The single best thing about Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is that Marvel allowed Sam Raimi to exercise his vision. At least some of it. The framework of the tried-and-true Marvel formula still lives within the latest work of the superhero factory, but it at least affords an idiosyncratic stylist the opportunity to inject flavorings of body horror and disturbing imagery into the mix.
That said — and I’m willing to bet even Marvel didn’t envision this — Doctor Strange‘s first sequel is still the second-best multiverse movie in most theaters in which it’s playing.
The film properly reacquaints us with Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), whose own fumblings opened up a part of the multiverse in Spider-Man: No Way Home. Sucked into the multiverse is America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a teenager who first appears in Strange’s dreams before he saves her in real-life when Manhattan gets destroyed by an eyeball with tentacles — a creature likely ripped from Raimi’s latest nightmare.
Both Strange and Wong (Benedict Wong) learn from America that she can hop from one universe to another despite the fact she’s powerless when it comes to controlling such an ability. Because we always need a baddie looking to use the next inexplicable piece of universe-bending technology for evil, insert Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlett Witch, a rogue Avenger. This is where you’ll need to be familiar with the Disney+ series WandaVision in which the titular Wanda Maximoff (Olsen) used her powers to create an artificial reality that resembled a 1950s sitcom, where her and her late husband could live out their life.
This is part of the reason my interest in Marvel has waned over the past few years. Ever since the inception of Disney+, there are four streaming series released in any given calendar year. It’s come to the point now where you need to watch those in order to be aware of the basic premise of the latest movie. The evolution of Marvel as a franchise has mirrored that of video-games. You can’t just pick up and play one. You have to be inundated with backstory coupled with plot interworkings spanning spin-off installments that have mostly eluded me since, I dunno, Avengers: Infinity War?
That doesn’t make Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness any less of a visual experience. The very essence of Strange’s character permits filmmakers to build up a world before letting it crumble to shreds. Raimi doesn’t hold back in showing the ceaseless effects of the multiverse. Cinematographer John Mathieson (Detective Pikachu) is tasked to keep up with the craziness, and does so admirably — perhaps no better than when Strange and America find themselves falling through multiple universes at once, each one characterized by different cityscapes. Danny Elfman’s score doubles down on the hallucinatory effect all of this madness creates.
I wanted a bit more madness in general. Where the film gets bogged down is in its incessant desire to have characters explain the plot — a sign of the over-complicated, intertwined narratives Marvel has created for itself. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is at its most enjoyable when the worlds begin collapsing into themselves, hurling Strange and America through one logic-defying universe after another. Meanwhile, Olsen is pleasantly dynamic as is Rachel McAdams, Strange’s former lover.
One commendable element I didn’t see coming: the film has a relatively quiet ending as opposed to a noisy one. That was unexpectedly refreshing. I also won’t spoil the cameos. I’ll just say Evil Dead fans will smile ear-to-ear when one familiar face makes an appearance.
Raimi drags us to hell(s) when he can, but the film is mostly defined by a thick plot and a screenplay (by Michael Waldron, Loki) that buries its characters into the spices on an “Everything Bagel” that isn’t as delectable as I hoped. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is brought to life in many ways by the work of a director looking to make a horror comic of sorts. It’s a shame he got saddled with a simultaneously flimsy yet bloated script.
NOTE: Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is now playing exclusively in theaters.
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Xochitl Gomez, Elizabeth Olsen, Benedict Wong, and Rachel McAdams. Directed by: Sam Raimi.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!