“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” directed by Sam Raimi (“Spider-Man 2”), is the 28th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and a sequel to Scott Derrickson’s 2016 film, “Doctor Strange.” Starring Benedict Cumberbatch (“The Power of The Dog,” 2021) as the titular character, the sequel traverses through the multiverse as Strange realizes his dreams and nightmares are visions of him in parallel universes. Setting the events in motion is rookie superhero-on-the-run America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez; Netflix’s “The Baby-Sitters Club,” 2020–2021), who stumbles onto Stephen’s timeline while in stress.
Of all the phases in the MCU so far, the fourth (and current) phase seems to be their most experimental — and most inconsistent. From the success of “Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings” and “Spider-Man: No Way Home” to the divisive “Eternals,” it’s clear the studio is bolder now than they were before. While Raimi’s take on Doctor Strange is relatively easier to appeal to a broad audience than Chloe Zhao’s ambitious fantasy epic, “Multiverse of Madness” still packs in some absolutely bonkers body-horror elements that all but toe the line of the PG-13 rating.
“Multiverse of Madness” isn’t afraid to travel where no MCU film has so far. From demonic creatures getting their eyes gouged out to a certain someone getting “paper-shredded” in a sense, Raimi seems unconcerned about sticking to a sanitized experience. Wildly enough, the last film in the franchise to have felt this (appropriately) visceral was the I’ve-come-to-bargain time-loop in Derrickson’s “Doctor Strange.” Aside from the violence and body horror, the sophomore installment is unrelentingly high on style.
Academy Award-nominated cinematographer John Mathieson (“Logan,” 2017) marries speed and rhythm with every single shot, given an almost effortless flow via co-editor and regular Raimi collaborator Bob Murawski (“The Other Side of The Wind,” 2018). Composer Danny Elfman’s (“Justice League,” 2017) score is hit-or-miss. Some pieces aptly support their accompanying scene’s emotion and tone, and others feel more generic than YouTube’s stock music library.
Unfortunately, the most significant setback to “Multiverse of Madness” comes from its atrociously-paced narrative. With a runtime of 126 minutes, Raimi’s MCU entry doesn’t seem any different from most other franchise installments lengthwise. Unfortunately, the movie needed 30 to 40 minutes to let its characters breathe and evolve. Writer Michael Waldron’s (Disney+ series “Loki,” 2021-present) screenplay may or may not have been similar to what the movie would have ended up being, either in production or post, but a stronger character arc for America Chavez was crucial to its successful storytelling.
However, the audience got an on-the-nose half-minute Chavez Backstory Speedrun™. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a sequel — the real fun is when everything is in place for the ultimate chaos — to a franchise superhero film. The problem arises when it gets progressively difficult to relate to her character as anything more than a plot device. This is a problem, especially considering she’s a pivotal component of the movie’s story.
Cumberbatch and Benedict Wong (“Annihilation,” 2018) are excellent, which is not a surprise — they’re both fantastic actors who play already established characters in the franchise. For the second time in a “Doctor Strange” movie, Rachel McAdams (“Disobedience,” 2018) is shamefully underwritten. While her character does end up coming through in the final act — which contains one of MCU’s most emotionally compelling moments — she just… exists.
The real surprise is Elizabeth Olsen (“Martha Marcy May Marlene,” 2011), who returns as Wanda “The Scarlet Witch” Maximoff. While her character arc uses “WandaVision” as a crutch, it’s how she digs into every emotional facet of her role that makes her such a force of nature. She’s a grieving mother, a woman with potent rage that threatens to destroy, and a terrifying antagonistic force all at once. Superhero movies don’t deserve Olsen’s incredible range — and it hasn’t been more apparent than in Wanda’s titular miniseries and, now, “Multiverse of Madness.”
Olsen’s towering presence and Raimi’s trademark style make up for many of the film’s flaws. It’s not exactly the darling it should have been. Still, its sheer visual palpability is what will endear it to its audiences in the long run.
“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” isn’t entirely perfect. But it’s one of the most ambitious and visually daring of all films in the MCU. Its inconsistent narrative is balanced out by the incredible performance of Elizabeth Olsen and the fantastic set-pieces (watch out for a dazzlingly original battle in the last half). Much like the bizarre, quirky, and uneven “Spider-Man 3,” this “Doctor Strange” sequel has the potential to become a cult favorite of sorts. For now, though, it’s good, bombastic fun.