“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” is the most complicated film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. To fully appreciate and understand this universe-hopping production, you will need a timeline of every Marvel TV show and film, a crash course in the mystic arts, two Sherpas, lessons in dimensional travel and a scorecard to keep track of all the players. Armed with all of that, the film is a roller coaster of action driven by the intensity Benedict Cumberbatch brings to the role of Stephen Strange.
What ends up being the most important thing to keep in mind is that the production continues the idea that there are an infinite number of universes where different versions of people exist. The recent “Spider-Man: No Way Home” was an introductory class into what can happen when these universes begin to mix and mingle.
“Multiverse of Madness” opens in the wake of events that transpired in the Disney+ series “WandaVision.” Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) is having trouble living in a world where she no longer has the two children she created for her fake existence in the TV show. Dreams are just glimpses of our other selves in the other universes and Wanda’s dreams have shown her there is another universe where the children are real and she is willing to destroy trillions of people to be with them.
Her key to leaping into the world to be with her children is America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) who has the power to go to other stops in the multiverse. Chavez doesn’t quite know how to control her powers but that’s not stopping Wanda – who has now become the powerful Scarlet Witch – from trying to steal the ability for herself.
Doctor Strange (Cumberbatch) and Chavez become multiverse buddies as they try to escape from the Scarlet Witch. They end up in a universe where a group of Marvel super heroes are the guardians of the world.
This group is made up of characters introduced in past films and television shows based on Marvel Comics. Revealing who they are would be a major spoiler but it is safe to say that a quick refresher in “The Inhumans,” “Captain Marvel,” the “X-Men” movies, the Fantastic Four comics and the animated “What If …?” would not be a bad thing.
Director Sam Raimi brings a competent hand to the production having been at the helm of three “Spider-Man” movies in the early years of the 21st Century. He accents that skill with his tendency to ramp up the horror elements that has been on display since he directed “The Evil Dead” more than 40 years ago. The most obvious manifestation of his horror roots will also require a little research into the Marvel Comics trek into the zombie world.
Overall Raimi presents the battle to save Chavez and a few dozen stops in the multiverse with an impressive group of visual effects. There is one sequence where Doctor Strange and America go zipping through a string of stops in the multiverse that is a brilliant depiction of how different the worlds can be. The worlds range from animation to paint people. The only way to fully appreciate the sequence will be when the movie is released on DVD and Blu-ray.
Where the film has problems is the script by Michael Waldron. He certainly brings a knowledge of the Marvel Universe to the project having been a producer and writer on the Disney+ series “Loki.” The problem is that the core of his story has the imposing evil to be faced based on a mother’s grief.
Villains of such tales should be born from pure evil. That makes it easier for the audience to root against the bad guys. In this case, Wanda goes to incredible evil extremes to fulfill her mission but at the heart of her efforts is a parental need that creates empathy for the character.
The film also suffers from the same kind of problems that plague a production that uses time travel. Being able to skip through the multiverse is a great way to set up worlds so different even the good guys can be killed but it also spawns questions about the kind of ripple effects that can be created. Consider this. If you travel to another universe and kill the version of yourself that lives there, is it murder or suicide?
Waldron’s effort to load the story with all of the bits and pieces of past projects creates a clunky story. Instead of a scene smoothly transitioning into the next step on the film journey, there is a jerkiness over a bumpy road of confusion.
If you come to the film with enough background in the Marvel Universe, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” will captivate you with the work by Cumberbatch (who was born to play Doctor Strange), flashy special effects and big action scenes. Come unprepared and there is a real chance of being sucked into the multiverse world of confusion.
Just a reminder, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” has two secret scenes that come during and after the credits.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Xochitl Gomez, Elizabeth Olsen, Benedict Wong, Rachel McAdams.
Director: Sam Raimi
Rated: PG-13 for violence, language, intense images
Running time: 126 minutes.