"Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness" marks the MCU's weirdest, wildest ride with Sam Raimi conducting

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)

“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” is very much a Sam Raimi movie as much as it’s a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie. Not unlike James Gunn with the “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies or Taika Waititi's "Thor: Ragnarok," Marvel invites veteran genre director Sam Raimi (2013's "Oz the Great and Powerful") to get wild and weird with his filmmaking voice on full blast. Talk about creative freedom because this isn’t just some impersonal for-hire product but a filmmaker back to playing in his genre sandbox with a distinct vision and puckish glee. For that reason, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” jumps to the upper echelon of these lunchbox-selling universe juggernauts. 

Immediately, the film throws us into the multiverse after the failed spell in “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” where a pony-tailed Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and teenager America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) are being chased by a demon in space. It’s just one alternate dimension of many once Dr. Stephen Strange realizes America (the girl, not the country) has the power to travel multiverses. Putting aside his love-life hang-ups—he’s a guest, not the groom at the wedding of surgeon and ex-fiancé Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams)—Strange consults with Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), who’s already dealing with her own grief as a mother. It seems someone has acquired the “Darkhold” and covets America’s powers.

If horror-centric director Scott Derrickson brought his level of psychedelic razzle-dazzle to 2016’s “Doctor Strange,” “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” is the hardest the MCU has ever leaned into the horror genre, particularly the funhouse brand of horror that has long been director Sam Raimi’s bread and butter. As the driving force of the plot does assume you’re caught up on all nine episodes of the Disney+ series “WandaVision” as a prerequisite (because there’s not enough content these days), the film only initially feels like another cog. To quibble a bit more, the script by Michael Waldron (Disney+’s “Loki”) also occasionally forces certain characters to be voice boxes for unnecessary multiverse exposition. The “Raimi” of it all isn’t even clear at first; then comes the eyeball of an octopus monster that doesn’t stay long inside its socket after wreaking havoc on New York City. 

The trippy unpredictability of multiverses gives way for Raimi to unleash his bag of tricks, reminding us of the man not only behind the first “Spider-Man” trilogy but also the “Evil Dead” trilogy and “Drag Me to Hell” has returned. No tree assaults anyone, but there are creepy water portals, dutch angles on doors slamming, reanimated corpses, and a music-note battle (!). It’s also an awesome sight to behold when Strange and America fall through different multiverses for a few seconds each. If the obligatory applause at a screening is any indication, MCU fans will certainly be rewarded, too, and to a degree, they may even feel a little alienated once Raimi takes some real chances (one key sequence is surprisingly violent and vicious) and really revels in his cheeky genre sensibilities for the last hour. On a pure spectacle level and a character level, it’s a lot of inventively ghoulish fun. 

Benedict Cumberbatch has decidedly grown into the levitating cloak-wearing Dr. Stephen Strange, and here, he does get the chance to bring more layers that pertain to what-ifs with Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams, who’s game to get thrown into the action this time). Benedict Wong is always an endearing presence as now-Sorcerer Supreme Wong, and as Wanda/Scarlet Witch, Elizabeth Olsen impressively threads the needle between small and vulnerable, and then big and threatening. Arguably, America Chavez could be considered more of a plot device than a fully realized character here; it’s frustrating that she does spend a large chunk of the film running, getting captured, and being rescued (all while wearing a cool jean jacket with a rainbow-flag pin). Luckily, through sheer screen presence and an endearing smart-ass quality (she gets a fun dig at Spider-Man), Xochitl Gomez makes America’s evolution and striving to make sense of her powers worth caring about.

As many installments in this particular universe tend to have a uniform look and feel, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” comes along, shaking up the MCU house style and studio machinery with a director's signature over-the-top horror flourishes and kid-in-a-candy-store personality (and a characteristically offbeat Danny Elfman score never hurts). Twenty-eight MCU movies in, we pretty much know what to expect, but it’s a blast watching Raimi take big swings as the ride conductor. The stranger “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” gets to be, the better, and it’s bound to slap a giddy smile on the face of any cuckoo-bananas horror fan. 

Grade: B +

Walt Disney Studios is releasing “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” (126 min.) on May 6, 2022.