“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” opened in theaters May 6, marking the latest chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s exploration of the coveted “Multiverse.” Though there are several bumps and shortcomings throughout this two-hour sprint of a film, the final presentation is one of the more unique and visually ambitious projects to emerge from Marvel so far.
For the uninitiated, the Multiverse is a collection of infinite universes that span decades of Marvel comics and a near endless list of characters and locations. It has become the primary source of tension behind most stories in the MCU since “Avengers: Endgame,” and has grown increasingly more complex in each project.
“Multiverse of Madness” harnesses some of the most striking visuals to date from this mind-bending concept, with a level of intensity and magical wit that had yet to be seen out of the blockbuster franchise.
Most of this raw creative energy can be attributed to director Sam Raimi, who is best known for leading the original “Spider-Man” trilogy in the early 2000s and the “Evil Dead” horror series. His background in body horror and campy jokes add much-needed depth to many of the action beats, and his knack for subverting expectations makes a particular ensemble sequence at the halfway point an instant classic.
He leads each action set piece with an affirmative hand and creates numerous small character moments that rightfully break up the bombardment of explosive visual effects. There is also a collection of small horror moments throughout the second half of the film that creates some true genre thrills and properly exaggerates the threat of the central antagonist.
This is one of the few instances where a director’s individual voice permeates throughout an entire Marvel story, and the film benefits holistically because of it.
However, the narrative is not without its issues. The opening act in particular is an example of everything that is wrong with the episodic nature of Marvel’s yearly installments. The first scene tosses the audience right into the middle of a chase, with a dizzying dance of camera tricks and inventive set design. It’s a fun sequence on its own, but a sudden jump back to the familiar streets of New York City ushers in a period of dull expository setup.
The exposition is incredibly egregious at times, often stretching the limits of entertainment with heaps of name-drops and multiple layers of backstory. It creates a sense that the chunk of the story being told on screen is actually not the most interesting part of it all, and this feeling struggles to dissipate as the film progresses.
Through much of the first half, the editing is chaotic and messy, the effects are uneven and some of the cast seem tired reading through their lines. It feels as if Marvel’s executives had too strong a grasp on the opening hour, and drained most of the life out of the creative team to ensure proper symmetry with the rest of the studio’s impending projects.
But once the plot kicks into high gear, and the story provides a more proper introduction to America Chavez, played by newcomer Xochitl Gomez, the crew’s talents begin to elevate the material to a more satisfying level.
Benedict Cumberbatch is an ideal Stephen Strange. He applies enough dry sarcasm to bring out the character’s signature selfish tendencies, but always retains a level of vulnerability that preserves Strange’s relatability. Benedict Wong also stands out as Wong, and contributes to the film’s more heartwarming moments.
Elizabeth Olsen truly goes for it as Wanda Maximoff, and it is a welcome surprise to see how far the script goes to showcase the scale of her power. The many layers of her grief that were explored in the “Wandavision” miniseries create a true powerhouse of rage in her character, and a level of violence that is unmatched in this series so far. To witness the film really lean into her character’s psyche is abundantly satisfying, and it makes the more fundamental plot points a bit less frustrating when all is said and done.
Where the editing falters, composer Danny Elfman picks up the slack and offers his best work in years. His musical score supports the horror and action beats equally and contributes to one of the most inventive fantasy fights out there. It may not be Oscar-worthy on its own, but in conjunction with the flood of visuals in the theater, his score manages to find a way to stand out.
“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” makes for an easily entertaining trip to the movies. It is bonkers and frantic and a bit too busy at times, but the use of Sam Raimi’s talents and a relatively strong creative vision lead to a more resourceful Marvel outing than usual. A swift runtime and complete commitment to fantasy imagery certainly help, but there is a lot to like about this latest chapter of Strange’s endeavors in the MCU.