The Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise has always taken different genres and shook them in a superhero container. Oddly, some 20 plus movies in, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is the first MCU movie to go full horror movie. Directed by Sam Raimi who has three whole Spider-Man movies under his belt, this is more tonally and stylistically consistent with his Evil Dead horror trilogy. There’s a hefty bit of background to this, not only the previous Doctor Strange outing but Avengers: Infinity War, Spider-Man: No Way Home, the Disney Plus TV series What If…? and Wandavision and even heroes in the Multiverse are cobbled together from previous Marvel films. Still, some plot twists here may be unwelcomingly shocking to viewers who followed the previous stories. But Multiverse of Madness works as a singularly weird superhero movie that turns to horror at unexpected moments.
Wizard and superhero Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is attending the wedding of his former girlfriend, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), when a monster crashes outside chasing after a superpowered teenager, America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez). She is from a different reality where she met a different Doctor Strange who is trying to protect her from the Scarlet Witch aka Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen). Wanda wants to use America’s reality jumping powers to find her two sons somewhere in the multiverse. Strange enlists the help of his fellow wizards, including the Sorcerer Supreme, Wong (Benedict Wong), but things get messy quickly when the Scarlet Witch shows up, causing Strange and America to hop realities. While Strange may find new allies in his fight, the power of the Witch may be too much.
The film bounces around a bit from crazy action to some chatty lulls and lots of exposition about what reality they’re in. Also, there’s more than one plot important magical book here which may get confusing. Marvel fans will easily slide along however it may be a bit head-scratching to audience members not versed in the lore. The new and different superhero characters that Strange encounters in the multiverse are a surprisingly unexpected bunch. There’s even a character and actor from the fairly lame Inhumans Marvel TV series which is shocking because everyone tries to forget Inhumans happened. Patrick Stewart reprises his role as Professor Xavier from the X-Men film franchise and Stewart has always been perfect. At one point Professor X uses his powers to get inside Wanda’s headspace and it’s nicely trippy and weird. The way the movie uses these characters may make some fans a bit angsty, however it gets points for being unexpected.
Even more surprising is how the movie uses the Scarlet Witch, especially after her whole emotional journey in Wandavision. Her characterization here does make a twisted sort of emotional sense but it is just not what was promised at the end of Wandavision. It gets a pass as Wanda has hopped from baddie to hero multiple times in the comics and this is more villainous, crazy and powerful than she has been in the MCU before. Olsen shows someone who is desperate to get back what she’s lost even if she has to break reality to get it. A rationalization provided for her dark turn is that she’s using an evil book that may be influencing her. Although, this unexpected character swerve that may tick off viewers who are invested in her emotional journey, especially those who watched Wandavision.
Wanda the crazy Witch creates lots of horror-styled moments. In one of the movie’s stylistic call-backs to Raimi’s filmography, a bit when Wanda possesses another version of herself is very similar to Ash in the cabin from Evil Dead. Raimi veteran Bruce Campbell also has a funny cameo here using some of his physicality from his Ash performances. There are lots of jump scares, giant gross monsters, and not quite extremely gory splatter. It is pushing the limits of the PG-13 rating in the States (it received PG in Ontario). The film sometimes clashes harshly against its MCU continuity concerns versus just being crazy. In the end, horror wins out.
Cumberbatch plays multiple versions of Doctor Strange, even a wildly weird undead Strange, and each has their own distinctive trait. Cumberbatch conveys that if Strange himself is having trouble with the Scarlet Witch, then it’s a big problem. McAdams’ Christine is basically the representation of everything he has given up in his life to attend to wizard duties, and there is another version that adds emotional pathos. As Chavez, Gomez makes the character likable even if she is basically just a talking plot piece. Wong is always fun to see although he’s mostly there to be put in danger for suspense with a couple of fake-out deaths. Chiwetel Ejiofor pops up as an alternate version of Strange’s nemesis Mordo who is nasty and judgemental. Ejiofor’s Mordo being the main baddie will still wait for another day as this is the Scarlet Witch’s wicked show.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is not one of the best MCU sequels, but it does score points for being ambitious, mixing the MCU with horror and unexpected twists. The specifics of what is going on may be a bit overly complex, but the emotional story works and when the film often goes wild it’s an intense ride.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
Director: Sam Raimi
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, Xochitl Gomez, Michael Stuhlbarg, Rachel McAdams