Marvel’s 28th feature film in 14 years doesn’t disappoint.
It’s been six years, two presidential elections, and one worldwide pandemic since Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), onetime surgeon and full-time Master of the Mystical Arts, headlined his own solo adventure in the appropriately named Doctor Strange, the 14th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s (MCU) ever-expanding, Disney-owned franchise. Since then, Doctor Strange joined the Avengers, deliberately helped Thanos complete his genocidal plan (the only choice out of millions of possibilities that would lead to Thanos’ eventual defeat and the restoration of the universe), inadvertently created a multiversal fissure when he impulsively decided to aid Spider-Man/Peter Parker undo his literal public unmasking, and found himself transposed into two-dimensional, animated form (Disney+’s What If …). He now finally gets another chance to take top billing again in the oft-inspired, exhilaratingly inventive Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.
For Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), the once, present, and future Scarlet Witch, it’s been more than a year in our time, but apparently less in MCU time since her self-titled Disney+ series, WandaVision, left her in an emotionally and mentally precarious position, feverishly mourning the loss of Vision (Paul Bettany), her android partner, and their two biologically human children, Billy (Julian Hilliard) and Tommy (Jett Klyne). Wanda has spent the intervening time period studying the so-called Darkhold, a grimoire that contains a unique set of powerful, dangerous spells associated with the Dark Arts. That doesn’t stop Wanda, however, from receiving Doctor Strange when he calls on her for help from multi-tentacled, one-eyed Lovecraftian monsters.
We meet one of those Cthulhu-inspired monsters on the wedding day of Strange’s onetime girlfriend, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). Despite his unresolved feelings for Christine, Strange makes an appearance at the wedding and the reception, feigning happiness for Christine’s marriage (he’s an adult, or at least trying to pretend he is). Well before Strange can wallow in self-pity at his romantic predicament, the aforesaid monster makes a rambling, destructive appearance on the city street below, chasing America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a superpowered teen with the unique ability to jump between different universes via portals she can open when she’s hit with a wave of fear or high stress. She’s not from Strange’s universe (the 616), but a parallel universe similar, but not identical, to the 616, or prime universe. Strange being Strange, though, he feels duty-bound to protect America from both the monster and its unseen controller.
In its purest, simplest, most reductive form, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness follows a relatively straightforward chase-and-evade plot wrapped around a conceptually complex idea (i.e., the multiverse), with Doctor Strange and America hopping between universes when the first, flawed attempt to protect America fails spectacularly, leaving devastation in its wake. The film sets off a giddy, imagination-busting chain of multiversal shenanigans that all but one-ups Doctor Strange’s first mind-bending mystical experience in his eponymous 2016 film. The multiverse-jumping sequence provides Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness with an early highlight that the remainder of Sam Raimi’s first contribution to the MCU repeatedly strains to surpass or even match, but rarely does (one or two later sequences excepted). On its own, though, that sequence suggests what an unfettered Raimi, tied down as every MCU filmmaker before has been and will be to top-down, corporate-mandated serialized storytelling, can do visually.
Given those constraints and a baked-in plot that has to embrace the MCU’s serialized approach to storytelling—picking up Doctor Strange, Wanda, and others from their last MCU appearances and leaving moviegoers with a partially conclusive, open ending, that promises new stories—Raimi manages to insert his signature style, including a hyperactive, mobile camera, horror elements he created or refined during his multi-decade career as an indie and Hollywood filmmaker, and his trademark mordant, blood- and gore-splattered wit into Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, often pushing past the usual limits of the PG-13 rating. Leveraging the inherent possibilities of a superhero-filled multiverse, Raimi and screenwriter Michael Waldron (Heels, Loki, Rick & Morty) dispatch several non-prime characters in giddily gruesome ways.
All that universe hopping means moviegoers get a chance to meet several slightly different iterations of Strange. While each Strange shares a similar origin story and the same power set (more or less), each has taken a slightly different road, mirroring the possibilities and choices open to Strange, from self-sacrifice to sacrificing others to save billions; in each universe, though, Strange and Christine are, at best, estranged, suggesting a common thread among the various iterations we meet in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness: Strange’s genius-level IQ and natural affinity for the mystical arts are offset by his self-righteousness and arrogance. Those mirror reflections in turn make prime universe Doctor Strange double back and question his choices, ultimately giving him the necessary elements of a character arc.
Other characters get arcs too, of course, though they’re not particularly difficult for audiences to grasp, from America learning to control her superpowers (a metaphor for coming of age); to Wanda grappling with the corrosive, ultimately destructive nature of unreconciled trauma and mourning; to Wong embracing his status as Sorcerer Supreme as a position he’s earned rather than obtained as a default via the demise of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton); to Strange’s five year absence from the MCU due to Thanos’ finger snap. In a running joke, Strange’s growth as a character connects to Wong via Strange’s initial reluctance to show deference (like bowing as a sign of respect) whenever they cross each other. It’s a sign of Strange’s deep-seated arrogance that he can barely see Wong as an equal, let alone his superior in the mystical arts.
That might not sound like much story- or character-wise, but given Raimi’s relative freedom to inject his visual ideas into the mystical superhero mix, it’s more than enough to elevate Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness from potential also-ran status into the top tier of the MCU’s sprawling, 28-film franchise.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness opens theatrically on Friday, May 6th.