep an eye out for certain people he’s closely associated with, but also a certain campiness in visual flair and comedy. It’s a treat to watch him turn this into Marvel’s legit horror movie, with a blood-soaked Wanda stalking our heroes like a killer in the night. A zombie Dr. Strange not only fights but spouts words of wisdom; and a truly-inspired orchestral battle erupts with deadly musical notes as magical weapons. Raimi does not skimp out on the violence or the laughs, and props to Marvel for allowing him to do what he does best. In his first feature film since 2013’s Oz the Great and Powerful, Raimi has made a case that he should not only return for Spider-Man 4, but also do more supernatural stuff for Marvel.
It’ll be easy for detractors to compare Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness to another multiverse movie, Everything Everywhere All At Once. This is, obviously, an unfair comparison as the two have completely different aims and don’t operate on the same emotional wavelength. A glorious, multiversal mess and one Hell of a trippy spectacle, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness throws a ton at you, and not all of it makes sense. But it’s also incredibly entertaining and has enough stunning moments to keep people talking until the next big Marvel movie comes out, and that’s a kind of a spell-weaving in its own right.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness opens in theaters on May 6th.