Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (Marvel Studios, PG-13)

It’s been a decade since the first Avengers movie came out. I remember carpooling with a crew of fellow sophomores from my dorm (shout out to the T-Town boys), sitting in the theater, and allowing the overwhelming hype to wash over me. Aside from being the first living proof that superhero flicks like this could work, Avengers was the first moment where I truly felt like nerd-dom had fully made its way mainstream. The crowd that spilled out after that movie was alight. Laughing, cheering, and hollering for literal hours. We sat in the bed of my buddy’s truck until three in the morning. Occasionally we would look at other groups scattered across the parking lot and cheer. They always cheered in reply. It was magical.

Ten years later the MCU is so much bigger than I could have possibly imagined. We’ve been to space with aliens, seen planet-sized gods, watched arch-demons destroy Asgard, surgeons master the dark arts, and most recently, multiversal reunions. The MCU is a feat of no small measure. And in keeping with its ability to kindle the magic for so many people, breathing life into their favorite comic book moments and heroes, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is the next step towards what promises to be a diverse future for the MCU.

The first Doctor Strange had to be an origin story. While the Sorcerer Supreme isn’t the most obscure hero in Marvel’s deep pantheon (hey there, Guardians of the Galaxy), it made the most sense to introduce him to viewers rather than hoping they would follow along. Since Benedict Cumberbatch first appeared as Stephen Strange he has appeared in four other Marvel films, fully familiarizing himself to fans. Multiverse of Madness follows shortly after the events of Spider-Man: No Way Home, a movie that saw the fabric of the universe tampered with in ways the MCU has never seen.

Going into Multiverse of Madness I assumed I had a pretty good idea of what I was going to get. There is a level of chaos and confusion that comes with fiction that traffics in parallel universes. Once you pull on that thread it becomes increasingly more difficult to keep track of where everything goes, leading to a lot of plot driven hand-waving and uses of the deus ex machina. No one likes when a solution materializes out of thin air. Thankfully, Multiverse of Madness is just keen enough to avoid most of this.

In the six years since his first appearance, Dr. Strange has been busy. A sequel generally follows the events of this first film, traditionally, but in the ever-winding fabric of the MCU, sequels are free to follow their characters. The first Doctor Strange left threads unsolved. An encounter with the universal terror Dormamu was buttoned up a bit too neatly and Mordo, once Strange’s colleague, had turned against him. There is also the sinking feeling that the appearance of the MCU’s Master of the Dark Arts would entail the involvement of other magic users being ratcheted up. So, in those six years, parallel to Dr. Strange, we have seen the rise of the Scarlet Witch.

Marvel’s foray into television has been fascinating. But save for the recently wrapped first (fingers crossed there is more to come) season of Moon Knight, nothing has captured the cultural zeitgeist like WandaVision. The psychological thriller/sit-com, a curious mix, set the stage for the mystical Marvel heroes and also left us with a deeply depressed, entirely too powerful Wanda Maximov in possession of the Darkhold, Marvel’s Necronomicon. More than anything, Multiverse of Madness is the sequel to the events of WandaVision.

Opening with the in media res introduction of MCU newcomer America Chavez, Multiverse wastes no time illustrating that something strange is afoot. There is an art to creating trailers that obscure the events of a film just enough to entice viewers while also convincing them they have an idea of what is coming. Because I have no self-control, I watched every Multiverse of Madness trailer, and when I tell you I had the film’s core plot almost completely wrong, you will be as pleasantly surprised as I was.

America Chavez, a young Latina superhero with the ability to traverse dimensions, is being hunted by demons. As one would imagine, her flight from pursuit causes her to cross paths with Dr. Strange. In an attempt to suss out who is hunting her, Strange enlists the help of now-reclusive Wanda. The hunt, and the reckoning with what is hunting her, play as the key plot points throughout the movie. What the movie does, in its two hours and six minutes runtime, is nothing short of absolute spectacle. We catapult through universes, meet new and familiar faces, interact with a bevy of mulitversal counterparts, and in the end tell a surprisingly intimate and personal story.

Where Multiverse of Madness had every right to be obnoxiously oversized and blown out of proportion, director Sam Raimi instead steers a careful ship, navigating family, loss, longing, and happiness within the magical confines of…well…endlessness. It’s a herculean task to start. And perhaps there is room for it to have been done better, in some small places. But truly, I was glued to my seat throughout. Raimi’s take on the MCU, nearly twenty years since he last touched a Marvel property, is dark and twisted. Blending the macabre of Wanda with the dark magic of Strange with expertise only the mind behind Army of Darkness could wield while still holding room for levity.

It’s Raimi’s vision, great performances from Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofore, Elizabeth Olsen, and newcomer Xochitl Gomez, and the fresh, dark, and kind of violent picture of the MCU that cements Multiverse of Madness for me. Xochitl is sixteen. She absolutely smashes her scenes, standing next to giants. There is something for everyone here. Cameos, reveals, confirmations. There are a few places mentioned in this movie that, the instant they were muttered, made me drop my jaw.

What Marvel is setting up for the MCU is wild and endlessly malleable. There aren’t many directions that aren’t available as options going forward. And while that could be a very dangerous place to be, Kevin Feige seems to have a firm grip on the wheel. While he is steering, I’m riding shotgun. What’s most important is the magic Marvel brought to us in 2012 is still alive and kicking, both in the hearts of the fans and in the heroes on screen. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a mind-bending ride through a universe that is ready to show you it can and will do anything. Buckle up. Excelsior! | Caleb Sawyer

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