Before now, the closest we've gotten to a Marvel horror movie was the thoroughly unimpressive The New Mutants, which wasn't successful as either a comic book adaptation or a fright flick. Thankfully, Sam Raimi has returned to directing after a nine-year hiatus for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. To be perfectly frank, I've been feeling a little Marvel-ed out of late. The movies are fundamentally designed to be similar, a fact that made Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Eternals, in particular, less than satisfying in my eyes. Raimi, the mastermind behind the Evil Dead series, brings his unique style to this MCU installment, allowing it to fit squarely into the franchise while simultaneously having a vibe all its own.
Benedict Cumberbatch returns as the magical superhero. Former colleague Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), a.k.a. Scarlet Witch, has fallen under the spell of an evil book known as the Darkhold. Now she's a bit on the power-hungry side. The only way to stop her is to travel through the multiverse, connecting with different versions of himself from alternate dimensions in order to procure a second book that can destroy the Darkhold. Strange has an important ally in America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a young woman with the untrained ability to move through that multiverse. Doing this also puts him in contact with an alternate version of his true love, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams).
A primary concept in Multiverse of Madness is that Strange has to face down an assortment of demons in the process of tracking Wanda. She also unleashes eerie spells that include mind control, hallucinations, and so on. Other Marvel movies have had monsters, or at least monster-like creatures, but this is the first time such elements are meant to be a little scary. Several gruesome deaths occur, as well, with the film occasionally pushing the boundaries of the PG-13 rating. Taking this approach proves intriguing, as it suggests the multiverse is an uncontrolled, anything-goes realm that should be feared for its unpredictable nature.
Raimi amps that quality up, then adds his own signature visual style to the picture. The camera spins and twists in dizzying, unsettling ways. Other times, he stages action in the manic slapstick style of Evil Dead 2. That isn't to say he doesn't take the story seriously. He certainly does. Raimi's gift is making things that should be funny seem horrific, and making things that should be horrific seem funny. No one else melds those qualities the way he does. Under his watch, Multiverse of Madness feels like the first MCU movie in a while to be fueled by a genuine filmmaking vision. The director pulls out all the stops to add a streak of ominousness and terror to the Marvel template.
Of course, the stuff audiences expect is fully accounted for. You get plenty of dazzling fights between characters and entities. Moments of humor arrive regularly to break the tension. And there are obligatory surprise cameos from other Marvel characters. Nowhere is that last one more prevalent than in the movie's midsection, which features a lengthy scene involving a group called the Illuminati. Initially, I felt like the need to cram in these cameos was slowing the film down, but Raimi and screenwriter Michael Waldron do something unexpected and devious with them, and the gutsiness of that is impressive.
Benedict Cumberbatch is again excellent as Doctor Strange. Multiverse of Madness belongs to Elizabeth Olsen, though. Without giving anything too specific away, there are two versions of Wanda. As the evil Scarlet Witch, the actress nicely provides the character with a demented, vengeful quality. She makes an outstanding villain. The other Wanda has a touching plot thread that I won't reveal, except to say that Olsen brings an abundance of emotion to it, helping to ground the wild-and-crazy story with an identifiably human factor. Never before in the MCU has she been able to shine as brightly as she does here.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness benefits from going the horror route and giving Raimi permission to employ his signature sensibility. With so many entries, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is in increasing danger of becoming staid. Signs of that happening already exist. Having an established horror maestro interpret this character and world ensures the movie doesn't simply retread familiar ground. Risk-taking is precisely what the MCU needs right now. Raimi has made one of the company's boldest, most vibrant works to date.
out of four
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, frightening images and some language. The running time is 2 hours and 6 minutes.