Sequels aren’t always a sure thing. For every The Empire Strikes Back, there’s a Speed 2. Sequels to superhero films have the benefit of a little more freedom in telling a good story as they are no longer shackled by the weight of the “origin”, but they don’t always hit the mark either. In 2004, Sam Raimi delivered what many consider to be the best superhero sequel of all time in Spider-Man 2. It featured a flawed protagonist and a sympathetic villain; it featured what were, at the time, some of the most well-shot action scenes of any film in the genre. Not just that, but it also featured a story that stirred emotions across the spectrum. In 2022, Raimi has done it again.
The path to Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness was about as chaotic as Stephen Strange’s trip through the multiverse in the first act of the film. Scott Derrickson, who helmed 2016’s Doctor Strange was set to be back in the director’s chair, but in January of 2020, Derrickson dropped out of the film when it became clear he and Marvel Studios had two entirely different films in mind. A month or so later, Marvel Studios began putting together a new creative team made up of Michael Waldron, whose work on Loki thrilled the folks at Marvel, and Raimi, who had been out of the superhero game since 2007’s Spider-Man 3. COVID delayed the start of filming and then the film underwent significant additional photography. Perhaps no Marvel Studios film caused more preemptive hand-wringing than this film did, but the end product makes it clear that Waldron, Raimi, and the rest of the team were truly taking their time to deliver the best possible version of this film and that’s exactly what they did.
The film opens up in media res and introduces the audience to a Variant Doctor Strange who is protecting Marvel’s newest young hero, America Chavez, from a pretty terrifying demon. Amid a brutal assault on Defender Strange, we learn that this demon is in pursuit of Chavez because it wants her powers, which allow her to travel the multiverse. Chavez and Defender Strange are not only trying to evade the demon but also get their hands on the film’s big MacGuffin, the Book of the Vishanti. When things get ugly, so does Defender Strange, setting the stage for one of the film’s running themes: that no matter what universe we’re in, Stephen Strange is a danger and can’t be trusted. Using a star-shaped multiversal portal, Chavez escapes and finds her way to the MCU’s Prime universe and is under attack once more. After battling the beast, Strange and Wong realize that the source of its power is different from theirs and decided to seek out a magic-user with a similar set of powers: Wanda Maximoff.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is the first MCU film that has the Disney Plus series as “required viewing”, especially when it comes to Wanda. While fans could have skipped WandaVision and figured things out as they go along, having been along for the ride is helpful. It’s here, with Wanda, that Marvel makes one of their boldest choices to date: having one of their core Avengers turn heel, just as she did in the comics. Following a brief conversation with Strange, Wanda reveals that she is after Chavez’s powers in order to find a way to reunite with her sons. A conversation between Strange and Wanda leads to a confrontation in which the Scarlet Witch unleashes a shockingly brutal attack on Kamar-Taj, which rounds out the first act of the film, sending Strange and Chavez on their trip through the multiverse.
Fans may never know what Derrickson‘s film would turn out to be, but Marvel Studios should be damn glad that Raimi wanted to make this version. From beginning to end, this is a Sam Raimi film. Sure, he’s telling a story within the confines of Marvel Studios’ shared universe, but he’s telling it in classic Raimi fashion and appearing to have a whole lot of fun in doing so. Multiverse of Madness looks like a Raimi film; it delivers his signature (and surprisingly violent) horror; it delivers, most importantly, the most complete and emotionally stirring story of Phase 4. After a decade-plus away, Raimi showed that he understands now, maybe more than ever, that a good superhero story has to have a heart, especially when someone is trying to rip it out.
Lizzie Olsen’s Scarlet Witch holds nothing back as she attempts to do just that. Much as with Doc Ock in Spider-Man 2, Wanda’s turn as a villain works so well because the audience wants what she wants: for her to have her kids back. Corrupted by the Darkhold, however, the lengths to which Wanda is willing to go to get them back allowed for some of Marvel Studios’ most innovative and interesting action scenes to date where Raimi and crew got to have a whole lot of fun devising fascinating ways to show magic being used on screen. Olsen’s performance continues to demonstrate her total command of the character. It’s the subtle head tilt here, the smirk there, and the changing tones of her voice that come across as truly terrifying.
Opposite Olsen and in her way is Benedict Cumberbatch’s Stephen Strange. Cumberbatch is given much to do here, playing multiple versions of his character, and puts together easily his best turn as the character so far. Following the 2016 origin film, the character hasn’t had much room to grow. Here, Strange’s path through the multiverse, where he learns the stories of other Stranges, forces the hero to look inward, providing the growth necessary to propel the character forward into whatever story he’s placed into on Marvel Studios’ shared tapestry.
As strong as its lead performances are, the film is enhanced by the knockout performances of Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, and Xochitl Gomez. McAdams is particularly surprising in her return as Christine Palmer, who has much more to do here than one might have expected, including some of the film’s strongest statements about Stephen Strange. It’s the moments like these that Palmer, Wong, and Chavez spend with Strange that build an emotional currency within the audience and a master like Raimi knows just how to spend it. This is a huge film that makes big moves within the MCU, but Raimi manages to balance that with a series of small exchanges between characters that resonate because both the audience and Strange know he is flawed.
For the MCU to continue to thrive, the aforementioned big moves need to continue to be made. In that sense, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness seems to be to the MCU what Captain America: The Winter Soldier was in 2014. Not only does this film feel as different from its predecessor as Winter Soldier did from First Avenger, but it also comes out swinging with an almost merciless 20-minute deluge of information that’ll be sure to have fans wanting to head right back in for a second showing and heading to Wikipedia after that. If you thought Marvel Studios gave it all away when they teased the Illuminati in a TV spot, you’re sorely mistaken. This film is a game-changer and the most direct setup for the MCU’s next big event film.
In the end, it all comes back to the magic touch of Waldron and Raimi. They delivered on characters, story, and action to make the most complete film of Phase 4 and maybe one of Marvel Studios’ most complete films to date. Fans of Raimi‘s work will have plenty to smile about as well, with a few references sprinkled in and the obvious influence of Raimi on some of the creature and character designs. Against all odds, he came into a project that seemed to be held together by a thread and by capturing that old magic formula, made one of the best superhero sequels of all time.