Scott Derrickson’s Doctor Strange is one of Marvel Studios’ more elegant films, blending psychedelic visuals and an underrated spiritual aspect that still sets it apart from other comic book films. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is also the first of the studio’s arrogant protagonists who isn’t rewarded for his bad behavior with material success. He doesn’t get the girl. He’s doesn’t achieve fame and fortune or even family. Strange is left destined to defend the world relatively unknown, wielding great power that could corrupt his soul. It jettisons the “I am Iron Man” of it all and continues to grow on me.
But that isn’t the only way to tell a story about Doctor Strange.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, the long-awaited sequel, lost Derrickson due to creative differences before production started. That’s usually a bad sign, but legendary director Sam Raimi quickly came on board. This is Raimi’s first film in almost 10 years, after Oz the Great and Powerful stunk up the joint. I’m not saying Raimi is an upgrade from Derrickson because I love the former film, but Marvel Studios truly committed to taking the character in a different direction and chose precisely the right person to lead him there. If the first movie owed to Steve Ditko and Brian K. Vaughan’s The Oath, the sequel is borne from the bones of 1970s Strange comics and more contemporary takes on the character, with a greater emphasis on action and horror. More than the comics, however, the clearest influence on Multiverse of Madness are Raimi’s own creative instincts. He’s back!
This is great news if you’re a fan of Sam Raimi, as I am. If you’re not, be forewarned: This is probably Marvel Studios’ most director-driven film yet, built in a way that pushes back against the tired criticism that Kevin Feige and company don’t let their creative partners put their own stamp on these big productions. Multiverse of Madness is frequently scary, featuring dark content befitting a film about witches and wizards (eat your heart out, Secrets of Dumbledore). One particular sequence is filled with graphic violence at a level not seen in any Marvel production. It was, frankly, rather upsetting.
Oh, the plot. Right. We pick up with Doctor Strange some time after the events of Spider-Man: No Way Home, where he had his first run-in with the Multiverse. He’s still a Master of the Mystic Arts but has ceded his brief role as Sorcerer Supreme to his mentor, Wong (Benedict Wong), who was not snapped into dust for five years by Thanos at the end of Avengers: Infinity War. Frankly, it was bullshit that Strange became Sorcerer Supreme at the end of the first movie anyway, and his demotion rights a wrong for Wong.
Strange and Wong are pulled into action to save America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a girl from another universe who has the unique ability to physically traverse the multiverse. She’s the only American Chavez in any reality, anywhere, which makes her incredibly valuable to both good and evil forces. One such evil force comes in the form of a once-friendly face: Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), aka the Scarlet Witch, formerly an Avenger but now the most powerful magical being in the universe. After the events of WandaVision (now available on Disney+), Wanda will do anything to find the children she feels she lost when her magical world ended in the finale of that series. That includes capturing Chavez to use her power in order to travel the Multiverse in search of them. So what if it kills Chavez in the process? It’s for her greater good.
There’s a real darkness to Multiverse of Madness, giving it a horror feel that may be shocking to viewers expecting the comfort food of a Marvel Studios production. Wanda, who received an empowerment arc in WandaVision, turns heel in big, shocking ways. I’ve said in the past that that show felt like more of a villain origin than a heroic evolution, and in some ways I regret being right. Not because I’m protective of Wanda, but … she really goes all-out. This is a film made for a post-The Boys world, where mainstream audiences have embraced a higher level of violence in their superhero media. For what it’s worth, Olsen is clearly having the time of her life playing Wanda unchained. She’s better here than she’s ever been.
The story moves at a breakneck pace, maybe more so than most Marvel films, throwing Strange and his friends through the Multiverse and all that entails. Yes, there are big-name cameos, but they never overwhelm the story or distract from this being a story about Stephen Strange. Most of those have been spoiled online already, but I won’t utter them here, except to say that the “obvious fan casting” one really worked for me, and I hope he’s seen in future films. We meet multiple versions of Strange himself through the story, and Cumberbatch does a great job differentiating them. Raimi and his team make the best possible use of introducing multiple versions of his magical lead characters. One particular fight scene between our main Strange and a fallen version of himself is the most creative use of magic in a blockbuster film in recent memory.
Despite the quick pacing, there’s still plenty of room for Strange himself amid the madness. He and Wanda have mirrored arcs about seeking power to attain happiness and how power corrupts. It’s pretty basic stuff. Wanda constantly accuses Strange of hypocrisy; he manipulates reality to achieve his own ends and is considered a hero for doing so, but her use of power to get what she wants has her branded a villain. In fairness to Strange, he’s also not going around kidnapping children and what-not, but she has a little bit of a point. The resolution to their respective crises are decent, if a little thin. Truthfully, the appeal of the film is Raimi going full-speed with the horror and comedy of it all. It feels like a comic book movie in just the right way.
Fans of WandaVision may be deeply disappointed by their heroine’s heel turn, and parents should be warned that this is a Raimi film first and foremost, but personally I’m really pleased with Multiverse of Madness as both a fan of Doctor Strange and of Raimi as a director. Although not as elegant or thoughtful as the first film, Raimi embraces a different approach to the character and makes it his own. After two such disparate takes, my hope is that an eventual third Strange film brings on yet another horror director with his (or preferably her) own sensibilities. It’s a big Multiverse of creative possibilities, and Strange is a character who can embody all of them.