Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness – Directed by Sam Raimi. Written by Michael Waldron. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen, Rachel McAdams, Xochitl Gomez, Benedict Wong, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Stuhlbarg, and an insane array of spoiler-filled cameos.

***/****

It’s been only four months since the last MCU movie gave us an wild-and-crazy adventure as multiple universes crashed into each other and threatened all reality. Now, the next installment…gives us a wild-and-crazy adventure as multiple universes crash into each other and threaten all reality. In some ways, this makes sense. After all, the Avengers faced off the biggest threat in the entire universe already in Avengers: Endgame. What’s the next step? The biggest threat in more than one universe.

The first installment in the Doctor Strange series isn’t considered one of Marvel’s best, although it’s far from the worst. It had a strong lead performance from Benedict Cumberbatch, a fun supporting cast, and some spectacular visuals. However, it suffered from a weak villain, a forgettable love interest in McAdams’ Christine Palmer (who, interestingly, Strange did not wind up with in the end), and some questionable casting for The Ancient One. Most MCU films far preferred Strange’s appearances as the deadpan guardian of the mystic arts in Avengers and Spider-man movies to his solo feature.

With Sam Raimi stepping in for Scott Derrickson on this installment, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness makes some smart course-corrections right out of the gate. Strange is much more human here than he was in his first movie, as he still deals with the fallout of being “Blipped” for five years. That’s a ridiculous plot thread that never quite works 100%, but the scenes where he attends Christine’s wedding and grapples with whether he’s truly happy are very compelling.

There are a lot of spoilers in Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, some which should stay a secret, so I’ll stay coy about the plot. I will say that Cumberbatch here gives one of the best performances I’ve ever seen in a Marvel movie. As the title gives away, there are going to be multiversal counterparts here, and Cumberbatch winds up playing multiple versions of himself and even playing off himself at certain points. It’s a tour de force, and the use of Strange’s magic is also far better than it’s been before. One particular scene, involving a battle of musical notes, is one of the most visually stunning scenes I’ve ever seen in a Marvel movie.

Benedict Wong’s Wong, who became Sorcerer Supreme in Strange’s absence, continues to be the secret weapon of the franchise. His deadpan delivery and sarcastic banter with Strange reminds me of what would happen if Alfred actually got to be a superhero in his own right. Although the plot separates him from Strange for much of it, his segments are never anything but compelling. What happens with Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Karl Mordo, though, is a little trickier. This is one of the pitfalls of the MCU – with installments years apart, we often miss key story elements just because so much time has passed. A multiversal Mordo does appear in this film, but we’re left to find out the backstory there through dialogue.

The plot is kicked off by the arrival of America Chavez, a multiversal refugee played by Xochitl Gomez. After barely escaping death in another universe and pursued by a grotesque demon, she gets rescued from certain death by Strange and Wong. In possession of incredible multiverse-traveling powers but not able to fully control them, she’s a massive target for people who want her abilities. Her initial role as a macguffin and kid who needs rescuing led to some comparisons to the character called Cassandra Cain in the Birds of Prey film, but unlike that film, this movie does right by the character. America is really this film’s secondary lead, coming into her own as a superhero and dealing with long-simmering trauma. Her interaction with Strange is thorny, but gives both of them an amazing character arc. I’m very excited to see where they take this character next.

And then there’s Wanda Maximoff, whose involvement in this film is probably the most anticipated part of Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness. Coming off WandaVision, a lot of people were wondering if this movie would be her return to heroic form – or her descent into madness. I can’t talk about this movie without getting into some mild spoilers, so be warned here.

Major Spoilers Below

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The Wanda we meet here is a very disturbed woman, and one who wants to use the Multiverse for her own ends. Corrupted by the Darkhold, she definitely takes on an antagonistic role for much of the film, but one of the strengths of the movie is that it keeps you guessing throughout. Her mission is a dangerous and twisted one, but one driven by a mother’s love taken too far. It’s impossible not to have hope for her, even as we’re horrified by the paths she goes down. Elizabeth Olsen also gives a great performance here, but it’s a less subtle one than she gave in the heartbreaking TV series. Many of her fans are not pleased with some of the choices made here, and I can understand that.

Also taking me by surprise is just how much of the legendary director there is in Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness. This is an MCU movie, to be sure, but it’s also a horror movie with some of the darkest and most disturbing visuals ever in a superhero movie. Some scenes are darkly funny, others provide some of the best jump scares I’ve seen in a while. The creatures here are genuinely like something out of Lovecraft, and the movie is never anything but thrilling and engaging.

And that’s even without getting into the massive parade of cameos, some of which basically leaked in the trailers and others which took even me by surprise. They shouldn’t be spoiled, but expect the biggest options and you’ll still be surprised. But for all the hype over them, most of them felt like they were just there to be cool easter eggs that didn’t have too much impact on the plot. One in particular will create a massive casting debate in the coming months. They almost felt apart from the movie in some ways.

And that plays into the biggest problem with Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness. This is a movie that’s often at war with itself. It wants to be both a Doctor Strange movie, and the next continuity-spanning megablockbuster. It largely works – but only if you’re a die-hard MCU follower like me. Some MCU movies require some prerequisites to fully get, but in this one you’re going to be completely lost if you’ve not watched not just the last Doctor Strange movie but Wandavision – and Loki and What If hold some key context clues as well. It has some phenomenal moments, but tries to do so much that it often breezes past them.

Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness basically lifts a mountain on its back – trying to undo some of the mistakes of the original (such as a surprisingly involved role for Christine), do justice by its main characters, and introduce new players. It largely succeeds, but in trying to live up to the massive legacy of previous MCU megablockbusters, it often struggles to maintain a consistent tone.

It’s the age of the megablockbuster and everyone else is just living in it – even the title character.

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