In 2002, the superhero genre achieved an ideal form in “Spider-Man,” which built upon aspects from the Superman and Batman franchises as well as 1998’s “Blade” and 2000’s “X-Men.” Over the subsequent two decades, the genre developed and expanded, but a consistent aspect throughout is the cinematic expression of the experience of superpowers. This was a particular contribution of Sam Raimi, whose highly mobile camera (initially developed on “The Evil Dead”) gave viewers the vicarious experience of swinging through New York like Spider-Man himself. Subsequent films have expressed the feeling of Iron Man’s flight, Captain America’s combat and Doctor Strange’s altering of reality and time. Now with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, director Sam Raimi returns to the genre he helped develop with this narratively wobbly, but visually gorgeous, tale of selves, yearning, fears and bodies.
We first meet Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, “The Power of the Dog”) suffering from various troubles, including regrets over his failed relationship with Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams, “Disobedience”) and dreams about a teenage girl with immense power, and a monster that looks to drain energy. Then the girl actually appears, and things become, well, strange. Monsters emerge, sorcery and witchcraft clash, and some familiar / unfamiliar faces arrive. With a clearly malevolent force pursuing the girl America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez, “Roped”), Strange must marshal his powers and face his own fears to save literally all around him.
Notably, Doctor Strange’s first appearance was in 2016’s “Doctor Strange,” but this film is his sixth appearance in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Cumberbatch gives Strange a development of what we have seen before, with acceptance of his role as a (non-supreme) sorcerer tinged with regret over the life left behind. The snarky arrogance is still there, but it feels more of an act this time and the real, more wounded and vulnerable Strange becomes apparent when those who know him call him out. Among these is the magnificent Benedict Wong (“Annihilation”) as Wong, whose world-weariness and sometimes downright exasperation provides a pleasing foil to Strange’s flippancy. McAdams’ Palmer was somewhat shortchanged in the original film but here proves significant in both the personal and multidimensional stakes. Palmer and Strange face some notable challenges together, with Palmer demonstrating that quick wits and intelligence can be as useful as sorcery and combat skills in a tricky situation. As America Chavez, the teenager whose powers cause significant bother, Xochitl Gomez conveys a compelling tension between being out of control, desperately wishing for home but also too afraid to be around others. The question over what America and Strange can and indeed should do comes up repeatedly, and while the answer may not be terribly surprising, it does deliver some dramatic heft. There are also some fascinating cameos as screenwriter Michael Waldron explores the potential of comic book lore in a multiverse context. Some of these appearances recall past films and others may point to the future of the MCU, but it is arguable that they offer little for the non-MCU devotee, and therefore smack slightly of fan service.
However, the star player of the film is Elizabeth Olsen (“Ingrid Goes West”) as Wanda Maximoff / Scarlet Witch. Like Strange, Wanda has appeared in multiple MCU entries but only one as the title character. Viewers are advised to check out “WandaVision” before seeing the film, because Wanda’s emotional arc is informed by that previous Marvel output. Here, Wanda is complex and compelling, her yearning and trauma understandable even as her actions may raise questions. Thanks to the multiverse conceit, Olsen gets to play alternate versions of Wanda that prove to be distinct, allowing the film to explore the idea of different identities influenced by fear and compassion, yet still motivated by love. Different versions of other established characters continue this exploration, but Wanda’s desperate pursuit gives the film an emotional core as well as a pleasing ambivalence.
A similar ambivalence can be felt about the movie as a whole. There are recurring weaknesses in the script such as narrative details that are clarified too quickly or given inadequate weight despite the potentially heavy subject matter. This is not to say that Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness would benefit from heavy existential discussions, but previous Marvel films such as “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Black Panther” struck a more compelling balance between emotion and spectacle. That said, in terms of spectacle the film is an absolute delight, as Raimi takes full advantage of the opportunities afforded him by Marvel Studios and by the multiverse. Raimi and cinematographer John Mathieson swoop the camera through objects, portals and universes, taking the viewer for some truly wild rides. There is a bravura sequence of falling through multiple universes where we see Strange split into cuboid fragments. While these flashes are dazzling to see, we do not dwell on this weirdness as editors Bob Murawski and Tia Nolan knit the images efficiently into the next plot development, gorgeously couched in the production design of Md Joni Hossain and Charles Wood. Further spectacles include an early clash with Strange and Wong fighting a tentacled creature, a magical battle at Kamar-Taj featuring multiple sorcerers, and a musical combat sequence that is truly jaw-dropping in its creativity, as Raimi and composer Danny Elfman, as well as the VFX team, present combatants who not only provide the blows and missiles but also the score to their duel. Marvel films are sometimes criticized for being formulaic, but sequences like this demonstrate the potential for creativity and innovation, that a filmmaker like Raimi can make use of.
Speaking of which, Raimi also incorporates his horror background as many a fan likely hoped he would. There are some (sanitized) moments of body horror, genuine jump scares, hellish spirits and perhaps the closest we will get to a live action rendering of “Marvel Zombies.” It would be misleading to call this a horror film or indeed actually scary, but it does serve as a further reminder of the superhero genre’s malleability. After all, encountering the uncontrollable whether within one’s body or beyond can be a frightening experience, and the harm that some characters experience is writ large upon their bodies as well as their souls. Thus a film of this sort is able to incorporate this aspect alongside so many others, if to varying effect. While Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a patchy film overall, it offers more than enough thrills and spills to make its journey through the multiverse just what the doctor ordered.