At one point in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda Maximoff tries to reassure Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) that she’s not the Wicked Witch of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe): “I’m not a monster, Stephen,” she says, while levitating in a creepy mystical enclave called the Darkhold. “I’m a mother.”
Sure, there are mothers… and then there are mothers. Hardcore Marvel fans who long ago binged on the Disney+ series WandaVision already know about Wanda’s strange fixation on her imaginary, TV-perfect kids and how it’s warped her into becoming the Scarlet Witch. For the rest of humanity, that means Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness requires a bit of catching up.
It begins with Strange having a strange dream in which he… dies. Except it’s not a dream. As Strange awakes in a cold sweat, having failed to stop himself and the young, powerful America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) from being ripped apart by large CGI creatures somewhere in a different universe, he realizes she’s real. And the threat of further “incursions” from the multiverse are just as real, and dangerous.
Doctor Strange, the former physician turned metaphysical magician in the MCU, has always had a bit of the psychedelic mixed with the supernatural in his kit bag. Stephen Strange showed his penchant for mystical mumbo-jumbo in the last Spider-Man movie, whipping up a spell for Peter Parker in order to make people forget his secret identity, and accidentally tapping into the multiverse (an obvious setup for this movie). He’s also prone to long, 2001-like head-trip journeys in which his body splits and morphs in a kaleidoscopic world.
So about 10 minutes into Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness — around the time when a huge, CGI-looking alien called Gargantos has its sole eyeball plucked out like an olive with a swizzle stick by Benedict Wong’s Supreme Sorcerer — you realize that Strange has mostly been consigned as a droll side player in the MCU, rather than a mainline superhero.
True, he did hand over the Infinity Stone to Thanos, allowing “the Blip” to occur, so maybe Strange deserves to be a little moody and reclusive at times. But here, his character finally gets to grow a bit — or at least multiply into other versions of himself — as that earlier tentative nod to the multiverse becomes a full-blown Pandora’s box, with Strange battling a seriously pissed-off Wanda.
America, meanwhile, has the ability to slip from universe to universe, which is why she shows up in Strange’s dreams and may hold the key to controlling the Scarlet Witch.
Welcome to what feels like the next phase of the MCU. Multiverse of Madness picks up a few months after Spider-Man: No Way Home, and long after the Avengers’ Thanos battle has become legend, and for some, a very bitter memory (five years as dust after that finger snap, etc.). The new opening into alternate realities includes plenty of room for other Marvel franchises and storylines to unfold and drop in from moment to moment. (No spoilers, we agreed.)
As mentioned, there are plenty of trippy visuals, but what really careens this movie into unexpected directions like a drunken ice trucker is its director, Sam Raimi (who took over for Scott Derrickson). With Raimi at the controls of an ever-whipping camera, the franchise takes on an even more supernatural tone, giving off vibes that are closer to Evil Dead II and Drag Me to Hell than Tobey Maguire’s wide-eyed Spider-Man.
Raimi is well versed in the jump-scare tactic, and here he gets plenty of room to work that particular muscle, since Doctor Strange is, as we recall, trained to heal the living and wrangle with death from time to time. The scary moments can get scary indeed, not least of all since Wanda (now mostly Scarlet Witch) has decided to work her potent magic to continue with her single-minded WandaVision quest: bending the universe towards her will in order to be a stay-at-home mom with her two imaginary young boys for, like, forever.
It’s a weird quest in life, but what Wanda wants, Wanda generally gets. She starts dipping into the Darkhold, a mystical book that allows multiverse incursions, and we can see why she is considered the most dangerous among the Avengers gang, capable even of giving Strange, Wong (Benedict Wong), Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) and a wide assortment of cameo drop-in superheroes a head-spinning run for their money.
Doctor Strange may be the name up on the marquee, but it’s mostly Wanda’s show: she kicks all kinds of ass here. Olsen indeed gives off scary Carrie-at-the-prom vibes throughout much of Multiverse of Madness, and her particular shade of malevolence is welcome: it raises the threat levels to great new heights.
As always, it’s a given that there will be some mind-bending visuals in Doctor Strange movies and indeed — accompanied by Danny Elfman’s breathless score — the visuals are definitely part of the fun (Strange pinwheeling through universes of paint, a fantastic battle of musical notes between dueling Doctors that reminds one of Fantasia, and other intriguing side trips). But ultimately they are not the point: partial redemption is.
As before, Cumberbatch plays a snide type of superhero (think Dr. House crossed with Tony Stark), but not without human warmth beneath the gruff exterior and Pepé Le Pew sideburns. He displays a bit of honest self-effacement in the opening scenes, where Christine’s wedding (to someone else) gives way to the aforementioned CGI monster attack. And he did mentor Peter Parker a bit in the last Spider-Man. Will Stephen Strange continue his lifelong search to find himself, or at least a better version of himself, or will he continue to be a mere wisecracking side note in the MCU? And will Wanda give up on her Evil Tiger Mom vibes and just learn to… chill a little?
Multiverse of Madness offers tantalizing answers to such questions, as it introduces new alternate worlds for the expanding cinematic universe to explore (wild horses couldn’t drag those spoilers out of me, though it will be, um, illuminating for some fans). From its first waking moments, starting with Iron Man, the MCU has had to one-up itself from film to film, which can be an exhausting endeavor. While the ending of Avengers: End Game felt at times like a kid’s bedroom packed with action figures set in heroic poses, and Far from Home picked up on the multiverse as a meta way to include multiple versions of the same character, Multiverse of Madness dares to hint that all bets may be off now. Suffice to say, Marvel won’t have to rely on occasional “resets” as their only avenue to exploring characters or resurrecting long-gone ones anymore.
Your mind may never be the same.