We are dropped en multiverse res: Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is running through a Ditko-esque geometric cosmos filled with runes and floating rock fragments, perfect for leaping away from danger. A young woman in a star-spangled jean jacket is sprinting right beside him. A raging, fiery demon is in literal hot pursuit, a not-uncommon occurrence when you’re the Master of the Mystic Arts. Only this Stephen Strange has a ponytail (!), which means either that we’re dealing with one of a gajillion alt-versions of the Avenger’s in-house sorcerer, or our man is suffering from some horrible midlife-crisis style choices. All three of these parties, supernatural or otherwise, are after a book surrounded by a gleaming light. Right before any of them can grab it, Strange bolts awake in his bed. It was all a dream. Or was it?!?
No time to ponder that notion, because Strange and the current conjurer-in-chief Wong (we love you, Benedict Wong) are soon fighting a whole-lotta-Lovecraft creature on the streets of New York, dodging flung vehicles and slicing tentacles galore. The thing from another dimension appears to be targeting someone. Once they defeat this monstrosity, Strange notices that this “someone” is the same person from his dream. She’s America Chavez (The Baby-Sitters Club‘s Xochitl Gomez), a name that means a lot to comic-book readers, especially those clocking groundbreaking representation in superhero storytelling. Both Stephen and Wong suspect witchcraft is behind this particular attack. Luckily for them, they know of someone who dabbles in such things: Wanda Maximoff, a.k.a. the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). She may have some insight into what, exactly, is going on. The question is how much insight.
Decorum — as well as Disney-Marvel Inc.’s army of snipers currently training their crosshairs on anyone who even thinks of revealing “spoilers” regarding any given MCU entry — prevents us from diving further into the narrative details of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. You know this. We know this. Kevin Feige and those mouse-eared enforcers who protect every tidbit of information regarding who may or may not show up, whether certain deep-cut characters might be introduced (and which star may or may not be playing them), what possible crossovers might be put in place, etc. — oh, they definitely know this too. Words must be chosen carefully, lest you risk the wrath of fans ready to pounce on any sad sack who confirms that yes, Doctor Strange is still a doctor, and yes, he’s still played by Bronco Henry’s most ardent disciple. That’s too much information already, they cry! You’re ruining everything!!!
Fair enough. So here’s what we will say about this most welcome addition to the endless, ongoing saga that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. To quote an angry movie star, love makes you do crazy things, and maternal love amplifies that idea hundredfold. A lot of different intellectual properties now fall under a single corporate umbrella. When you’re dealing with multiverses, anything is possible, including different realities featuring well-known superheroes that are a little different than you remember them, and certain intriguing casting choices that may be one-offs or hint at the shape of franchises to come. Enemies in some worlds are friends in others, and vice versa. When you look into the abyss, it looks right back into you. Bruce Campbell makes everything 10 percent better. And occasionally, you come across a multiverse in which, for whatever godforsaken reason, pizza is — gasp! — served in bowls.
But the big reveal here — the magical ingredient that sets Multiverse of Madness apart — is how the person who’s calling the shots this time out transforms yet another serialized I.P. installment into something unique. No one would question that Sam Raimi has superhero filmmaking bona fides: The writer-director not only changed the game with his early-2000s Spider-Man trilogy, he was crafting his own conflicted-doo-gooders-in-capes movies way before they were the global multiplex’s lingua franca (big up 1990’s Darkman). He’s also made everything from thrillers (A Simple Plan, The Gift) to Westerns (The Quick and the Dead) to sports movies (For the Love of the Game). Raimi is a versatile filmmaker, and given that he’s dabbled in TV work but hasn’t made a movie since 2013’s Oz the Great and Terrible, he has been much missed on the big screen.
Before he directed films about grifters and ball-players and angsty teen webslingers, however, Raimi made low-budget, high-energy horror flicks. And to say that the gonzo, go-for-broke spirit in those early works that made him a cult director par excellence is in full bloom here would be putting it mildly. Multiverse of Madness is a good Marvel movie, yet it’s an absolutely great Sam Raimi movie — he’s gifted us with the Evil Dead II of superhero blockbusters and an auteurist’s wet dream. You still get the requisite, CGI-heavy battles and the somewhat shaky balance between this being something to be consumed in a single sitting and a bridge between past and future “phase” chapters, i.e. the curse of maintaining big-picture MCU continuity. But Raimi also employs a host of the old-school tricks he used when his hero had a chainsaw arm instead of the Eye of Agamotto and a sentient cape. You want dizzying zooms, tilting angles, nutty POV shots, holy-shit jump scares, skin-crawling scenes involving supernatural possessions, and every other spooky trick under the sun? They’re here, in spades, and used as effectively as possible. Ditto a few sequences that remind you that Raimi’s sense of humor is equal parts gallows-dark and Three Stooges-ish wacky. (Pairing him with Loki creator Michael Waldron as a co-writer seems to have paid off as well — you can sense a simpatico strain of puckishness from that show thrumming right below the surface.)
It’s one of the rare movies made under such intense scrutiny and insane franchise micromanagement, in other words, that hasn’t sacrificed the strong personality behind the camera for a generic house style. If anything, this sequel to Strange’s original 2016 solo joint seems to have liberated Raimi to do what he does best, while still sticking to the predetermined marks he’s gotta hit for however many installments this sets up. Which, it’s safe to say, is more than a few. There are generally two broad camps when it comes to these MCU movies: those who consider these popular, interconnected behemoths to be the modern equivalent of Shakespeare, and those who look at them as the shadows-on-a-wall equivalent to amusement park rides. There is not a lot here to contradict the “but is it cinema?” crowd’s opinion that they’re the latter — any bigger themes regarding regrets, the roads not traveled, trauma, and the fact that you can never really return home again, are more or less means to various bang-pow-whoosh ends. What Raimi has done with his contribution, however, is construct not another roller coaster but one hell of a haunted house, one fueled by an abundance of eccentric creativity, imagination, and finely honed chops. The methods he employs to his Madness are what makes this movie stick out, in this or any other universe.