While Marvel Studios has become more and more known for getting name directors to take the helm of their many, many movies, they only rarely seem to let them exert any real control over the end products. This means that for the most part their output could have been directed by virtually anyone and still come out roughly the same. There are some exceptions though, most notably James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy movies (the first especially), and Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, both of which stand out as examples of what is possible when a filmmaker is really allowed to let loose and have fun with the brand. Add to that list Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, which puts the already more “out-there” property into the hands of gonzo horror director Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead trilogy, Drag Me to Hell), which makes a lot of sense when you remember that he directed the original Spider-Man trilogy with Tobey Maguire in the title role.
Here, the action kicks off right away, as we see Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) battling a bizarre demon alongside a teenage girl in a bizarre world of floating platforms. It becomes clear that they are trying to reach a powerful book, but the demon ultimately stops the pair and Strange is killed, only to jolt awake in bed. Later, while he is attending the wedding of his ex, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), a disturbance erupts on the street outside, and so he throws on his cape and rushes to help. It turns out another otherworldly demon is chasing the same girl from his dream, America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez). With the help of Sorcerer Supreme Wong (Benedict Wong), the creature is defeated, and Strange learns that his dreams are actually windows into alternate universes, and that America is able to travel between them but can’t control the ability and it only happens to her when she is deeply frightened by something, which she has been a lot lately as something is pursuing her for her power. Strange recognizes witchcraft runes on the demon and decides to consult Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) for guidance, but quickly becomes aware that she was the one who conjured the demons and has been hunting America. When he and Wong refuse to hand her over, Wanda takes on her form as the Scarlet Witch and launches an attack on Kamar-Taj, sending the group on a chase across the multiverse.
I am absolutely fascinated by the idea of the multiverse and the countless creative opportunities stories focused on it have available to them. Unfortunately, aside from one sequence in which Strange and America go tumbling through several universes in rapid succession, it is somewhat underutilized here, instead focusing on worlds that are more recognizable as Earth. Where Raimi was allowed to go into more interesting directions though was with the horror elements. There isn’t anything particularly frightening (though a few effective jump scares are pulled off), but this is one of the darker entries in the MCU, and certainly one of the first films in the franchise to really push the level of violence permissible in a PG-13 film.
As usual there are no weak links in the cast, though Gomez stands out in her debut as America and Olsen in particular gets to really show some range as Wanda cycles through grief and rage, and even gets to portray an alternate version of herself. There are lots of fun easter eggs as well, though the movie is a lot lighter on the quippy dialogue than is usual for a Marvel production, which ultimately serves the tone well. Letting Raimi go at least a little bit wild pays off here, as his style is very suited to the already somewhat bonkers Doctor Strange stories, and it allows for some unique and occasionally beautiful imagery. It isn’t the best movie in the franchise, nor is it the best movie about the multiverse this year (hello Everything Everywhere All at Once), but it is a fun time that invites repeat viewings, and a reminder that the MCU has yet to run out of steam. ★★★★
Rated pg-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, frightening images, and some language.
★★★★★ = Excellent | ★★★★ = Very Good | ★★★ = Good | ★★ = Fair | ★ = Poor
[CORRECTION: Accidentally referred to Tobe Hooper as the star of the original Spider-Man trilogy. As you probably know it was actually Tobey Maguire. Tobe Hooper is the director of horror movies such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Poltergeist.]