It’s been a little more than five years since Marvel’s master of the mystic arts took center frame in a film bearing his name. He’s hardly been absent in that span. Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) has been the Billie Eilish of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, ready to make an appearance just about anywhere. He’s is in a Thor movie, two Avengers movies, and multiple episodes of What If…? He’s such a prominent figure in the latest Spider-Man feature that the studio could have justifiably gone ahead and titled the film Marvel Team-Up. If I were told he was spotted doing card tricks in the background of the birthday party in Parasite, I’d voice no skepticism. It’s perhaps fitting that the seemingly omnipresent sorcerer get his official star-turn sequel in a film entitled Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. For the past few loops around the sun, he’s been doing everything everywhere all at once.
In the outing that is probably most accurately thought of as Marvel Movie XXVIII, Doctor Strange goes rummaging through the variety pack of existences as a result of an encounter with America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a spunky teen with superhuman abilities to bound across the universe. She is being hunted by an initially indeterminate foe with intent to siphon her powers away, presumably for villainous purposes. The good doctor seeks help from expected parties — trusted cohort Wong (Benedict Wong), fellow magic practitioner Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) — and soon is running roughshod across realities. Further mechanics of the plot need not be shared, not only out of deference to the spoiler-averse who might stumbled upon the digitally rendered sentences, but because the story barely matters. It is a thin, hole-laden, and inescapably self-contradictory excuse to layer in surprises for the faithful, the truest of true believers. Presumably the narrative makes sense to those who haven’t done the outside prep to understand the bulk of the references, but it’s got to be like listening to a rock opera with every third lyric removed: ultimately discernible and noticeably incomplete.
What sets Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness apart is Sam Raimi. The director who effectively forged the prototype for Marvel Studios with his pre-MCU Spider-Man movies aggressively, admirably brings his sensibility to the project. Just as James Gunn infused Guardians of the Galaxy with the most franchise-friendly, PG-13 version of his raunchy, raucous creative self, jolting the Marvel model in the process, Raimi makes it clear that he’s the guy who once delivered Evil Dead movies, Darkman, and Drag Me to Hell with cherry disregard for what the MPAA might think. The film is gory and gruesome. Raimi takes evident pleasure in using the dark-magic elements of the story to justify all manner of nastiness. Even in its relatively tamped-down fashion, this Doctor Strange might have more blood and gristly goo in it than all the other Marvel movies combined (a commentary on those preceding features’ bloodlessness as much as anything, I will admit). Beyond that, Raimi enlivens the proceedings with his kinetic brand of horror trappings, jump scares and slamming doors and cameras roaring forward like they’re affixed to rockets.
Whether Raimi’s heavy hand is a selling point is up to the individual viewer. It’s probably worth noting that I was always aware of Raimi’s choices rather than feeling immersed in the film. That quality isn’t usually an attribute. In this instance, I felt grateful for the jolt of personality. As the output of the Marvel machine grows dangerous close to being overwhelmed by the extensive fan service of inside jokes and casting coups, any bit of added inner spirit is appreciated. If it’s about admiring the director’s moxie rather than properly engaging with the storytelling, well, there are worse parts of the multiverse to be a moviegoer in.