Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness is a solid reminder of what we love about Sam Raimi’s brand of moviemaking: both superhero (Spider-Man 2) and horror (Evil Dead II). While Benedict Cumberbatch’s original solo outing, directed by Scott Derrickson, delivered a cerebral LSD trip with a sinister inflection, Raimi’s penchant for gore is executed to euphoric effect. His nose for those old Spidey themes of responsibility and power, meanwhile, manifest in the three suitably weighty central performances.
Screenwriter Michael Waldron has to pick up from multiple story threads left over from multiple other Marvel shows and movies, but does a solid job in delivering a mostly self-contained adventure. The story sees Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Wanda Maximoff (aka Scarlet Witch, aka Elizabeth Olsen) coming to terms with the magical choices they’ve already made: his, in saving the world through his actions in Avengers: Infinity War; hers, in the false reality she conjured out of her grief in WandaVision.
Non-MCU devotees might get lost amid all these callbacks, but at its heart, this is a simple tale of whether the price of happiness is worth the moral cost. (And they probably won’t be sitting through a Doctor Strange sequel in the first place.) There’s a couple of McGuffins in the form of two magic books representing good and evil, and a lot of wacky interdimensional travel, as Strange tries to track them down to prevent his universe collapsing with his new kinda-mentee, America Chavez.
It’s a reminder of what we love about Sam Raimi, even if non-MCU devotees might get lost in the callbacks
Newcomer Xochitl Gomez is endearing as the portal-travelling Chavez, while Olsen makes a welcome return as Scarlet Witch, elevating her whole ‘prodigal Avenger’ arc. She’s on form as a bereaved mum desperate to be reunited with the children she lost, and relishes every moment of horror that’s thrown at her. Cumberbatch’s Strange, meanwhile, whose line in arrogant charm is particularly well-tuned now, is still finding pathos amid the out-there visuals of his standalone films.
Also amping up the sense of fun is Danny Elfman’s delirious score and some (we hope knowingly) cheesy dialogue. And the much-publicised cameos – yes, there are plenty – should thrill comic-book lovers used to seeing random heroes pop up in one-issue storylines.
Sure, Raimi’s latest Marvel entry is a theme-park ride, lighter on character development and heavier on gnarly shit that may signal a shift into a darker, more deranged phase of superhero storytelling. But it’s one hell of a ride.
Out now in Singapore. In UK and Australian cinemas May 5, and US theaters May 6.