“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” definitely makes good on the promises of an excessive title: Alternate realities are in full effect, things get progressively more bonkers, and the latest adventure for Benedict Cumberbatch’s Marvel magic man takes “the search for one’s self” conceit to a whole new level.
Director Sam Raimi, the man responsible for a couple of “Spider-Man” flicks as well as the iconic “Evil Dead” franchise, brings elements of each to the superhero sequel (★★★ out of four; rated PG-13; in theaters Friday). “Madness” won’t give any young “Avengers” fans lasting nightmares, but the dark horror fantasy goes to some creepy places visually, with sinister delights sprinkled amid the more expected events of an overstuffed Marvel project. The new “Doctor Strange” grabs the multiversal baton from the excellent “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” though veers from its strongest storyline at times for callbacks and nods to the future.
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Its rip-roaring opening owes more to “Star Wars” or “Raiders of the Lost Ark” than any Marvel jam. A girl named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), who has the ability to travel through the many worlds of the multiverse, is running for her life from a dangerous creature in a cosmic setting: One star-shaped portal later, she winds up on the streets of New York racing another giant beastie. Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) and his sorcerer pal Wong (Benedict Wong) enter the fray to save America from a gigantic B-movie monstrosity going to town like it’s the 1950s again, and afterward, Strange finds out that a dark force is trying to kidnap America and take her powers.
To help protect America, Strange reaches out to Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), the powerful Avengers witch who had Thanos shaking in his boots for a quick spell. But soon, the good doctor’s formidable foe (it’s best you don’t know any more going in) attacks the sorcerers’ magical fortress, and Strange and America escape by catapulting through a dizzying array of realities, including one where they’re cartoons and another where they’re, yes, made of paint. It’s a way-trippy start to the fussy sorcerer and teen girl going from reluctant pals to growing on each other, and Strange figures the best way to win is to find other versions of himself while dealing with friends, enemies and everybody in between.
Unlike the recent “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” or “Eternals,” “Multiverse of Madness” isn’t built for the casual Marvel moviegoer. Those unfamiliar with Disney+’s “WandaVision,” the last two “Avengers” movies and/or the 2016 first “Strange” film won’t know what’s going on, especially when the stuff we can’t write about really starts getting interesting. (The first jaw-dropper comes about 20 minutes in and doesn’t let up in terms of spoiler-rific material.)
To fit all the wowing moments, the fledging kinship between Strange and America – two lost souls needing the other to lean on – gets set aside. It’s too bad, because Gomez brings a sassy freshness to the Marvel landscape that meshes nicely with Cumberbatch’s hard-luck hero, and the film loses some of its spark when they’re not joined at the hip. Olsen, who is as essential to making “Madness” work as Cumberbatch is, carries over a lot of her character’s emotional turmoil from “WandaVision.” And Rachel McAdams returns from the first film to play different versions of Strange’s ex Christine Palmer, but at least gets more to do this time around.
While the Marvel-ness of “Madness” will make your head spin, Raimi’s signature style, penchant for the macabre and sense of humor oddly ground the film. Scenes that feel akin to his Tobey Maguire Spider-films of the early 2000s – and the zombies, demons, monsters and schlocky weirdness reminiscent of “Evil Dead” and “Drag Me to Hell” – almost seem nostalgic.
The script by Michael Waldron (“Loki”) visits a lot of places and genres, yet in needing to serve the larger scope of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, lacks a strong narrative center to match the solid performances and scary-movie style. Pulling it all together in a sensational way is the one magic trick this “Doctor Strange” doesn’t have up its sleeve.