Last year the MCU was as present as it’s ever been. Thanks to pandemic holdovers they ended up putting out more movies in a single calendar year than they ever have before, four of them, but they also put out no fewer than five TV series on Disney+. You’d think with all that they’d have to have one great product in the mix out of sheer probability but I’m not sure that really happened. The TV shows ranged from “pretty middling” to “fairly satisfying” which is about what I expected but I was more disappointed with the movies. Black Widow was barely passable, Shang-Chi had some highlights but fell apart pretty quickly, I liked Eternals better than some people but it was clearly flawed, and then there was Spider-Man: No Way Home which certainly made a whole lot of money but artistically I thought it was kind of pandering and ultimately a bit mid. Then again my viewing of that last movie was a bit compromised. It seemed wildly irresponsible to see that movie in the packed theaters it was playing in right in the middle of the omicron surges so I ended up waiting multiple weeks to see it and by that time a lot of its twists had basically been spoiled for me, and the screening I went to was still semi-crowded anyway. So this time I said “screw it.” There’s no awful variant going around, so I went ahead and saw it opening day. And I’m glad I did because this is almost certainly my favorite Marvel movie since 2019’s Avengers: Endgame.
This is the first MCU film where one of the Disney+ series is a pretty serious prerequisite: you really need to watch the show “Wandavision” before going into this one. The story picks up some time after the end of that TV series and kicks in when Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is at the wedding of his ex-flame from the first movie Christine (Rachel McAdams), which has him a little depressed. Fortunately he’s drawn away by a one eyed Lovecraftian squid monster from another dimension which he comes to learn was sent through the dimensions by Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) in pursuit of a teenage girl named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) who also comes from another dimension and has a unique power that allows her to travel between different worlds in the multiverse. Maximoff apparently intends to kill Chavez and steal her powers in order to find alternate universe versions of the children she (sort of) had and lost over the course of the events of “Wandavision,” an event that Strange and Wong (Benedict Wong) believe will cause dangerous rifts in the universes. To counter the attack they take Chavez to their fortress/temple in Kamar-Taj but there’s no guaranty that those fortifications will be enough to hold off the raging Scarlett Witch.
Let’s get the negative out of the way first. I think people are going to have some problems with the way Wanda Maximoff is depicted here. The film basically starts with her as fully evil as the film begins and willing to kill dozens of people in her frankly selfish pursuit of satisfied motherhood. On some big picture thematic level I kind of like this as I like it when movies call out characters for using their families as an excuse to engage in violent and destructive behavior against everyone else’s families (a staple theme of gangster movies) but this isn’t really where the character was at the end of “Wandavision,” or at least it’s not where it feels like we left her. At the end of that show she had seemed to have taken some of the first steps toward healing enough to quit imposing her will on others but it seems this is trying to suggest that her tapping into the evil Darkhold spell book in that show’s post-credits made her backslide in the biggest way and become even more violent as a result and by the time the film has started she’s almost like a terminator in her dogged pursuit. There were clearly some psychological developments we weren’t privy to and that’s a bit jarring. Still, I kind of view this more as a failing of “Wandavision” than as a failing of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. That show had one job: show how Wanda got to this point and it failed at this by soft-peddling her character arc at the end.
Outside of that though I think this movie is quite the romp and probably Marvel’s most successful movie since 2019’s Avengers: Endgame. That’s in large part due to the decision to bring veteran filmmaker Sam Raimi in to direct; it’s his first movie in almost a decade and of course is also something of a triumphant return to the superhero genre after he more or less invented the modern superhero movie in 2002 with Spider-Man. This is of course an MCU movie first and a Sam Raimi second… but it’s a closer second than I expected it to be. There were rumors going in that this would be Marvel’s first horror movie and I don’t agree with that at all, but there are horror elements here that at least have a certain energy that’s reminiscent of some of Raimi’s thrillers like the Evil Dead movies and Drag Me to Hell. Horror in Raimi’s work always has sort of weird comedic energy and a sort of grisly slapstick to it, and he does push the PG-13 rating about as far as it can go to make that happen here in certain spots, especially in the third act. I might go so far as to say it’s more identifiably Raimi-esque than any of his Spider-Man movies but that’s mostly a factor of Dr. Strange as a character lending himself to such a treatment in a way the web-slinger does not.
Beyond that though the film is pretty visually impressive ride through multiple dimensions of the multiverse. Multiverse stories always run the risk of feeling like convoluted headaches and some of Marvel’s projects of this kind (“Loki,” I’m looking at you) have run the risk of becoming like this, but I found this movie’s multi-dimensional aspects to mostly be a breeze. I suspect the film will draw some, in my mind, rather unfair comparisons to Everything, Everywhere, All at Once but this is really doing something pretty different and is using alternate dimensions more as a backdrop for an action movie than it is trying to take an overly deep dive into different possibilities for Strange, though there is a little of that to be found. As an action movie the film doesn’t break too dramatically from the Marvel mold but Raimi does vary things up enough scene to scene and Doctor Strange as a character lends himself to cool trippy visuals and alternate dimensions. The first Doctor Strange was the only Marvel film I felt compelled to watch in 3D and did the same for this sequel, which was a choice made largely out of convenience rather than desire but I’m glad I did because the film did make really good use of the format (and of course that’s also the best way to watch the attached teaser of the next Avatar film). Ultimately this movie is not any kind of game changer either for Marvel or for superhero movies more generally, but I do think it gets things a bit back on track for the MCU and I do think it’s important to celebrate these movies when they get things right.
**** out of Five