The Marvel Cinematic Universe is well into the fourth phase of its major storytelling arc and though we’ve seen him in a multitude of films since his introduction in 2016, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is only the second chapter devoted to the master of the mystic arts.
His first foray was positively received by both audiences and critics alike and, with the recent success of Spider-Man: No Way Home, the expectations for this new film were sky high and it largely lives up to them. It doesn’t cleanly land all of its many boundary-pushing attempts, but director Sam Raimi truly goes for broke. There’s something to be admired in his all-encompassing ambition as he straddles the line between horror and hero throughout, giving audiences just enough of each to be satisfying.
When we last left Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), he’d broken open the multiverse in an attempt to help Spider-Man’s misplaced wish come true. As anyone who saw No Way Home can attest, and as Wong (Benedict Wong) predicted, it didn’t work out so well. When we enter his life again, Strange is in the midst of a gripping nightmare that proves to be much more than simply an unpleasant dream. It’s not long before his terrifying vision becomes a demon-filled reality, really throwing a wrench into Christine’s (Rachel McAdams) wedding reception plans. And fear not, the MCU’s track record of creatively terrorizing the citizens of New York City remains unbroken. Amid the chaos we’re introduced to both a great new Marvel character and an excellent plot device, America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez).
It’s hard to get further into the plot of the film without giving away the juicy details, but suffice it to say the film is sufficiently mind-bending with a host of alternate realities and eye-catching combat sequences. Wong remains quippy, Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) remains complicated, and there are enough character cameos to make even the pickiest of comic stans happy.
Speaking of the plot, there is quite a bit of it. Possibly too much. As Marvel continues to build out its immense on-screen empire, there’s a certain amount of world-building to be expected and excused. That said, there are moments during the film’s reasonable 126 minute run time that get a bit too muddied in the mythos but it never drags for long. Scribe Michael Waldron also seems to be dialled in to the fact that the film’s cinematic sweet spots are almost always centred on the complexity of its titular character and the motivations of its main adversary.
A lot of the film’s successes are down to director Raimi. Every once in a while Marvel finds a director that brings just the right energy for the next big production (see James Gunn and Guardians of the Galaxy) and they nailed it here. Raimi’s gleefully frenetic camera movements and distinctively macabre style is just what this Doctor ordered and he deftly keeps the film from getting too weighed down by the aforementioned necessary exposition and its many, many characters. He approaches the film’s big set-piece battles with a fresh eye and delivers some truly mind-boggling and creative visuals. There’s one particular fight involving Bach’s Toccata in D Minor (yes, you read that right) that’s truly inspired. Given his background in horror, the choice of music seems particularly perfect and perhaps it’s not too surprising that this chapter of the MCU also features some truly grisly moments and its fair share of PG-13 jump scares.
Raimi clearly understands his assignment, as does his leading man. Though it’s no secret that Cumberbatch excels at playing men who wear their arrogance like a second skin–characters totally caught up in their own legitimate brilliance–where he nails Stephen Strange (and his various multiverse counterparts) is in the character’s quieter moments. The weight of his otherworldly responsibility–and of his largely repressed fear and trauma–has clearly been taking its toll and the rare glimpses Cumberbatch gives us of the man underneath the cape (apologies, cloak) is worth the price of admission.
The actor is surrounded by a stellar cast throughout, with both Olsen and Gomez holding their own with the former becoming more interesting with every Marvel appearance, the latter proving electric in her superhero debut. Marvel hasn’t always known quite what to do with complicated female characters (*cough*Black Widow*cough*), but Waldron gives both something to sink their teeth into. If only the same could be said for McAdams. She’s given both the driest exposition and the cheesiest one-liner and not much else. We care for Christine because Stephen does, but it would mean so much more if we’d formed our own attachment.
The rest of the actors, from the expected to the unexpected, all acquit themselves well. Each is given their chance to shine, if only briefly, and we can only hope some of them are here in the MCU to stay.
This second Doctor Strange has been a long time coming and, though it’s not without its issues, Multiverse of Madness is a solidly entertaining, visually impressive entry into the ever-expanding Marvel canon. Bring on Thor: Love and Thunder and, while you’re at it, more Stephen Strange…but maybe a little sooner this time around.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness opens in theatres today.