Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

4 out of 5

Directed by: Sam Raimi

I like to allow for the things I review to be received by different points of view; that is: I accept that my opinion is my own. Except in the case of Doctor Strange 2, in which those that felt lukewarm toward the movie are wrong – this is the most danged fun Marvel movie that’s been made since… well, since whenever this now years long experiment became something of a formula. And a mostly reliable formula, that I’ve enjoyed!… but that has necessitated some experimentation in “Phase 4,” to greater and lesser results. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness veers strongly toward the greater side of that, and leans right on past the marker into standalone greatness, underlining how the more timeless, enduring MCU flicks tend to be the ones featuring the most authorial stamp; in this case, not a lick of this movie falls into “standard” MCU templating – from the first moment until the last double-stinger, this is a danged Sam Raimi movie. Doubling down on the praise: it’s also one of the most fun latter-era Raimi movies, right up there with the genre indulgence of Drag Me To Hell, cycled through all the lessons learned on Spider-Man flicks and his years since dealing with big budgets.

The opening splash of CG – a different looking Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) running through a fantastical nightmare land, accompanied by teen, jean-jacketed America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), chased by a smoke-and-tentacled demon – would seem to mimic our usual Marvel openings which try to wow us with effects and some quippy takedowns by our lead hero, but we immediately get a different sense from Raimi’s approach: this is spectacle, but done as storytelling; the whole environment may be crafted in a computer, but the characters are very, very human, and the shot composition immediately make us want to know what these two are up to, and fret when they’re cornered by this demon, and their quest for a book on a pedestal just out of reach… is quashed. America responds by instinct: she blows open a star-shaped hole in the world, and has to leave Doctor Strange to his fate. She jumps through the star… and the rest is delivered with zippy, “just go with it” panache: welcome to the Multiverse; that was an alternate Doctor Strange, and now America is in our Marvel world, and seeking out the Strange we know, to prevent those demons from getting at her Multiverse-traveling powers.

The slickness / quickness with which this is delivered was something I enjoyed, but it’s definitely very breathless. Whether a conscious attempt by Marvel to try to keep their movies to briefer runtimes, or perhaps Raimi and regular editor Bob Murawski knowing that this material worked best if you don’t have time to think about it, the movie has no pauses, to the extent that it does seem like it’s missing some usual transitional scenes. Again, I liked the pace – it prevented the forced “watch ’em all” gravitas of recent Marvel pics / TV shows, and just relegated the intra-connections down to the briefest of asides – but it definitely does hold the movie back at the same time, feeling like a great magic trick of distraction, and making every big moment a little less big because now the next one is happening. But I hand it back to Raimi’s direction – how he uses what’s on screen – and his management of Michael Waldron’s tight script: even with the questionably nonstop momentum, and, for example, how little screentime a main character like America has, I cared about her fate, and felt more engaged with this Doctor Strange than the one in his more comparatively sedate first film, and felt like the villain provided legitimate, tense stakes.

This is also a pretty big deal: the baddie in Multiverse of Madness may be the best bad guy of any Marvel movie to date. Thanos was a threat because he was so imposing; our foe here comes across as potentially unbeatable, and is brought to life with palpable pathos, and matters beyond the scope of just this movie. MoM thus felt more connected with the MCU, without the tiresome intra-universe winking to which we’re often subjected. The movie achieves some inverse equation, where it’s so steeped in other material that you can just sit back and go with it. At the point where we’re several alternate-verses deep, and Stephen meets several alternate-alternate characters from the far reaches of the MCU, I felt like the movie had cracked the code of bringing back the joy of classic comic book tomfoolery, blended with a throughline of silly but creative storytelling, and characters you actually want to be around. I was excited to be watching a Marvel movie again.

And, come on, you knew that Bruce Campbell cameo was coming, but it was hilarious anyway.