Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness ★★★★

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness begins with an intense chase scene, as a Strange Variant (Benedict Cumberbatch) and new MCU hero America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) attempt to escape the clutches of a demonic creature. Just a few minutes later, we find ourselves in another set piece involving Gargantos, and from there, we're a hop, skip and a jump away from am all-out assault on Kamar-Taj.

It's... a lot. All of these sequences are exciting and well-crafted on their own, but coming one after the other in such quick succession makes the head spin, and it feels like the movie is rushing to cover all of its bases while leaving scant room for characterization.

Director Sam Raimi does steady the ship to an extent once certain events occur, but the breakneck pace remains for the most part, often at the expense of the story (and a first act). Fortunately, the filmmaker also brings much more of his signature style and horror sensibilities to the film than we expected, and the sheer audacity of what plays out on screen ultimately pummels you into submission.

We catch up with the (former) Sorcerer Supreme as he struggles to move on from his relationship with Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) and is plagued by nightmares involving a mysterious teenager with the power to traverse the Multiverse. When said teen (Gomez) shows up and reveals that she's being pursued by a demon who wants to steal her abilities, Wong (Benedict Wong) decides to take her to Kamar-Taj, while Strange pays a visit to an old friend with knowledge of the dark arts.

Unfortunately for all involved, The Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) has continued to use the Darkhold since we last saw her in WandaVision, and is determined to find her children again - at any cost.

What unfolds is as close to a full-on horror movie as we're ever likely to see from Marvel Studios. It's never overly grim or gruesome, but Raimi definitely pushes that PG-13 rating as far as he can, and there are some very effective jump-scares and creepy moments. One sequence, in particular, is sure to delight fright-fans and leave Evil Dead aficionados cheering in their seats. Another sees Strange and Chavez tumble through multiple realities, where they appear as animated characters, animals, and paint (yes, paint) among other things.

Raimi employs his trademark camera angles, crash-zooms and tracking POV shots to terrific effect, and while not every joke lands (there are a few eye-rollers), the humor is about as dark and irreverent as we imagine he was allowed to get away with. At times, it does feel like the filmmaker was working within the confines of a rather pedestrian script, but he goes all-out whenever possible, and keeps a few surprises up his sleeve for the second act.

This brings us to The Illuminati. It's hardly a spoiler to discuss the team's involvement (they're mentioned in the trailers, after all), and while we won't reveal the individual members, they do leave a lasting impression... for better or worse. Honestly, the scenes in question are a bit of a mixed bag. Comic book fans will no doubt appreciate seeing these guys in action, but their introduction feels a little gimmicky, especially given the way things play out.

If nothing else, these moments allow us to witness the full extent of the Scarlet Witch's devastating power. Strange's name may be in the title, but make no mistake about it, this is Wanda's movie. Olsen brings a wealth of complexity to her role, and follows-up her superb turn in WandaVision with a blisteringly intense, heartbreaking, at times downright terrifying performance. Cumberbatch does impress in the lead, but it's hard to shake the feeling that the Witch sprinkles a bit of magic that elevates the entire movie.

Elsewhere, Wong is as reliable as ever, and if she seems a little lost at sea at times, Gomez still manages to make the likeable America a welcome addition to the crew. McAdams is also given a lot more to do this time, although whether the Strange/Palmer dynamic really hits the mark is debatable.

The conclusion might be seen as anticlimactic by some, but on an emotional level, it absolutely works. Heroes and villains make decisions that are certain to inform the future of the MCU, and one character makes a fateful choice that's sure to be divisive. Of course, we all know by now that nothing ever ends in the MCU, and there are a pair of post-credits scenes it's definitely worth sticking around for.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is not without its problems, but Raimi injects more than enough macabre fun to overcome an uneven script and ensure that his sequel emerges as a consistently entertaining watch. With engaging performances, strong emotional beats and some truly bizarre moments, this latest MCU adventure is a trip worth taking.

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