What to Watch Verdict
Sam Raimi makes the most Sam Raimi movie Marvel would allow, which works to liven otherwise heavy exposition in a more formulaic script focused on connecting multiverse dots.
⭐ Raimi gets to be Raimi
⭐ Welcome to Marvel, Xochitl Gomez
⭐ Elizabeth Olsen is a powerhouse
⭐ Cosmic and horror visuals are striking
⭐ Actors are at times doing their best with formulaic dialogue
⭐ Raimi’s indulgences won’t work for everyone
⭐ Storytelling needs more balance
In a world where the Marvel Cinematic Universe has tinkered with countless subgenres but previously shied away from horror, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness finally brings the scares. Better yet, Marvel bigwigs allowed director Sam Raimi to make the most Sam Raimi movie imaginable (I’m equally shocked and relieved).
The initial departure of Doctor Strange director Scott Derrickson suggested that maybe Marvel opposed Derrickson’s more hardcore horror tendencies for the sequel, fearing they’d drive away demographics who might not even stomach the theatrical poster for Derrickson’s ever-terrifying Sinister. It was easy to presume Raimi was later hired because of his work on Sony’s beloved Spider-Man trilogy (the Tobey Maguire one), except Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness owes much more to Raimi’s Deadites from Evil Dead, skeleton soldiers from Army of Darkness and other slapstick horror-comedy trademarks that make for a stranger, madder brand of Marvel entertainment.
Michael Waldron’s screenplay faces the challenge of opening Marvel’s doorway into multiverse storytelling wider by acknowledging WandaVision and Spider-Man: No Way Home and its impact on Dr. Stephen Strange, Benedict Cumberbatch's wisecracking, portal-creating wizard. The fix is easy: introduce a superhuman named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) because her power is jumping through multiverses with no repercussions. Unfortunately, Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) is still using The Darkhold’s evil spells to find her children at all costs and becomes a thorn in Stephen’s side. Plus, he’s about to embark on a multidimensional journey filled with familiar faces — both old and new.
Raimi’s command of humorous horror makes Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness into a raucous riot. It’s never frightening enough to scare away kiddos in Captain America t-shirts but does get downright creepy as Wanda’s Scarlet Witch persona owns its crimson wickedness. Cinematographer John Mathieson recreates the rapid "demon wind" camera zooms that add intensity to Raimi’s Evil Dead franchise, used as effectively when Strange and company scamper away from mama Wanda’s fury.
Raimi does a wonderful job incorporating visual homages to classic horrors like Carrie while solidifying this zany hybrid between outright mayhem and wholesome Marvel plots, highlighting promised strangeness. The film’s third act is totally in Raimi’s wheelhouse, as Strange must rely on literal nightmares to save our realm, chasing the highs of Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness within Marvel’s established parameters.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is less successful at incorporating all storylines into a unified, barely two-hour experience. Elizabeth Olsen plays a heartbroken Wanda on the warpath with such impressive depth, but her arc breaks away from Strange and Chavez as they work out their multiverse issues. There’s a ping-pong effect that bounces between two focuses — Wanda’s travels with an imprisoned Wong (Benedict Wong), Strange and Chavez’s teamwork development — which will frustrate those who favor one or the other.
Waldron’s screenplay isn’t developed enough to handle two essential stories fighting for dominance while also building out the MCU for decades of multiverse-hopping to come. Cumberbatch and Gomez fall quickly into their trainee-mentor rapport (Cumberbatch's talents feel bolder under Raimi's guidance), yet it’s impossible not to feel like their origin comes at a disservice to Olsen’s dramatic climax after multiple releases trample Wanda’s spirits.
As far as technical elements, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a thrilling collaboration between scoring and animation. Composer Danny Elfman mindfully uses the grandness of orchestral harmonies to emphasize fight sequences (notably a duel between different Stranges who hurl sheet music notes) or introduce cameos with exciting theme jingles.
Visual effects supervisor Janek Sirrs brings to life multiple unique dimensions (think Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse), Marvel’s wondrous cosmic environments and ghoulish minions from underworld ranks that blend into this vibrantly macabre superhero portrait. There might be instances where New York City backdrops look iffy as green screens, but the majority of Raimi’s collaborations with post-production artists and Elfman’s musical accompaniment are on Marvel’s higher ends. From soul-sucking wraiths to levitating, fire and brimstone Wanda.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a black sheep compared to Marvel’s output and will be treated as such. Raimi tackles another exposition-heavy Marvel entry with all the chaotic hallmarks of his morbid filmography. Extreme facial expression close-ups, hilarious moments of skin-crawling dread, elevated stakes due to violent body horror (one particular monster death) — Marvel allowed Raimi to push farther than I thought possible.
Don’t expect Evil Dead 4, but don’t assume just another continuation pulled off the Marvel assembly line either. Raimi’s madcap energy becomes a saving grace throughout this dense dump of MCU setups in one of the more significant Marvel swings since James Gunn blasted off with Guardians of the Galaxy. This horror fan and Sam Raimi fanboy remains giddy with joy — but those might be requirements to achieve a full appreciation of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness releases exclusively in movie theaters worldwide on May 6.
Matt Donato is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film critic who stays up too late typing words for What To Watch, IGN, Paste, Bloody Disgusting, Fangoria and countless other publications. He is a member of Critics Choice and co-hosts a weekly livestream with Perri Nemiroff called the Merri Hour. You probably shouldn't feed him after midnight, just to be safe.