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Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness: our spoiler-free review

Sam Raimi tries to find the hero inside a particularly difficult MCU protagonist

Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange blasts sheets of glowy orange frap out of his hands in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Image: Marvel Studios

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In the hallowed halls of Marvel Comics, Dr. Stephen Strange is a much more consistent visitor in other heroes’ stories than a star in his own. His immense power and his remove from the ordinary world of heroing make him something of an abstraction in the Marvel universe — mostly useful when other heroes run afoul of his marvelous, perilous world of magic, and drop in on him for help and explanations.

And the good doctor’s usefulness as a secondary character has translated to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, too. Since his obligatory origin film in 2016, Strange (as played by Benedict Cumberbatch) has found more memorable cinematic life in supporting roles as a magical expert with wise words for the beleaguered protagonists of Thor: Ragnarok, Avengers: Infinity War, and Spider-Man: No Way Home. For his return to top billing in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, director Sam Raimi (director of the Spider-Man trilogy and the Evil Dead trilogy) and screenwriter Michael Waldron (Rick and Morty, Loki) have found a way to lean into this.

That means packing the story full of as many other characters as possible, as early as possible in the story. Setting a movie in the full breadth of the Marvel Cinematic Multiverse sets up the opportunity to bring in a lot of characters — and a lot of references designed to thrill comics fans and MCU obsessives alike. But no matter how many universes Multiverse of Madness leaps through, it can’t escape the fact that its hero is Stephen Strange. And his strong supporting cast only underscores the weakness of his own personal evolution.

America Chavez, Wong, and Doctor Strange look anxiously toward the camera in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness Image: Marvel Studios

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness barrels adroitly through its opening, assembling its cast and launching them all on quests for various personally important MacGuffins. The most talkative and sympathetic of those MacGuffins is America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a new-to-the-MCU character facing a powerful magical enemy. Naturally, her escape runs her right into the path of Stephen Strange, who seeks help from old allies like Benedict Wong’s Wong, and new ones like Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch.

Olsen definitely gives the film’s most arresting performance, and after the Disney Plus TV series WandaVision, that shouldn’t surprise anyone. Gomez is charming as America — her central role and overall storyline seem destined to set up a solo Disney Plus series of her own, and this movie makes that prospect particularly appealing.

Just like in his first film and in the comics, the star of a Doctor Strange story isn’t Stephen himself. He remains egotistical, pompous, and condescending. It’s clear that he’s unlikable in all universes, to greater or lesser degrees. The real hero in Multiverse of Madness isn’t a person; it’s the visuals — particularly the way Raimi and his team depict mind-rending magical abilities, ones that obey no wands or Harry Potter-like pig-Latin incantations. Director Scott Derrickson leaned on shifting kaleidoscope worlds and Inception-esque landscapes for the original Doctor Strange. But once a single sequence nodding at that film’s fractal magic visuals is out of the way, Multiverse of Madness completes a full transformation into Sam Raimi’s House of Magical Spooks and Monsters.

In this movie, tentacles roil, specters scream, skeletons taunt, and eldritch hands seek, grasp, and pull. Goofy body-horror deaths — a tasting menu’s worth — play to delighted gasps. There are at least two moments where characters look straight out of the screen and make eye contact with the audience. The camera swoops across scenes, delivers POV shots from the oddest of entities, and transitions from sequence to sequence via occasionally dreamlike leaps. Particularly memorable is an entire magical duel accomplished through animated musical notes, underscored (ho ho) by the work of composer Danny Elfman.

Multiverse of Madness joins a young but swiftly growing realm of modern action cinema based around the comic book idea of an endless system of parallel worlds. In the DC and Marvel settings, the multiverse springs from the simultaneously capitalistic and nostalgic desire to preserve all versions of the characters that fans love, holding them fast against the ravages of time, editorial mandate, plot hole, and paradox. But in film, the multiverse has been put to different purposes.

A pink-and-purple CGI vista seen through a Dutch tilt, showing a glowing blue-white light on a plinth surrounded by narrow, twisted minarets in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Image: Marvel Studios

To Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, infinite worlds are a proving ground that show how anyone can be a hero. To Everything Everywhere All at Once, they’re a chance to see the meaning in every potential lifetime. In Multiverse of Madness, the multiverse is less of a metaphor than a tool for turning the connections between superheroes and their stories into another big Marvel event.

Raimi’s cinematic wizardry lends loads of dazzle to the pack of references and callbacks that make up a large part of the film’s middle. But strip away all the sparks, and Multiverse of Madness is simply leaning on the same cross-referential thrill-of-recognition joy-button that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been frantically pressing for more than a decade now, designed to elicit huge gasps from die-hard fans, while sending everyone else to the Google search bar on their phones.

Eventually, though, Multiverse of Madness has to leave the realm of endless parallel earths and return to its titular wizard. In all versions of the Marvel Universe, Strange is a twist on Faust, a man who discovers the ultimate cosmic shortcut. Waldron’s script hammers home the ways in which the power to tell the laws of physics to sit down and shut up has not solved any of Stephen’s real problems. He’s still a man of self-inflicted isolation and bottomless ego, and while he may have evolved from helping people for the glory of being the world’s greatest surgeon to helping them because they need him, he hasn’t rid himself of his god complex.

Multiverse of Madness repeatedly invites Stephen Strange to learn that he isn’t always right, and that all magic comes with a price. It suggests that he’s foolish to be so certain that the dark paths that have corrupted others won’t also corrupt him. It feints at the evolution he needs if he’s ever going to be a hero, rather than a particularly flashy, fancy detail in other people’s stories. But the film’s thoughts on Doctor Strange’s deals with devils (metaphorical ones, at least) remain open, and its refusal to answer its own questions remains frustrating. In the end, it’s his name on the poster, so he gets to break all the rules and still claim hero status. Will consequences catch up with him? As an answer, all that Multiverse of Madness has to offer is the second button the MCU has worn down to a nub: Tune in next time!

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness debuts in theaters on May 6.

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