Good God, has it really been nine whole years since Sam Raimi last directed a feature film (the defiantly “ok” Oz The Great And Powerful) – and on top of that, has it been six years since Master Of The Mystic arts Doctor Strange last conjured up a solo adventure within the rapidly crowding universe of the MCU? Well calm your respective selves, but get excited too, because Marvel Studios has decided to kill two birds with one Infinity Stone and given us Raimi’s superhero comeback with Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness that also allows the famously madcap director to do the Steve Ditko double (the artist also co-created Spider-Man) and fuse a cameo-filled, dimension hopping, Lovecraftian adventure with the no holds bars humour that infuses virtislly all of the director’s work. But has the Studio and Raimi magiked up something on the scale of his epic Spider-trilogy from the noughties or has Marvel’s spell finally been broken?
After everything that has happened in the world in the wake of the events of the last couple of years, Stephen Strange is attempting to grapple with the fact that former sweetheart and colleague Christine Palmer is getting married and manages to handle it in his usual self-serving manner that certainly isn’t helped by the weird an violent dreams he’s been having that involve a version of him striving to help a young girl with the ability to travel throughout the multiverse.
The wedding is somewhat overshadowed by the fact that this girl, whose name is America Chavez, is not only real, but is on the run from a malevolent force that’s sending multi-limbed demons after her at every turn with the aim of claiming her abilities for themselves. As Doctor Strange attempts to get to the bottom of this complicated chain of events, he calls for aid from Wanda Maximoff who is still living a reclusive life after the traumatic events of WandaVision; but this only leads to disaster as this mysterious danger launches a full assault on Kama-Taj where America is taking refuge and reveals they will literally stop at nothing in order to achieve their diabolical bucket list.
In a desperate attempt to stay one step of her persuer, America triggers her uncontrollable power sending her and Strange tumbling uncontrollably through the Multiverse and as the forces that search for them tries to use disastrous methods in an attempt to head them off.
However, salvation may yet be at hand in this new universe when when they are approached by a conclave of the world’s most powerful beings – but matters take yet another turn into “oh shit” country when it’s actually Stephen whom they consider to be the true threat.
It seems that there’s quite the Sam Raimi superhero renaissance going these days what with his first Spider-Man movie being 20 years old this year and his whole trilogy being so lovingly serenaded by Spider-Man: No Way Home’s final third, but now it’s time for the man himself to shake off the rust and get stuck in to the genre he helped mold and it’s a genuine relief to say that Multiverse Of Madness, despite one or two wobbles, proves to be a genuinely enjoyable attempt by Marvel to make their first horror film. Firstly, if there’s anyone who can make horror palatable to a popcorn audience, it’s Raimi and the film is positively crammed with many cheeky visual references to the Evil Dead trilogy (keep a literal eye out for an impressive feat of ocular poppage) and even Drag Me To Hell as he delivers the kind of hyper active, visual extravaganza that only he can give. Precision timed jump scares and camera presumably wielded by a whirling dervish team up with the usual mouth watering set ups and squeal inducing cameos that Marvel now regularly deal out as deftly as a Mississippi card shark, in order to give us yet another dive into this whole multiverse thing in order to turn literally everything upside down.
However, its definitely worth remembering how much of a mischievous shit Sam Raimi loves to be and some may me initially thrown with how, after giving us tons of pulse pounding surprises, he callously follows them up with some genuinely astounding shocks that aren’t so nice and may even traumatise long term devotees. Fans of Wanda Maximoff’s emotionally draining journey after WandaVision may be horrified to find out that the MCU hasn’t yet finished dragging her backwards through the darkness that surrounds her character after the events in Westview and I’ll admit it took me a little time to adjust to her new status quo. However, Elizabeth Olsen is obviously relishing play yet another aspect to her alter ego and throws herself into the fray with a ferocious gusto that’s only matched by Benedict Cumberbatch himself. Always willing to explore a role to a ludicrous degree (Let’s not forget that he tore his vocal chords while crawling all over the floor to play Smaug in The Hobbit) the multiple universe gig allows him to play other, wild, versions of the character while still having enough smaller moments to neatly round off some dangling arcs from the first film. But between introspective moments involving superhero contentness, missed opportunities and more enjoyable banter with Benedict Wong’s Wong, Cumberbatch isn’t afraid to go big, playing an evil and even a dead version of himself to immensely entertaining effect. Newcomer Xochitl Gomez as America Chavez proves to be plucky enough to avoid just being a living, breathing macguffin, but the real star here remains defiantly Raimi as he serves up a smorgasbord of Spooky set pieces that means the movie refuses to sit still for a minute. A New York rumble with a giant, tentacled eyeball eventually gives way to a painfully cool sequence where two, dualling Strange’s assault each other with weaponized notes literally pulled from the pages of some sheet music.
Yes, it’s all mostly innovative stuff, but doesn’t the frequent reality hopping mean that the story is occasionally messy? You bet it is, because the movie’s not called the Multiverse Of Mildness, but sometimes the relentless energy catches up on the plotting and due to relentless references to a beloved 90’s animated cartoon , numerous Disney+ shows and even a defunct, forgotten, failed MCU series, there’s a feeling now that anyone without a PHD level of knowlege of Marvel continuity will be horribly lost. Elsewhere, an assault on Kama-Taj feels a little reminiscent of similar scenes from Thor: The Dark World and Shang-Chi, Chiwetel Ejofor’s Baron Mordo is squeezed in without any real arc for his character whatsoever and a lot of the film relies pretty heavily of some convoluted storytelling. However, the pros deeply outweigh the cons and on top all the thrills, spills and (be warned) a fair few kills, we also get a Bruce Campbell cameo to boot and the sight of a zombified Strange building a cape out of the bodies of a batch of damned spirits may be the single most fucking metal image Marvel Studios has ever produced.
It’s a little rough around the edges but Doctor Strange’s belated second solo adventure is a multiverse away from being a disaster of the mystic arts.