Sam Raimi’s horror sense and gory sensibilities (Evil Dead style) permeates Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. On paper this is a sequel to 2016’s predecessor which introduced Benedict Cumberbatch as the cocky mythical surgeon Stephen Strange. As with most sagas in the MCU, his character has been in plenty of other adventures in the interim (most notably the gargantuan Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame). The fifth word is the most key in the title. As Spider-Man: No Way Home (with its understandably audience pleasing cameos) showed just a few months back, this cinematic universe is now comprised of scores of them. Multiverse has a limited amount of fun with this development that’s far less memorable.
Instead this sequel often serves as a continuation of Disney Plus’s first Marvel streaming series WandaVision with Elizabeth Olsen. If you didn’t watch that, you’re going to be a little lost. Olsen’s Wanda, on the TV show, created an idyllic home life with Vision (Paul Bettany) and two cute kids with superhero powers. The problem – it was a completely invented reality and Wanda was causing harm to others by continuing the charade. She comes to her senses eventually. Multiverse finds Wanda being taken over by her alter ego the Scarlet Witch after acquiring a book of magic spells. Her character motivations stretch credibility with the same elasticity as a certain cameo where she battles familiar MCUers with some different faces.
Wanda/Scarlet’s plans to reunite with her made up kiddos jeopardize life in plenty of multiverses. None of them involve her wanting to reunite with the love of her life Vision (there’s that credibility issue). It does involve Doctor Strange teaming up with America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez). I’m sure her persona will be fleshed out in future installments. For now she’s a teen with the ability to jump multiverses who possesses powers she’s just beginning to harness. Strange first makes her acquaintance while attending the wedding of his former flame Christine (Rachel McAdams). A CG monster interrupts the reception on the streets outside and an eye popping (literally) battle ensues. The Scarlet Witch wants America for her own nefarious purposes so the Doc must protect her across multiple dimensions.
Actually… only a couple of dimensions as Multiverse never gets much screen time to explore the possibilities other than a brief and very cool sequence. Therein lies part of the problem. While I know we’re dealing with intergalactic mayhem that can mean all sorts of unanticipated cameos and landscapes, Madness can feel surprisingly low stakes. It doesn’t help with the aforementioned matters of Scarlet’s clunky story treatment.
What does occasionally assist in the entertainment value is Raimi being in the director’s chair. Taking over for Scott Derrickson, the veteran filmmaker doesn’t shy away from jump scares and his unique brand made notable four decades ago in Evil Dead. There are unquestionably some impressive and spellbinding visuals. There’s also a pop-in by Bruce Campbell that is more satisfying than higher profile cameos. Unfortunately this suffers from a malady similar to Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 with villainous plots that don’t quite ultimately work. Chiwetel Ejiofor unceremoniously returns as a version of Mordo, Strange’s former ally turned foe.
All this Strange magic while Stephen pines for Christine makes for a middle of the universe to lower tier universe experience. I appreciate Kevin Feige and the team allowing Raimi so much creative control. However, while previous confrontations were fought in fewer dimensions, I felt they covered more meaningful ground. As the MCU moves forward across all these galaxies (sometimes with inspiration and sometimes trudging on shaky foundations), we’ll have lots of opportunities to see how the mix turns out. I still have guarded optimism.
**1/2 (out of four)