After having been blipped out of existence in the finale of Avengers: Infinity War, the world has moved on around Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). The coveted mantle of Sorcerer Supreme has been taken over by his best friend Wong (Benedict Wong) and his love, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), is getting married to another man. The master of the mystic arts doesn’t have too long to wallow in self-pity, however, as America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a young woman with the power of multiversal travel, bizarrely arrives in the universe. With Wong and Chavez in tow, Strange battles demons both personal and physical as he attempts to protect the vast multiverse from an unimaginable threat hellbent on taking Chavez’s power while also crossing paths with Wanda Maximoff, aka. The Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen).
Perhaps the film’s biggest misstep is its title. In hearing the words “Multiverse of Madness”, you would be forgiven for expecting a near endless series of cameos, variants and universes. If that’s what you’re after, Multiverse of Madness may disappoint. This is still a Marvel movie, so there are surprise appearances and alternate worlds that are sure to garner cheers from audiences, but the film is otherwise refreshingly restrained in that regard. Fears of Strange being lost in his own film can be put to rest as the focus remains on the main characters throughout, allowing the story to play out with as few distractions as possible. Instead, that titular “madness” describes the sheer chaos in the events that unfold as each character strives to right wrongs or create all new ones – regardless of the cost.
Raimi returns to the superhero genre with aplomb, bringing with him all the filmmaking sensibilities that have made him such a lovably unique director throughout his career. Much as they did in his Spider-Man trilogy, moments of corny humour feel right at home in the comic-book world Raimi creates, taking the material just as seriously as it deserves without letting its dark heart drag the mood down. In that sense, the man behind the Evil Dead series is the perfect director to bring horror to the MCU. If Scorsese likens these films to rollercoasters, perhaps Multiverse of Madness will be the haunted funhouse ride. There are enough jump-scares and creepy creatures to keep the younger audiences on edge, but there are also genuinely unsettling moments of body horror that are sure to rattle the adults, too.
Raimi also happily embraces the weird and wonderful imagery originally conjured up by artists like Steve Ditko and Frank Brunner. Moreso than in his previous big-screen outings, Strange gets to unleash a greater cavalcade of magical sorcery such as serpentine weaponry, geometric entrapment, and, in one enjoyably tongue-in-cheek scene, a musical battle to the death. Strange’s darker eldritch magic is also afforded plenty of screentime, further allowing the character to stand out from Marvel’s roster of more traditional heroes. It’s a role that Cumberbatch has settled into perfectly, especially as the sorcerer’s heart continues to soften in each subsequent film.
The film’s supporting cast are equally strong as Benedict Wong’s effortless chemistry and interplay with Cumberbatch adds some laughs early on in the feature. Xochitl Gomez also makes for a fine new addition to the series, more akin to the likable movie teens of the 80s rather than the smart-ass 90s. Rachel McAdams’ return as Christine gives her much more to do than in her previous appearance in 2016’s Doctor Strange, and Chiwetel Ejiofor gets to explore more unexpected facets of arch-nemesis Mordo’s personality.
Fans of WandaVision will be happy to know that the Scarlet Witch herself is the one to steal the show here. Elizabeth Olsen continues to add emotional heft to the role of Wanda as we find the character struggling at the end of a long line of grief and frustrated by Strange’s hypocrisy. The inherent creepiness that has been on display since her first, brief moments in Captain America: The Winter Soldier is pushed to the maximum, as is the colossal power of which she is capable. By the film’s end, there will be no mistaking the fact that Wanda truly is the most powerful character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
From the twisting camera work and sharp editing, to the call-backs to his own filmography, Multiverse of Madness is a Sam Raimi film through and through, bombastic Danny Elfman score and all. As ever, casual audiences will get lost in the multitude of plot threads and character arcs carried over from years of cinema and television (even some of the more MCU-savvy viewers may need to brush up on their comic-book lore after the credits) but fans of Doctor Strange will find much to enjoy in this wonderfully weird cross-dimentional adventure. At multiple points, Strange is asked, “are you happy?” For the MCU devotees or anyone with a love of these characters, the answer to that question will be an emphatic “yes”.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is out in UK cinemas now.