DC Films and the superhero movies they make may lack the overall fanfare of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but I love how they give filmmakers with unique voices the creative freedom to fully realize their visions. Whether it’s Patty Jenkins with “Wonder Woman”, Todd Phillips with “Joker”, James Gunn with “The Suicide Squad”, and even “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” (although that one took a little doing). And just this year we’ve been treated to “The Batman” from Matt Reeves, an amazing film that certainly fits in the category of original works.
Marvel Studios has tried to do it themselves by handing key movies to individualistic directors. But the MCU’s head-honcho Kevin Feige holds a lot of influence, and Marvel’s model keeps every film beholden to some pretty strict guidelines. And in the few instances where directors have tried to balance originality with formula the results were pretty shaky. That is until the 28th film of the Marvel Cinematic Universe came along.
“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” has (by far) been the most compelling of all the messy ‘Phase Four’ productions. A big reason is quite simple – director Sam Raimi. I’ve been an unapologetic Sam Raimi fan starting with his 1981 horror classic “The Evil Dead”. His affection for horror has stuck with him, but he’s no stranger to superhero movies. He was the man behind the Tobey Mcguire Spider-Man trilogy during the 2000s (“Spider-Man 2” is still one of the best superhero movies to this day).
Now Raimi and his indelibly distinct style enters the MCU and the big question for me was simple – how much space would Feige and company give Raimi to make the movie he truly wanted to make? While there are a few moments that feel like studio demands, as a whole this is very much a Sam Raimi movie. And while 2016’s “Doctor Strange” was a very compact and fairly by-the-book origin story, its sequel couldn’t be more different.
Now I don’t wanna mislead anybody, this is still a Marvel movie as well. But Raimi brings a fresh jolt of energy that gives the MCU a kick it desperately needs. Yes it’s a little messy. Yes it doesn’t all come together as seamlessly as intended. But it’s that Raimi led chaos and risk-taking that makes the movie pop. Ultimately (and thankfully) “Multiverse of Madness” doesn’t feel like any other MCU movie to date. And that’s one reason I loved it.
Parsing through all of the story threads and multiverse hopping would be too much for a simple review. Just know you’ll need to pay attention because the movie has numerous moving parts. And while Raimi and screenwriter Michael Waldron bounce us around from point and point and place to place, they do so with a remarkable amount of control. When thinking back, I can remember several times when this thing could have flown off the rails. But Raimi manages to connect most of the dots and holds the story together which turns out to be an impressive feat unto itself.
“Multiverse of Madness” may be a chore for the MCU uninitiated. That’s because it leans pretty heavy on past Marvel material, specifically the Disney+ limited series “WandaVision” and last year’s blockbuster “Spider-Man: No Way Home”. If you remember, in “Spidey”, a temporarily inept Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) botched a spell that essentially splits open the Multiverse, opening our universe up to the infinite others in existence. Now he fully comes face-to-face with the consequences.
Meanwhile, Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) has been consumed by her sorrow and gone into hiding following the events of “WandaVision”. She’s found by Strange who seeks her help after he rescues a young girl named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) from an octopus demon (yep, you read that right). We learn America has the ability to open doorways to other dimensions in the Multiverse – a power the demons want to harness for themselves. The problem is she can’t control her powers which is how she ended up in their world.
But Strange is shocked to learn that Wanda has been using a book of black magic known as the Darkhold and has fully embraced her Scarlet Witch alter-ego. She wants America’s dimension-bopping power for herself in order to travel to another universe and reunite with the children she willed into existence during “WandaVision”. Olsen steals the show as the emotionally damaged Wanda whose story is arguably the saddest in the MCU. Here her actions become undeniably sinister, yet they’re rooted in genuine humanity which makes her story all the more tragic.
Soon Strange is zipping across the Multiverse in an effort to keep America out of Wanda’s grasp. Along the way he encounters variants of himself, meets a few old faces, and is introduced to some new ones. I won’t spoil who all pops up, but several appearances earned pretty hearty applauses from the crowd I was a part of.
One of the biggest treats is how we finally get to see Wanda utilize her full power. There was a thrilling glimpse of it in “Avengers: Endgame” and “WandaVision” dabbled in it a bit. But here the character is let loose. Olsen embodies every ounce of Wanda, from her sheer look to her emotional complexities. Cumberbatch has made Doctor Strange his own and he’s much more in tune with the character here than in last year’s Spider-Man movie. Gomez doesn’t fare as well. Her performance is fine, but America feels more like a plot device. She’s there to give Wanda someone to pursue and Strange someone to protect. And of course she’s there to set up her upcoming Disney+ series.
My love for this movie ultimately comes back to Raimi who hits the ground running and never slows down. While it’s certainly a little messy in spots, “Multiverse of Madness” is such a welcomed departure from the canned formulaic feel of most of the ‘Phase Four’ MCU movies. This thing is absolutely and unapologetically bonkers and Raimi’s fingerprints are all over it. It has its challenges. I can’t imagine it resonating with those who haven’t soaked up previous MCU content, and it might be a jolt for those hooked on the normal Marvel Studios routine. But for me, the MCU needed a kick in the pants, and Sam Raimi was happy to gave it one.