Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is ostensibly a sequel to 2016’s Doctor Strange. But since the first film featuring Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sorcerer Supreme arrived in theaters, a lot’s happened in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to both Strange and the franchise’s many other characters. As a result, the latest MCU film also functions as a follow-up to Avengers: Infinity War, Spider-Man: No Way Home, the Disney+ series What If…?, and especially the show WandaVision. Plus, while the movie centers on Doctor Strange, Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda Maximoff, aka Scarlet Witch, is just as important to the story, making it as much about her journey as his.
The irony is that for those who have followed both Wanda and Doctor Strange throughout the MCU, Wanda is the more fully realized character. Ever since we met Strange, the MCU has insisted on playing up his love for Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), and while she actually has her biggest role in the franchise so far here, since Strange and Palmer broke up even before the start of the first film, their love story never captures the imagination the way some of the franchise’s other romances have.
Meanwhile, even before WandaVision, Wanda was a character who was defined by deep love and tragic loss. And after WandaVision, a potent meditation on grief that is the MCU’s most emotionally powerful Disney+ series, Wanda is an even more sympathetic figure, albeit one with an incredible amount of power. As a result, audiences might be cheered to see her again, even as the movie twists the character’s grief in uncomfortable ways.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness was directed by Sam Raimi, taking over for Doctor Strange‘s Scott Derrickson. As the director of the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man franchise, which helped usher in our modern-day obsession with superhero films, Raimi would seem to be a perfect fit for the material and his fingerprints are all over the movie. However, it’s not the superhero action that’s the most noteworthy part of the film but the way it takes its cues from the horror genre at several points, and more specifically Raimi’s Evil Dead franchise.
While it’s all stitched together fairly neatly, it doesn’t offer nearly the same visual kick as the first Doctor Strange. Even as the story hops across the multiverse, the other worlds visited by Strange and America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), the superpowered teenager he’s made it his duty to protect, aren’t all that exotic. Instead, the film, which was written by Michael Waldron, uses the multiverse conceit as an excuse for a significant amount of fan service. And while this means there are some unexpected and exciting cameos, this only zaps the movie to life so much. At its core, the film’s story is fairly thin, with its most fascinating moments happening when it lets go of the bombast and indulges its introspective side. But this is the MCU, so huge action is essential, even though in this case, it often undercuts any possibility of genuine character exploration.
Nonetheless, the fact is that after 25+ films and half a dozen TV shows, this is still essential viewing for anyone who continues to follow the franchise. So while Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness may not be the most interesting or successful entry in the MCU, it’s still a passable addition that enables fans to spend more time with some beloved characters and even meet a couple new ones.