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Bloody Disgusting’s Multiverse of Madness review is spoiler-free.
Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) understands the fantastical more than most in the ever-expanding MCU. From his first cinematic introduction in 2016 to now, the arrogant guardian of the astral plane and alternate dimensions has always embraced the peculiarities that come with immense knowledge of universes. The familiar mind-bending fantastical finally crashes into horror with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness… but not quite as advertised.
Plot details for Doctor Strange’s first full-blown sequel have been intentionally cryptic and scarce by design. To preserve the narrative surprises, the gist is that Doctor Strange comes across a powerful young girl, America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), in need of help. A powerful adversary pursues her, and Strange seeks out former and new allies, sending him on a dangerous journey through the multiverse to stop it.
Multiverse of Madness employs two powerful assets for Strange’s latest outing: Sam Raimi and Elizabeth Olsen. Raimi easily slips back into his horror filmmaking roots and manages to infuse this sequel with as much horror as the MCU allows him. The script by Loki writer Michael Waldron lets demons and zombies run amok, but Raimi takes it a step further with his physical horror and horror-comedy sensibilities. Eyeballs get gouged, deaths hurt, characters literally wrestle with their inner demons, and the trademark demonic POV tracking shot makes an appearance. Callbacks to earlier works sneak in for the eagle-eyed fan, and Raimi even injects a few effective jump scares in his bid to make the antagonist an imposing and intimidating figure.
Then there’s Olsen’s Wanda Maximoff, who’d retreated to a solitary life on a quiet stretch of farmland after the emotional fall-out of “WandaVision.” The powerful character makes for a formidable ally. Still, Olsen ensures that that power is matched by emotional complexity, which makes her one of the more interesting and often heartbreaking characters of the MCU. How Olsen carries over her work from the Emmy Award-winning series heightens the stakes and emotional investment.
Neither Raimi nor Olsen can overcome the messier elements, though. Multiverse of Madness may promise a journey through alternate realities, but it pins its character arcs in place like hamsters in a wheel. The film bludgeons its audience repeatedly with Stephen Strange’s unhappiness. He still yearns for Christine (Rachel McAdams) long after their failed relationship. She, too, manages to get sucked into past patterns. They’re not the only two characters unable to move forward, trapped by repetitive loops until the plot is ready to move forward. It makes for a messy and elongated trajectory that affects the pacing. While some of the cameos are extremely exciting, their use dampens the impact in some cases.
That so much of Multiverse of Madness’s plot has been effectively shielded presents pleasant surprises, and Raimi’s flair for horror raises visual interest. Raimi does surprise by testing the limits of the PG-13 rating in places. But as thrilling as seeing Strange encounter all types of horror as he races through set pieces can be, this sequel is less interested in forging new ground than repeating the same story and character beats from other MCU movies. It’s an entertaining and spooky romp and not much else. That’s okay. Especially if it brings more horror to the MCU.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness releases in theaters on May 6, 2022.