Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness — out Friday in cinemas — isn’t really a Doctor Strange movie. I mean, sure, Benedict Cumberbatch is in it, as more than one Doctor Strange in fact. But the new Marvel Cinematic Universe movie isn’t really built around him, but rather Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda Maximoff and her grief over losing her kids in WandaVision. If a character’s name needed to be in the title, Scarlet Witch would have been more appropriate. That said, everyone involved — including director Sam Raimi (Tobey Maguire Spider-Man trilogy), writer Michael Waldron (Loki), Cumberbatch, and Rachel McAdams who plays Strange’s former lover Christine Palmer — do their best to conjure something believable and contribute to Strange’s emotional arc.
But it’s impossible to buy anything between Strange and Palmer, because the first Doctor Strange movie treated McAdams’ presence as an after-thought. Waldron’s big idea for Strange on Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is to question if he’s happy. The former Sorcerer Supreme might have saved the world a couple of times, but that’s come at a personal cost. Of course, bigger sacrifices have been in store for Maximoff, as anyone who has seen WandaVision — or previous MCU movies with Olsen — is aware of. WandaVision isn’t outright required viewing, but it does help you understand the headspace Maximoff is in now, and how her arc feels semi-reset in a way. The new Marvel movie reveals hidden depths to what we were told was a moment of closure and forward journey for Maximoff.
At the same time, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness has a lot more on its mind. I mean, there’s a “multiverse” literally in the title. Lacking the nostalgia hook that allowed Spider-Man: No Way Home to bring back beloved actors, the new Doctor Strange movie’s multiverse approach relies on surprising us with alternate versions of the characters we know — and beyond. There are major cameos here, both expected and unexpected, though I imagine not everyone will be on board with how they are handled. It essentially signals that only the MCU’s prime dimension — finally namechecked as Earth-616 on Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness — is the only one that matters, with every other Earth existing to serve it. Some might call it, to borrow a term from the movie, a desecration of reality.
But it’s exactly the sort of stuff you expect a former Rick & Morty writer — in Waldron — to come up with. Now that the MCU consists of infinite universes, where there are as many variants and takes on characters out there, you can basically do anything. Assuming you’ve the money, which Disney and Marvel Studios are hardly lacking in. It also helps that there’s no shortage of Hollywood actors who eagerly want to be part of the MCU.
Nearly every cameo in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is an extended gag — it’s pandering, but it’s also willing to laugh at their expense — which is somewhat in line with what’s come before. Marvel Studios has been trolling us through the MCU’s Phase Four, be it Evan Peters’ inclusion on WandaVision as Pietro Maximoff that turned out to be a red herring, and Vincent D’Onofrio returning as Wilson Fisk/ Kingpin from Daredevil on Hawkeye only to be seemingly killed off.
Though it’s not just Waldron who has been let loose in a universe multiverse where anything is possible. Raimi operated with a somewhat down-to-earth aesthetic in the Spider-Man world — which is now retroactively connected of sorts to the MCU, ugh — but there are virtually no rules here. The 62-year-old director rises above the 35-year-old Waldron’s troubles with character arcs and fan service, pushing the MCU into places it has previously kept away from. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is, at different times, gnarly, gory, scary, and bizarro. It’s in your face and willing to push itself into the mythos and illustrative styles of some Doctor Strange comics like never before.
There is at least one jump scare. There are a few body horror moments, the most memorable of which finds Olsen squeezing herself out of a mirror, with her arms and legs all twisted and out of place before she fixes herself. I wonder how blissfully-unaware parents will feel about these, after their kids drag them to the theatres for “that new Marvel movie”. And in one sequence, somewhat early into Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Strange and another character crater through all sorts of universes, including an animated one and one where everyone’s paint.
Raimi — like Scott Derrickson before him on Doctor Strange — also finds ways to make the action interesting. The highlight is a battle that riffs on background music in an inventive and refreshing manner. I feel the first movie was more inventive on the whole, though it naturally helped that we were seeing the Masters of the Mystic Arts for the first time.