Sam Raimi injects a welcome dose of gothic horror into the MCU.
Attending the wedding of Christine (Rachel McAdams) — aka “the one who got away” — Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is called to action when a mysterious young woman is attacked by a literal tentacle monster outside the church. After Strange and Wong (Benedict Wong) dispatch the critter, the woman introduces herself as America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), being hunted for her ability to travel between multiversal planes of reality, a power she can’t even control. The three deduce from markings upon the creature that witchcraft was involved in controlling the creature, leading Doctor Strange to consult with the only expert on hexes he knows: Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen).
Yep, we’re in a Sam Raimi film. Reaping the seeds sown from the Disney+ “WandaVision” series, “Loki” series, and “What If” series as well as Spider-Man: No Way Home, the MCU multiverse is something viewers are already aware of even if they weren’t familiar with the original stories from the comics. The idea of hopping between slightly different parallel universes has been mainstreamed by television programs like “Sliders,” “Fringe,” and Cartoon Network’s “Rick and Morty,” exploring the darker paths some universes skew into, including the exceptional Everything Everywhere All at Once. Fortunately, “weird” is director Raimi’s domain: odd characters, dark humor, and horror imagery. In his first feature film since Disney’s Oz the Great and Powerful, will audiences suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or will they take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them? With apologies to the Bard.
Forgoing R-rated blood splatter for PG-13 grotesque artistry and hellscape imagery, Raimi makes his case for the horror-comic inspirations of the sorcerer supreme… and all that that implies. While the marketing suggests a convoluted plot, the story is deadite simple, the framework for a character piece exploring the consequences of ego, power, and grief. Unfortunately, the Strange and Wanda stories come at the literal sacrifice of Chavez’s character introduction, reducing her first appearance to a McGuffin with dialogue. Since buckets of blood and dripping gore is off the MCU table, viewers are instead treated to cities in tandem with nature, ancient strongholds, and desolate worlds on the brink of collapse. While parents can no doubt deal with the subject matter, this might be a nightmare-inducing film for the kiddies; parental guidance is highly suggested.
Fans of Doctor Strange who’ve been waiting for a more classic take on the sorcerer’s mystical arts won’t be disappointed; Cumberbatch continues to wear the mantle like a well-worn cloak. In spite of the name on the film, Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda gets the lion’s share of the drama, showcasing Wanda’s complexity while finally offering her a path toward resolution. Wong continues to own every moment of his screentime, proof that all his cage match side hustles are really just good practice as well as a source of disposable income. Dabbling in fan service, The Multiverse of Madness hides plenty of Easter eggs, including hints toward future franchise offerings and a few unexpected but welcome cameos; avoid online spoilers for maximum enjoyment.
Clocking in at just over two hours with mid- and post-credit scenes, the cut feels lean, like a few transitional scenes were scrapped to shorten the runtime but left the edit feeling choppy. There is a throwback element to Madness, specifically in the eerie landscapes invoking Heavy Metal magazines and poster-worthy Isaac Asimov book covers, even a Danny Elfman score. It will be interesting to see where the ending’s revelations go, but it may be too much to hope for a gothier Marvel movie than this.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, frightening images, some language, and earning a place back on the lunchbox.
Four skull recommendation out of four