The Marvel Cinematic Universe is not exactly the spot you visit for a wide ranging exploration of genres. So, back when a sequel to Doctor Strange was announced, filmmaker Scott Derrickson suggestion that he was doing a horror film caught much attention. Of course, Derrickson’s eventual departure seemed to indicate that we weren’t actually getting much of a fright flick, if at all. However, the hiring of Sam Raimi gave us all some hope. Now, we actually have just that with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, a periodically scary MCU installment, one with a surprising amount of gore, given the PG-13 rating. While still containing action and the requisite surprises from this current phase Marvel is in, the fact that Raimi is allowed to show off his genre roots is part of what makes this one work so well.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is probably as close as Marvel will ever get to making a horror movie, courtesy of Raimi. There’s a few jump scares, some disturbing imagery, and even a bit of gnarly gore. Essentially, it’s starter horror, filtered through the MCU and this particular world of sorcery. Not everything works, but there’s a relentless feel that Raimi and company keep you invested with. Plus, the film actually does a really good job of leaving you wanting more.
Diving right in (completely spoiler free), we’re introduced to newcomer America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) as she and Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) try to escape a monster that threatens the multiverse. Revealed to be a dream, Strange is off to attend the wedding of former flame Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), which is interrupted by the arrival of a giant creature, along with America. Together with Wong (Benedict Wong), the beast is defeated, but the girl is a question mark. Apparently, she has the power to travel the multiverse, which puts her in danger. Needing assistance, Strange goes to an exiled Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), which in turn leads to more concern. Something dangerous is coming, but the emergence of Wanda as Scarlett Witch may be more of a hinderance than a help.
As Strange and America enter the multiverse in search of a book Wong claims can save the day, they learn a terrifying fact. In other versions of Earth, and one in particular, the biggest threat to the multiverse isn’t America, Wanda, or any monster, but Strange himself. An encounter with another version of Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) hammers this home, while setting many a discovery into motion. To say more would be a big wave of spoilers, but it involves multiple versions of the good Doctor, Wanda’s quest to be reunited with her children, and even the introduction of The Illuminati. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, too.
Benedict Cumberbatch and Elizabeth Olsen are given the most to do in this installment. They’re complex, Olsen especially, while also being very comfortable in their characters’ skins. Cumberbatch is the star, but Olsen walks away with the movie, particularly from an emotional quotient. Benedict Wong is old hand at this as well, so he’s a welcome presence. As for newcomer Xochitl Gomez, her character feels a bit rushed, but you’ll be eager to see how she evolves in future MCU efforts. Chiwetel Ejiofor doesn’t have the big role he deserves, though there’s a bit more Rachel McAdams than you might expect. Supporting players include Bruce Campbell, Michael Stuhlbarg, and plenty more, some of which I wouldn’t dream of revealing, but yes, as the trailers indicate, Patrick Stewart is on hand. No, I won’t say any more about that.
Director Sam Raimi gets to have a lot of genre fun here. Writer Michael Waldron takes a few big swings, but it’s Raimi who shines. Armed with a bombastic Danny Elfman score, he’s relishing the opportunity to inject the MCU with a bit of horror. Raimi and cinematographer John Mathieson don’t shy away from disturbing images, that’s for sure. It’s not a stretch to say this is the least kid-friendly Marvel outing to date. Not everything works, however. Waldron’s script has a lot going on, but less happening than you’d think. Raimi also never makes the action anything to write home about. It’s all effective and works, but aside from the style, is closer to middle of the road than blazing a new trail. It may look different, but Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is very much a part of a whole, franchise wise.
In terms of the MCU, this is somewhat more contained than you might expect. There are elements that I dare not reveal which could come into play later, and a post credits sequence does set something up, but it’s less than you’d presume. Mostly, it continues as much Wanda’s journey as it does Strange’s, which is, considering Marvel’s desire to build, kind of a bold choice.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is another Marvel Studios success, while managing to look a bit different in the process. I can’t see anyone hating it, but aside from real horror fans, I doubt it will become anyone’s favorite MCU outing. Still, an incredible run of quality continues, with massive box office to follow.