‘Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’ Twists the MCU Into a Campy Madhouse
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is doing more than ample justice to its name with each new title. “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” traverses different universes and will work best for viewers who have kept up with every recent title in the MCU, including its TV section. New stories are piled atop the ones that came before, with hints at what’s in store for upcoming sagas. What will keep it from feeling too much like the exam where you forgot to do the homework is the campy, high-energy directing by Sam Raimi. It’s a homecoming of sorts for the legendary auteur of gory spooks, since it was Raimi who in 2002 made “Spider-Man,” one of the prime launching pads of the ongoing superhero craze. Raimi is given the freedom here to add his particular style, while sticking to the usual Marvel parameters.
The story picks up from both 2016’s “Doctor Strange” and a lot more that followed. After the events of “Avengers: Endgame” and “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is now watching from the sidelines as his great love Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) is getting married to someone else. Before he can bask too much in love sickness, a young girl named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) comes running down Manhattan while being chased by a giant, octopus monster. After being joined by Wong (Benedict Wong), Strange learns that America has the power to travel through the multiverse. This has made her the target of a dark, malevolent force. Before long, Strange discovers this force is actually Wanda aka The Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), who is still scarred from having lost her conjured children in the events of Disney Plus’s “WandaVision.” Now wielding the power of the Darkhold book of evil spells, Wanda plans to use America’s power to take over a universe where she still lives in domestic bliss with her two sons.
Fair warning to readers, it would be best to catch up with the “WandaVision” show before seeing this movie. This is not only because it’s a brilliant, rather moving piece of pop entertainment, but because otherwise you might not fully comprehend the motivations of the film’s plot. Under the continued supervision of Kevin Feige, the whole canon of Marvel movies is one vast, interlinked story tree, like the comic books. This is technically the second “Doctor Strange” movie, but narrative-wise it’s following a whole slew of other titles. The only hints of linkage to the first Strange entry are the return of Rachel McAdams as Christine and a very brief but hilarious appearance by Michael Stuhlbarg as former hospital colleague Nicodemus West, who we learn lost his cats during Thanos’s apocalyptic finger snap. The real aim here is to close up the storyline from “WandaVision” while introducing a new character in Xochitl Gomez’s America Chavez, the MCU’s first Latinx LGBTQ lead.
As far as the plot goes, if you’re caught up, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” demonstrates how even an overly complicated MCU story can work because of simple, relatable drives. Wanda has turned to the dark side after the artificial reality she built over the town of Westview, through a spell and modeled after classic TV genres, was taken away along with her children and lover Vision (who is oddly never mentioned). Now she’s willing to unleash the Darkhold and create chaos in the multiverse in order to be a real mother. Heartbreak and loss are understandable emotions that can lead to wanting to set fire to the cosmos. As director of classics like “The Evil Dead” and cult works with titles like “Drag Me to Hell,” Raimi was the perfect choice because he’s allowed to let loose with sequences of campy mania. This is the most occult MCU movie ever as Wanda summons powers that unleash demonic entities. At one point, Strange gets entangled by multiple arms. Bodies get possessed and counterspells thrown around. There’s even a zombie in the demented, absolutely entertaining third act. The music by the legendary Danny Elfman keeps some of the original theme from the original movie by Michael Giacchino, but with new gothic flourishes. It also can’t be a Sam Raimi movie without a cameo by “Evil Dead” star Bruce Campbell, who cameos as a grumpy pizza seller.
And yet, as with most Marvel movies boasting marquee directors, the overall product still has to stay in line with the franchise. Raimi has absolute fun with the whole concept of multiple universes, but this also allows for the expected winks and big revelations the fans crave. Dr. Strange and America pop out into a multiverse New York City where the skyscrapers are festooned with wildlife. Here they also find Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who in the Strange-verse we know, hates the doctor after feeling betrayed in the first movie. In this new universe he forms part of a group of superhero guardians known as the Illuminati, and it gets more complicated from there. What you should know is that the Illuminati also feature some Marvel character cameos that will inspire cheers as well as major hints about what Feige and team have in store for upcoming movies. All hell breaks loose when Wanda arrives and carries out one of the bloodiest battles in an MCU entry.
“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” is undeniably a fun movie. It doesn’t add much to the Marvel formula and predictably ends with a major standoff, crumbling structures, villains tumbling over cliffs or exploding or meeting ambiguous fates. Not much can be emphasized about the acting either except that Cumberbatch brings his dry wit while Xochitl Gomez adds lots of sarcastic teenage energy. America is relegated more to the sidelines of the overall plot, since we are meant to be merely introduced to her before she gets a full movie later on. The strongest performance belongs to Elizabeth Olson, who despite mostly being tasked with doing evil poses and commanding CGI specters, still brings some of the heartache that made her so endearingly tragic in “WandaVision.” Like the best villains, brief instances make us almost sympathize with her. Other villains just want to destroy the world, Wanda wants to be loved and have children. Olsen also plays two versions of the same character, one as the menacing Wanda and the other as her suburban multiverse double.
Marvel has its formula so structured down to every ingredient that you can’t fault this one for delivering on the level of what it promises. This is also a title that makes an effort at trying an even more playful style. 2016’s “Doctor Strange,” directed by Scott Derrickson, worked like “Inception” on acid with its time-bending, hallucinatory visuals. At times it felt like Marvel’s version of ‘60s psychedelia. “Multiverse of Madness” is given a horror film vibe by Raimi, who manages to throw in a few genuine shocks for good measure. The very last scene feels taken out of a paranoid ‘70s midnight horror flick. A legendary director applying a bit of extra artistry to franchise merchandise is always welcome. The MCU isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. For the fans who have been loyally following every entry, this one casts enough of a spell.
“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” releases May 6 in theaters nationwide.