Once upon a time, in an alternate moviegoing universe, filmmaker Sam Raimi directed the world’s very first Spider-Man movie, which set box records for the highest-grossing opening weekend of all time. 20 years have passed since that landmark comic book movie, and in that time, superheroes have become ubiquitous. There are now 28 movies that comprise what is known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which over the past 15 years has become the most commercially successful film franchise in history. For its latest entry, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Marvel has brought Raimi back from the dead (his last directorial effort was 2013’s Oz the Great and Powerful) and put him in charge of a game-changing sequel. Not only does Benedict Cumberbatch‘s Sorceror Supreme still have some supernatural tricks up his cloak, but so does Raimi, who showcases his talent and creativity while delivering the best Marvel movie so far besides Avengers: Endgame.
At its worst, the MCU knows how to entertain hardcore and casual fans alike. All are welcome. It is for that reason that, like all films in the MCU, Multiverse of Madness is both self-contained and part of a larger arc of stories, which now include the TV show WandaVision and Sony’s wildly successful Spider-Man movies. Some basic familiarity with the main characters — Stephen Strange, the Master of the Mystic Arts, and Wanda Romanoff (a brilliant Elizabeth Olsen), a witch who can alter reality — is assumed. Beyond that, however, all you really need is a mind open to being blown and an appetite for popcorn in order to enjoy this stylish and scary sequel.
As the story begins, Strange is having dreams (or are they memories?) of an alternate reality. He soon finds himself trying to save a mysterious young girl, America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), from an octopus-like creature that only has one eye. With an assist from his old pal Wong (Benedict Wong), Strange rescues the girl but quickly discovers that her uncontrolled ability to travel between universes has made her the target of the Scarlet Witch (Olsen), who has deeply personal (and emotional!) reasons for wanting to travel from one world to another. Strange and Wong must keep America safe from the witch’s evil clutches, sometimes with the help of Strange’s long-lost love Christine (Rachel McAdams), and other times with the help of some additional Marvel heroes — some you’ve met before and some you haven’t, but it’d be criminal to give away those entertaining cameos, so you’ll have to find your spoiler fix elsewhere.
What shouldn’t come as much of a spoiler to anyone who has followed my Marvel reviews over the years is that my persisting complaint about the MCU’s predictable plots and their low stakes rears its ugly head once again here, as Michael Waldron’s script suffers from the same problems as most Marvel movies. At times, the story here becomes borderline nonsensical, with the protagonists and antagonists alike finding themselves in situations that could be avoided by anyone with their powers and just half of an additional brain cell. Indeed, it was Strange’s ability to reverse time in the original 2016 movie that, to this critic, made his entire existence nearly meaningless. Then again, Multiverse of Madness is able to break the mold and keep you on your toes because the very existence of a multi-universe within the MCU allows Raimi to deliver shocking moments since there really aren’t any consequences to the decisions that the characters make, for better or worse.
And yet, the Doctor Strange sequel remarkably explodes beyond the chains of inconsequentiality that shackle it, and it has Raimi and his talented team of technicians to thank for it. In short, everything below-the-line works, starting with the basics — some of the most effective sequences in this film find Olsen looking like a demonically possessed witch, and Cumberbatch ambling about as a decrepit corpse. While I’d be shouting out the makeup department on most movies, a multitude of VFX workers deserve the bulk of the credit here.
But if good VFX were all that Multiverse of Madness had to offer it would be a pretty unremarkable project considering the cinematic universe it inhabits. Instead, Raimi masterfully combines wonderfully varied cinematography by John Mathieson, persistent but crisp editing courtesy of Bob Murawski, and — most important of all — a stunning score from Danny Elfman (his second of the MCU following Avengers: Age of Ultron with Brian Tyler) to deliver a well-orchestrated climax during a critical battle. In this movie, music is literally a weapon, and I have no doubt that it required hairpin precision to put together these sounds and their accompanying visuals to achieve the desired effect. By the end of this movie, you will be convinced that sound and light are in perfect sync and feeding off of each other thanks to a completely immersive cinematic trick on the senses. It’ll nearly impossible to pull off something like this, which in my movie experience, has never been done or even attempted before, so you simply just have to see it, and hear it, to believe it. The cherry on top of this superhero sundae is the boundless talent of both Olsen and Cumberbatch, who push through the various layers of digitized faces and added-on gashes to show you that they mean business even when the story is as deep as a puddle.
Film historians may one day posit an alternate universe in which Sam Raimi did not make Spider-Man a worldwide hit in 2002, and thus, Iron Man was never cleared for takeoff just a few years later, so the MCU was never born and who knows, maybe movie theaters were already signaling their “endgame” before the pandemic. That bizarro universe is hard to contemplate, however, because, in this world, the one where a second Doctor Strange movie is about to hit theaters, Raimi and Marvel’s chief architect Kevin Feige have asserted their dominance and proven themselves to be the real superheroes of cinema. The true magic of the MCU is its ability to conjure audiences out of their homes and into popcorn-lined seats, and audiences will be happy they made the journey for this one, as Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is one of the most surprising and visually stunning of the entire franchise — which, thankfully, shows no signs of stopping.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness hits theaters this Friday, May 6, courtesy of Disney and Marvel.