I wasn’t that impressed by the first Doctor Strange movie. Forget the whitewashing of the Ancient One, the title character struck me as Tony Stark lite, another brilliant, arrogant bastard who needed to be brought low and then redeemed. Since then, Benedict Cumberbatch found a better and funnier angle on the character as the superhero world’s annoying paper-pusher in Thor: Ragnarok and Spider-Man: No Way Home. Now, Sam Raimi has been brought in to direct Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and he’s made it into one of his Evil Dead movies written on as large a canvas as Marvel will give him. In fact, the emotional underpinnings that Marvel gives him makes this even better than those beloved films from the ’80s. You may or may not agree with that, but I think you will agree that this works way better than The New Mutants.
Here’s where I admit that I haven’t seen WandaVision or What If…? They would probably help me appreciate this, but I believe I still have the gist. The story picks up with Stephen Strange attending the wedding of Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) to a different guy, which is interrupted by a large, tentacled intergalactic beast chasing a teenage girl (Xochitl Gomez) down the street. Upon dispatching the creature, Strange and Wong (Benedict Wong) find out that the girl is America Chavez, a refugee from a parallel universe who can’t control her ability to travel through the multiverse. Strange enlists the advice of Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) to send America back home, only to discover that she has gone insane with grief, tormented by visions of her own alternate selves living happy lives with her two young sons. She wants America’s power and is willing to kill the girl and destroy entire universes to live that life.
It’s not enough to engage a director with name recognition, you need to understand the particular qualities that that filmmaker brings. Raimi’s brand of surrealist horror fits this story, it distinguishes this series from the other Marvel franchises, and it’s something we haven’t seen from him since 2009’s Drag Me to Hell. (He was always miscast in those Spider-Man films, where he had to tamp down his natural impulses.) Stephen and America fall through about 20 universes in one trip, becoming aquatic creatures and Into the Spider-Verse-style animated characters along the way, and it’s the sort of sequence that you hire Raimi for. Also, it’s comforting to see that the director hasn’t lost his taste for gross eyeball jokes, of which there are several here. Fans of McAdams will be gratified to know she portrays an alternate-universe version of Christine, who, unlike her counterpart that Stephen knows, actually does stuff that affects the plot.
Meanwhile, the horror here comes from Olsen’s performance as Scarlet Witch sends zombified versions of Wanda after our protagonists and radiates pain in every conversation she has with Strange. This goes hand in hand with the special effects depicting Wanda with more power than we’ve ever seen her wielding. The alternate universes in play here allow for unpredictability to creep in, and when Wanda takes on the Illuminati, they turn out to be the Fantastic Four, who are neither the superheroes nor the actors that you expect. One of them tries out the “I have children, too” line on Wanda. It backfires catastrophically.
By Marvel standards, this runs a crisp 126 minutes, but it still feels overstuffed, and Raimi runs into trouble with the different plotlines taking place in different locations, a regular feature of Marvel films. Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) remains a dull villain who’s overshadowed by Wanda here. Even so, Wanda leaves a trail of dead superheroes that’s impossible to turn back from. Her tragic story arc is haunting in itself, and it forces Stephen to reckon with his own predicament. Unlike Tony Stark, Strange has lost the woman he loved because he was too much of a coward to tell her how he felt. He confides this movingly to the alt-Christine, whom he can never be with. This Doctor Strange is a creation with layers, and that is more than welcome.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Elizabeth Olsen. Directed by Sam Raimi. Written by Michael Waldron, based on Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s comics. Rated PG-13.