My mind was not prepared for the mad scientist cocktail that is Sam Raimi’s highly cerebral, heavily psychological melding into dimensions beyond our own. No stranger to the comic books having shepherded the first successful Spider-Man to box office glory, now he’s attempting a war of the minds. And in turn, he unlocks a new corner of the MCU, one very scary, terrifying, and a little messy in going without headlights to navigate. With Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, the game rises further to incorporate a genuine sense of mortal terror. Infinity War’s cosmic blip could only skate the surface; here, it’s a complete dive, headfirst.
Picking up vaguely post-No Way Home (if you still haven’t seen it yet, no big deal), Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), the former neurosurgeon turned time wizard is in a period of stagnation after the world was on the brink of significant destruction. Consumed by nightmares of the past, he puts on his bravest face for ex Christine (Rachel McAdams) at her wedding. It’s a calm that is fleeting when mysterious space creatures once more find their way to Earth, hunting down dimensional traveler America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez). She has untamed abilities, to create new doorways within the varied realms of the multiverse. Something certain multiversal beings and/or groups would waste no time ascertaining. Strange does see a threat in the making, looking for assistance through second-in-command Wong (Benedict Wong), and old Avengers ally Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen). Problem is, one’s a bumbling scapegoat; the other, fully consumed still by familial grief and manifesting into dark magic even the doc could not effectively fathom.
And that may just be the opening kick to how dark of a spiral Raimi is willing to go, aided by scribe Michael Waldron (Loki). The crown jewel of this story is very much the one on Wanda’s head, reconnecting with the darkest corner of her psyche as the Scarlet Witch. How her arc continues from where we last saw her in WandaVision is like wandering into a state of emotional powerlessness, compensating with a raw temper as she dabbles in a book known simply as The Darkhold to get what she wants, albeit blindly. The goal is a bit single-sided, with motivations stifled. To Olsen’s portrayal, it is a challenge to deepen Wanda’s psychological leverage, which she conquers without hesitancy.
I couldn’t say the same with Raimi’s direction. It’s too easy to revel in the level of freedom he has, and I know I did. His approach to the material, and Strange’s sense of regret and conflict, may prove no equal. It’s all terrifying, it left me anxious, and a little short of breath. All in a rapturous manner, by the end of it, standard in-jokes notwithstanding. But it could be too much freedom at times, disrupting the normal tonality of any one MCU entry. It’s like Raimi’s diving into a deep underwater cave, with only a guideline and a dense lung capacity to carry him. No spotlights are necessary, as he once more embraces both the insane and the traumatic. In that process, he inadvertently goes beyond the drawn lines, often to the point of exhaustion. A point where even the thrill of traveling around the verses gets a little lost in the shuffle. That, and the overly heightening fanservice, where aspects work well, but not everything. Consider the latter half a bit sluggish and forced as an indirect result.
From a visual sense, Raimi’s definition of restraint is once more defiant of Webster’s. Any five minutes spent in this multiverse is enough to leave a chill, nervous jitters, and a migraine as well. Evil Dead-like zombies, mental pathology tests, and the presence of a haunting castle are among what Raimi considers the highest form of eye candy. Having been away from the director’s chair since the quite forgettable Oz the Great and Powerful, his electric brain is more than making up for that lost time, carrying DP John Mathieson (Detective Pikachu) on his back to effectively frame every shot for a succinct template. Call it a chaotic cohesiveness, professionally capturing each glossy, CG-laden upside-down thread at the exact moment of a downturn. Danny Elfman’s (Men in Black: International) careful ear for chord-friendly tension does serve him well once more, matching Sam’s freneticism, albeit losing sight of the nuances with both Stephen and Wanda’s themes in prior media.
All these surface flourishes may not amount to much without the right personnel to back them up. Particularly in front of the camera, with Cumberbatch again holding the keys. Waldron’s writing style is nothing less than a careful reapplication of Strange’s nimble cautiousness in a much larger sandbox to fit his skills, ego, and magical floating cape. Compared to his 2016 introduction at the hand of wildcard helmer Scott Derrickson, Strange has much more to play around with objectively. And that, in turn, helps to loosen his inhibitions, up his comic timing. With Benedict, being funny often needs to be unlocked. Here, it’s decimated, and then through McAdams’ admiringly expanded role, carefully mended in a show of tenuous chemistry. And lastly solidified as an open door through his widening circle of enemies, allies, and in-betweens. Namely the likes of Wong (quick with the jabs), Chiwetel Ejiofor (flexing his revenge claws as old rival Karl Mordo), Michael Stuhlbarg (as a staunch ex-work colleague), and a standout Gomez in a role whose presence effortlessly challenges every sidekick ethics rule
I feel like there was plenty of good with a hyper-thinking Raimi at the helm, though not exceeding greatness beyond what’s visible on the surface. When leaning forward on the railing of horror-comedy, he’s placing all his weight. Often at the cost of a not all compelling script, blind to those much smaller lines of continuity, and oddly resistant to exploring specific verses on a deeper level. Thankfully, his cast stays cool, calm, and fierce. Ready to respond, and play. And in Olsen’s case, emote with exertion. It takes a bit of time and forgiveness to be completely sold on the off-the-wall trickery in Multiverse of Madness. Eventually, I knew I could warm up to its fright, its irony, and its guilt. Combine those three elements to craft a fresh, atypical direction for the MCU. After 14 years, it’s fully warranted. (B-; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness starts in theaters at 3 PM local time on May 5th; rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, frightening images, and some language; 126 minutes.