Director: Sam Raimi
Writer: Michael Waldron
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen, Benedict Wong, Rachel McAdams, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Xochitl Gomez
Cinematographer: John Mathieson
Editors: Bob Murawski, Tia Nolan
For the past decade, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has neatly packaged and commodified the future, turning it into a valuable piece of cinematic real estate. Take each new MCU installment, in which end credits scenes brim over with promises of what comes next. Or even the 2021 TV show Loki, in which the finale's big reveal was the introduction of a Marvel villain who wasn't even scheduled to appear in the movies until 2023. Last year, with Spider-Man: No Way Home, the MCU dipped back into the past, mining the swell of nostalgia-induced emotion with the return of familiar villains and beloved heroes. Now, in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Sam Raimi's propulsive, visually stunning and deeply sad follow-up to Doctor Strange (2016), the MCU sprawls dizzyingly sideways, into alternate timelines and parallel universes, before settling into a more intimate, personal story of self-doubt and self-reflection, about the choices we make and the alternatives we're haunted by. As is inevitable in any movie that deals with travel, the biggest journeys this film eventually undertakes are inward. You can travel across the furthest reaches of the multiverse, it suggests, but if left unchecked, patterns of loneliness and isolation will follow wherever you go.
Many of Raimi's films deal with characters who either wield enormous power (the Spider-Man trilogy), desire to (A Simple Plan), or find it wielded against them (the Evil Dead trilogy, Drag Me To Hell). Variations of this theme recur in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, in which Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) initially teams up with the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) to protect young multiversal traveler America Chavez (an endearing Xochitl Gomez), who's being hunted by demons. What follows is an adventure that's grand in scope and sweeping in emotion, the 'madness' in the film's title not only describing the wild thrill ride that it becomes but also the ways in which the characters' grief pushes them to the brink of insanity.
Bringing characters face to face with alternate versions of themselves across the multiverses gives them a chance to discover their limitless potential, but also the depths of their failures. Some of Strange's laser-focussed arrogance may have melted into altruism over the course of his MCU run so far, but the film reveals he's simply traded his fierce drive to be the best surgeon for the feverish desire to be the best sorcerer. He's always had a bit of a God complex — a cheeky, if on-the-nose gag early in the film sees him turn water into wine — but Multiverse of Madness depicts the painfully human void he's crafted this persona around, which all the power in the world can't make up for. That the Scarlet Witch gives into her darker impulses despite her WandaVision arc doesn't feel like a retread of past mistakes. Instead, it underscores how grief can persist and how trauma can remain unresolved. Olsen is the film's standout performer, walking the tightrope between the way love can endure, but also curdle into something bitter and ugly, rendering a person unrecognisable in their quest for it.
That's not to say the film isn't fun, though Raimi's strength as a storyteller here lies in the way he tinkers with the MCU formula, opting to make some of the film's most comedic moments also some of its most heartbreaking. He'll show characters so content and at peace, the sense of their fragile world being shattered becomes acute in its inevitability. He'll build dazzling, intricate CGI-enhanced illusions, then reveal that the cruelest deceptions are the ones we've tricked ourselves into believing. He'll stage brutal, bloody battles, in keeping with MCU formula, but then follow them up with scenes that reveal how the act of being vulnerable is often so much harder than mindless brawling. And in a franchise that has a poor track record with romance — "There's no time for romance. We've got shit to avenge," Scarlett Johansson was once quoted as saying about The Avengers (2012) — it crafts a love story that reaches beyond the constraints of time or spatial location.
Raimi also brings his flair for horror to the MCU, delivering schlock in scenes in which the lights go out and candles flicker ominously. There's an element of body horror in the way a character contorts their frame grotesquely. In one particularly tense scene, the near-total absence of sound is used to a chilling effect. And the director expertly employs his few jumpscares, though the spectres that haunt most characters in this film are of the more persistent existential kind. In Raimi's hands, the MCU landscape is also the most vibrantly alive and tactile it's been in a while. A scene in which the score is visually depicted onscreen during a fight, with the discordant notes converted into weapons, is thrillingly inventive, though a good old-fashioned fist fight between two magic users is just as satisfying. Cross-cutting between different characters at pivotal moments builds suspense, while match cuts between two versions of the same character across the multiverse underline the tragedy that only one of them has endured. In the multiverse, dreams aren't visions to aspire to, but cruel glimpses of everything the characters can't have.
Multiverse of Madness leans heavily on MCU history, revisiting the themes of control explored in the first Doctor Strange, the idea of fate and inevitability in the tragic Infinity War saga and Wanda Maximoff's wrenching WandaVision trajectory. Longtime fans will find their patience rewarded, while those who aren't as clued into the franchise will understandably be put off by the amount of homework and backstory this film requires, a problem that's set to recur as the MCU becomes increasingly self-referential. Even so, at the heart of this film is a straightforward story about the cost of happiness and the nature of sacrifice. In a sprawling multiverse that repeatedly reminds its characters how miniscule their lives are, it simultaneously reminds them how each of their choices matter. And in a movie with magic spells and flying cloaks, it lets this define what makes them heroic.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is now playing in theatres.