For a guy named Stephen Strange, the former Sorcerer Supreme is actually a pretty normal person with at least some normal problems: He’s bad at relationships and only a little better with kids, and he’s kind of a prick. As we noted in our spoiler-free review of the film, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness isn’t really out to change viewers’ minds about the guy. Like his comics counterpart, Doctor Strange is more effectively used as a tour guide to places and creatures that would not, or could not, exist in any other story.
Multiverse of Madness is pretty successful in that regard, but its focus on strange new worlds ultimately means there are two stars competing for attention in Multiverse of Madness, and neither of them are Doctor Strange. The first is the Marvel Cinematic Universe itself, and the puzzle-piece assembly that fans gain extended access to every time Marvel adds a new movie to its blockbuster tapestry. The second is director Sam Raimi, returning from a nearly decade-long absence from cinema to deliver the creepiest film in the MCU. There’s nothing wrong with viewers showing up for Multiverse of Madness for the former reason, to continue the MCU story and see what it’s offering this time. But Raimi is the star that really makes the movie shine.
[Ed. note: Basic plot setup spoilers for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness follow, but one of those plot setup elements goes beyond what’s seen in the trailers.]
Raimi’s much-loved, wildly successful Spider-Man trilogy movies are by far the most popular entries in his filmography. But before he helped invent the modern era of superhero cinema, Raimi’s calling card was in horror. His Evil Dead trilogy and his 2009 throwback Drag Me To Hell establish his unique sensibilities as a director with an inventiveness and visual panache that feels both old-school and new all at once, and the movies themselves are a fun blend of gross, funny, and just the right amount of meanness. Yet in a career that spans more than 40 years, Raimi’s horror stylings have largely been confined to low-budget fare. He’s never had the opportunity to graft his take on horror cinema onto a blockbuster, or get his hands on a blockbuster horror budget. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe it’s set in, are perhaps the unlikeliest place to look for Raimi-style gonzo horror, but it’s absolutely here.
Marketing has obscured the real villain of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, but after about 20 minutes of swift setup, the film’s real threat becomes clear: Wanda Maximoff, now fully embracing her role as the Scarlet Witch. Following the events of Disney Plus’ MCU series WandaVision, Wanda has obtained the Darkhold, a grimoire of dark magic, and intends to use it to travel to a universe where her children — fiction conjured by her grief in WandaVision — are real. For this, she wants to steal the power of America Chavez, a girl from another universe with the unique ability to travel the entire multiverse. Trouble is, she can’t control it, and for the bulk of Multiverse of Madness, Doctor Strange and America are on the run through other universes while Wanda stalks them.
Turning Wanda into a multiversal boogeyman is where the Sam Raimi of it all begins to shine through, as Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness becomes one of the most visually thrilling films in the MCU. Raimi’s trademark flourishes seep onto the screen: Disembodied hands appear from unlikely places, the camera takes on the perspective of ghostly specters, the dead walk again, and ghouls nip at our heroes’ heels.
The scenes that go full Raimi are powerful reminders of how much fun the Marvel Cinematic Universe can be whenever its filmmakers’ idiosyncrasies are allowed to shine through. Multiverse of Madness isn’t a full-on Sam Raimi film — Michael Waldron’s script has a lot of MCU lore to tear through, and there are still more scenes of magic lasers firing at each other than horror fans might like. But the stylistic flair Raimi brings offers respite from all the flying CG magic blasts in a way that establishes the characters. Wanda Maximoff isn’t just capable of crimson energy blasts and mass illusion: She genuinely has mastery of the most disturbing powers in the multiverse. Doctor Strange doesn’t just conjure orange versions of physical weapons, he harnesses forbidden, arguably immoral forces to try and save the day.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is ultimately too swift and shallow a film to fully wrestle with the implications of Wanda’s powers. The substance of Doctor Strange’s conflict with her is why her use of forbidden arts is villainy, while his is necessary, but the movie loses interest in that question the moment after it poses it. Still, Raimi’s display of those powers, and the forces that rise in response to them, makes it among the most thrillingly comic book-style efforts in the MCU. It’s odd, colorful, and spooky enough to frighten children, in the way a budding comics fan might be frightened by a comic they had no way of knowing they aren’t ready for.
None of this is meant to diminish the fun multiversal twists in store within the story, but all the cameos and reveals are ultimately cotton candy. It’s delightful to see every guest appearance Multiverse of Madness has in store, but the film also has a built-in out for every surprise that appears on screen. With the exception of America Chavez, nothing Multiverse of Madness introduces winds up being used in a way that’s clearly meant to carry forward into the MCU’s future. Anyone approaching this film from the perspective that it’s meant to be a monumental, status quo-shattering installment in the MCU mega-story may be disappointed.
Anyone who’s just here to see Raimi turn his usual ghoulish spookshows and gleeful body horror into a big-budget spectacle, on the other hand, will get the payoff they’re waiting for. The Madness is the important part here, not the multiverse. And we’re so very lucky that’s the part that Sam Raimi excels at.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is in theaters now.