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Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness review: Messy magic

After 27 films and a long list of box-office records, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become one of Hollywood’s safest bets, enjoying critical and commercial success for each highly anticipated (to put it mildly) installment of the franchise. But they can’t all be hits, can they?

If there’s one thing the over-packed but visually stunning Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness makes clear, it’s that even one of the MCU’s clunkiest films so far can provide an entertaining experience.

Benedict Cumberbatch casts a spell as Doctor Strange in a scene from the Marvel movie.

Directed by Sam Raimi (Spider-ManThe Evil Dead) from a script by Emmy-winning Loki and Heels writer Michael Waldron, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness brings Benedict Cumberbatch back as Marvel’s titular sorcerer for an adventure through a multitude of parallel universes. The film finds Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) attempting to protect a teenage girl with the ability to open portals between universes from a powerful — but familiar — enemy hoping to steal her powers.

Along with Cumberbatch, the film brings back a host of MCU veterans, including Elizabeth Olsen (WandaVision) as Wanda Maximoff, Benedict Wong as Wong, Rachel McAdams as Christine Palmer, and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Baron Mordo, among other familiar faces. The film also introduces Xochitl Gomez (The Baby-Sitters Club) as the young, universe-hopping America Chavez.

Much was made of Raimi’s return to the Marvel universe after directing the original trilogy of Spider-Man films for Sony Pictures, particularly with Multiverse of Madness reported to be the franchise’s first, full-on horror — a genre in which the Evil Dead and Drag Me to Hell filmmaker has had plenty of success.

 Xochitl Gomez, Benedict Wong, and Benedict Cumberbatch stare into the camera in a scene from Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.

At points, Raimi’s genre aesthetic does manage to bleed through Marvel’s polish, with the story giving him the opportunity to dabble in all sorts of gruesome moments filled with zombies, gory deaths, and dark magics. Those moments are few and far between, though, and they rarely feel sufficiently blended into the film around them. Several scenes in Multiverse of Madness feel like they could have been lifted directly from an Evil Dead film, for example, but wrapping them in an otherwise Marvel-like movie occasionally makes them feel shoehorned in rather than organic elements of the story.

That disjointed feeling extends throughout Multiverse of Madness, and rather than coming across as a symptom of the characters’ journey through similar-but-different (and in some cases, mind-twistingly surreal) universes, the various set pieces end up feeling disconnected within the larger narrative. Many of the discrete elements in Multiverse of Madness work really well, in fact, but the film never quite succeeds in tying them all together.

Still, the isolated pieces of Multiverse of Madness are as impressive to behold as ever. The visual effects sequences in the film are gorgeous and detailed, from the massive creatures that align against Dr. Strange and his allies to the look and feel of the magical energies they — and their enemies — wield. Cumberbatch, Wong, Olsen, and all of the film’s other magic users look fully in control of the arcane energy they’re slinging around, making it easy to forget how much is added by visual effects teams after the fact, and offering a reminder of just how great Marvel’s films (and actors) are at blurring that line.

All of that magic does create some problems, though.

Rachel McAdams, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Xochitl Gomez look out a doorway i a scene from Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.

Marvel has always been hesitant about going all-in on witchcraft, wizards, and sorcery, given how easily they can blow the established rules of a fictional universe wide open. Multiverse of Madness features the heaviest magic use in the MCU to date, and struggles to maintain the guardrails on exactly what is and isn’t possible, and the power levels of everyone involved, as the characters’ predicament becomes increasingly dire. Characters portrayed as the pinnacle of Marvel’s power hierarchy suddenly become cannon fodder in the face of familiar magics that didn’t carry nearly as much weight in past films, while previously unmentioned, magical artifacts become the key to solving every seemingly unwinnable scenario.

The end result of leaning into all of that sorcery is a story where the stakes never seem all that high since there’s always another arcane, magical deus ex machina around every corner.

As with so many of Marvel’s films, the actors’ performances remain as reliable as ever. Cumberbatch gets quite a bit more room to explore the character of Stephen Strange in Multiverse of Madness, and he remains tremendously fun to watch, particularly as he pivots between the character’s brusque demeanor to brief moments of warmth and humor. Like Cumberbatch, Wong also gets the chance to build on his character in Multiverse of Madness, and he takes the opportunity and runs with it, making it easy to see why he’s becoming a fan-favorite character in the MCU.

Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch levitates in a circle of candles.

Olsen’s character doesn’t get quite the same friendly treatment in Multiverse of Madness, sadly, and her arc ultimately feels like a bit of a letdown after the powerful, complicated story she anchored in the WandaVision series for Disney+ streaming service. Although Gomez gets plenty of screen time, most of it is spent running, being chased, or otherwise being directed around the multiverse, but what she does get to do is enough to tease her potential in the MCU.

The MCU is no stranger to ambitious films, and in most cases, that ambition has led to some of superhero cinema’s most memorable moments of the last 15 years. As any longtime comic book movie fan knows, though, that sort of eagerness to pack as much as possible into a film isn’t always a recipe for success. With Multiverse of Madness, Marvel comes the closest it’s ever been to that tipping point, offering a film that too frequently feels overstuffed with potential, but lacks the support and guiding hand needed to make sense of all that material.

Even with all its faults, however, Multiverse of Madness still offers an exciting adventure that isn’t likely to leave too many Marvel fans disappointed. The MCU has set a high bar for itself, and when a new installment of the franchise simply treads water or doesn’t leave you as satisfied as prior films, it’s difficult not to see it as a misfire of sorts.

While it doesn’t deliver the complete package that most MCU films have provided, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness still manages to keep you entertained by dipping its toe in the horror genre. And after 27 films, these kinds of experiments are well worth trying — even if they aren’t entirely successful in the end.

Marvel’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is in theaters now.

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