Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness review: The loopiest, bloodiest Marvel movie yet
Give Sam Raimi a multiverse, and he will take a mile. The director's Doctor Strange (in theaters May 6) feels like many disparate and often deeply confusing things — comedy, camp horror, maternal drama, sustained fireball — but it is also not like any other Marvel movie that came before it. And 28 films into the franchise, that's a wildly refreshing thing, even as the story careens off in more directions than the Kaiju-sized octo-beast who storms into an early scene, bashing its tentacles through small people and tall buildings like an envoy from some nightmare aquarium.
There are monsters everywhere in The Multiverse of Madness, the first one in a chaotic dream sequence that opens the story without preamble or explanation: All that Benedict Cumberbatch's dapper, fussy Master of Mystic Arts knows when he wakes up is that he had to battle some glimmering incubus to save a girl, and that he died trying. The girl, it turns out, is named America Chavez (The Baby-Sitters Club's Xochitl Gomez), and she calmly sets him straight: It wasn't a dream, it was an alternate universe, which means there are infinite Other Stephens out there, fighting the same fight.
More ex-girlfriends too, though in this world the only one who matters, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), is still marrying a man who isn't him. More pressingly, there's an unknown quantity of Wandas (Elizabeth Olsen) on the loose, and Wanda wants her children back, even if she conjured them from pure wishful thinking. Because Wanda is also the Scarlet Witch, reluctant supervillain, her whims can destroy worlds — and she's already begun by coming after America, whose universe-hopping abilities are the only thing she believes will reunite her with her two little boys, alive in every dimension but the one she's stuck in.
Whether this all sounds elementary to you or vaguely insane depends heavily, of course, on your familiarity with the MCU; there are no guard rails or lit-up walkways for the uninitiated here. Raimi, who made his name with the Evil Dead series and movies like Darkman and A Simple Plan before helming the first three Spider-Man entries in the early 2000s, freely treats it as license to let his freak flag fly, though it takes him about an hour to ramp up to full pandemonium, maybe because he has so much mythology and green screen to work in. (The number of cameos from the extended cinematic universe that drew gasps and cheers at a preview screening are numerous and worth not spoiling, though the internet is more than happy to correct that for you.)
The script, by Michael Waldron (Loki, Rick and Morty) skims over most of what you might traditionally call storyline, frog-hopping hectically across moods and bits of exposition to get to the next explosive set piece. But he does it nimbly too, throwing off one-liners and winks to the genre like flashbangs. Cumberbatch, his body superhero-yoked and his hair streaked with two paintbrush swipes of white at the temples, picks up those bits like little bonbons and rolls them around on his tongue, delighted. Olsen is another kind of movie, often by herself: a wrecked, furious woman from an Ibsen drama, desperate to get back to the things she's lost.
The fact that actors of this caliber — Chewitel Ejioifor, Benedict Wong, Patrick Stewart, and Michael Stuhlbarg also appear, some of them for only a handful of lines — is testament to the sheer gravitational pull of Marvel; you've never seen McAdams tell a bunch of swirling zombie goblins to go back to hell, and you probably never will again. Raimi mostly lets them in on the joke, though he also sends several of them off to spectacularly showy deaths (with many universes come many spares). He generally seems to thrill at throwing out the rule book, zipping giddily between dimensions — one is made of cubes, another bright splashes of paint — and reveling in a kind of squishy, explicit gore that the MCU's bloodless violence often studiously avoids.
In a movie that already contains multitudes, finding a throughline can feel like reaching for a rope swing in the dark; characters are grounded in urgent emotional intimacy one moment, and throwing bolts of CG lightning at demon-octopi the next. Chavez, as the girl the fate of all this relies on, is plucky and smart, but too broadly drawn to really register as her own distinct person rather than a carefully market-tested symbol. (More than once, someone says "We have to save America!" straight-faced.) In many ways, Strange is a mess, and probably 20 minutes too long at two hours (which in Marvel math, is still practically a haiku). It's rarely boring though, down to the last obligatory post-credit scene — whether or not there's method in the Madness. Grade: B