I have made no secret of my thoughts on the Marvel Cinematic Universe, that every single installment has been solid, if not fantastic. But even I have acknowledged at the back of my mind how safe they are and how interchangeable they have been in terms of style and personality. We are 28 films in, and content-wise, we know what to expect, but can we at least get something that feels aesthetically new? Well, leave it up to Sam Raimi to unleash Pandora’s Box and wreak mind-bending havoc.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is one of the messiest, most chaotic Marvel movies to date. It is also the most gnarly, scary, gonzo, insane thing the studio has ever allowed to happen. With that comes a series of mixed opinions, all depending on what you value the most and what you go to a Marvel movie for. But there is one thing we cannot deny: This is first and foremost Raimi’s movie.

Exposition, Rules, McGuffins, and Magic

What I can give to the skeptics and cynics is the film takes a while to gain its footing. In a similar vein as Eternals, the script here has some of the sloppiest writing in a comic book movie. So many ideas, rules, and circumstances are explained to us without ever making an effort at hiding the exposition. There isn’t much thought put into integrating the exposition with action either; almost every single time we are told something is through a scene where characters just sit and talk.

source: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

These issues can be further compounded by the film’s assumption that you are caught up with WandaVision, What If, and the first Doctor Strange the night before, in preparation to see this one. Yes, you can technically watch the film and not get lost, but be ready for things to go over your head or to just accept what is happening to the characters because we are now at that point. Truly, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is like a gigantic TV show, in which each movie is an episode. But Multiverse of Madness, at times, can make you feel like you missed out on an entire season of… something.

Without giving plot details away, the film sees Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Wong (Benedict Wong), Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen), and a new character named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) encountering a new threat that will force them to traverse through the multiverse. During the first act, where the rules need to be established, the McGuffins need to be assigned a value, and the stakes need to be clear, Multiverse of Madness is a clunky ordeal. It brings back memories of how Eternals had to juggle an entire past timeline and a present timeline all at once.

The Imagination Runs Dark and Wild

Once all the pieces are in place, Raimi hits the gas pedal and never lets go. The second half of Multiverse of Madness is a relentless sprint of set pieces, dazzling visuals, and shockingly violent action scenes. But something is very different this time around. You will notice the sudden camera zooms. The strange camera tilts. The bizarre editing choices. Most of all, you will feel the musical score working overtime on syncing with what you’re seeing on screen, almost like something Edgar Wright would do with Baby Driver. More than once, I caught myself thinking how the composer must’ve had a blast making the music, only to discover that it is none other than the great Danny Elfman.

source: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Without a doubt, this is the product of a director who has the confidence to throw something scary and schlocky together and make a fight scene work. It pushes similar pleasure buttons that made Raimi’s Spider-Man films feel exciting and unpredictable. It’s no easy task to make a film where all the superheroes have magical powers… and you can STILL feel like someone can die at any moment.

Certain shots of Wanda and malevolent spirits carry so much “deadite energy,” it’s unbelievable. Marvel Studios not only fulfilled their promise of making the scariest Marvel movie to date, but they went ahead and allowed Doctor Strange to veer into Evil Dead and Drag Me To Hell territory. Plenty of images and action sequences will spark loud vocal reactions. For the first time in its history, the MCU has made a movie that pushes the PG-13 rating so far that parents should think twice before taking their kids to the theater, and I could not be happier.

Using the Multiverse to Expand Characters

Another storytelling choice the film benefits from is keeping its world somewhat contained. Despite the characters jumping across multiverses, the filmmakers never lose track of what they want this traversing experience to do for its characters. Seeing many different versions of Stephen Strange, and the choices they’ve made in their worlds, forces our version of Strange to look inward and re-evaluate who he is and what he stands for. It’s exactly the kind of growth you would hope to see in a sequel, where the struggle is no longer about learning a power or becoming good at using the power.

Cumberbatch wears the cloak so comfortably, he IS Doctor Strange. He strikes that balance of arrogance, charisma, practicality, and wisdom – he’s quickly becoming my favorite superhero in the MCU. With the script making an unorthodox decision to put him and Gomez together like some dysfunctional father/daughter pair, the overall tone may not always work but it brings along some good jokes and warm surprises in how Strange acts as a parental figure.

source: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Rivaling the duo is the scene-stealing Olsen, who continues to show she’s one of the best dramatic actors in the franchise. She takes Wanda’s transformation since Avengers: Age of Uon and takes it to a tragic, heartbreaking, yet frightening direction first hinted at by WandaVision. Of all the installments that featured Wanda, this one makes her presence truly felt, as if she is also the protagonist of Multiverse of Madness. Wong and Rachel McAdams – as Dr. Christine Palmer – are also reliably and consistently great.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness: More Weird Stuff Like This, Please

Though I still prefer the 2016 Doctor Strange on tightness and cohesiveness alone, I have so much mad respect (pun intended) for this sequel. It’s messy, clunky, and all over the place, but also scary, silly, violent, and imaginative in a B-horror movie kind of way. Only Sam Raimi can do a jump scare that makes you scream and laugh at the same time, and he does that with gleeful effect here.

Part of me is still in disbelief. With the studio having a record of interchangeable directors and films that favor content over form, it’s interesting to see their Phase Four taking some massive swings, not caring if everything lands. Chloé Zhao got to add some of her poetic handling of characters and tone in Eternals, but hers is a small step compared to Raimi’s giant leap. He has his bloody, gory fingerprints all over Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.

Though the first half is not great, there are just too many inventive sequences to ignore, in a movie that finally feels more like a director’s vision than a corporate assembly-line product. Let it be divisive. Let it be a flawed, batshit insane movie. I’d take that any day over a movie that always plays it safe.

What did you think of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness? Let us know in the comments below!

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness premiered in the US on May 2, 2022. It will be released in theaters on May 6, 2022.

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