"The multiverse is a concept about which we know frighteningly little," cautioned Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) in box-office behemoth Spider-Man: No Way Home. Audiences are somewhat better 'versed these days, as the MCU’s Phase 4 has been laying the groundwork for multiple realities that allow you to have your cake in one dimension and eat it in the next. Animated series What If…? explored the butterfly-effect possibilities with some of the saga’s core characters, while No Way Home demonstrated the crowd-pleasing potential for fan service (multiple Spider-Men!), following in the web trails of Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse.
Following the events of No Way Home, in which a well-intentioned but misjudged spell by Strange cracked open portals to parallel universes, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness picks up multiple threads from the good Doctor’s solo movie, No Way Home, and Disney Plus series WandaVision in a complex crossover concoction that’s par for the course for Marvel fans, but probably bewildering for anyone who hasn’t been keeping up.
There’s also something of a geekgasm crossover behind the scenes. Sam Raimi directs, returning to the comic-book-movie fold after establishing the genre’s dominance over this century’s cinema with the close-to-untouchable Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 (before departing under a cloud due to his trilogy-capper’s shortcomings). The Evil Dead filmmaker’s fingerprints are evident in some jump scares and ghoulish images, but he never veers too far outside the all-conquering studio’s house style – given how many tendrils connect Multiverse of Madness to other parts of the Marvel universe, it’d be impossible for it to carve out a truly standalone style.
Precious little can be said about the plot before straying into spoiler territory, but the title hints at dimension-hopping, and if you’ve read anything about the film pre-release, you’ll know it features the crucial introduction of America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a young woman with the ability to skip between worlds. That power makes her the target of a mysterious, powerful being with malicious intent. Fleeing into this timeline, of course, she crosses paths with Strange, and current Sorcerer Supreme Wong (Benedict Wong). Seeking to protect the teenage superhero, Strange also seeks the assistance of his Avenger colleague Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen). From there, the adventure heads into skewed dimensions, which deviate from Earth-616 in small and not-so-small ways.
For all the potential complexity of the multiverse, the plotting is fairly straightforward: motivations are clear, and the various timelines economically navigated. You don’t need to be a neurosurgeon to keep up, although being a Marvel aficionado certainly helps, not least for surprises and callbacks set to delight the faithful. But there being so much going on means some characters and strands are underserved: Chiwetel Ejiofor draws a short straw, given limited time to unpack Karl Mordo further, but Rachel McAdams gets to explore another side of Christine Palmer, while Olsen continues a journey begun in WandaVision.
Since the Inception-through-a-kaleidoscope action of Doctor Strange (2016), the Master of the Mystic Arts’ magical powers have made for trippily inventive visuals. And while that’s true here – one showdown set to music hits just the right notes, and there’s fun to be had glimpsing alternate realities – it rarely feels like the characters are occupying real physical space, such is the dependence on mostly weightless CGI. The MCU’s ability to generate stakes also feels under threat here: an early battle with a one-eyed, tentacular beastie sees passers-by joyfully gawp like they’re watching a parade balloon float by: in a world where half the population has previously been wiped out, maybe there’s not that much to be afraid of anymore.
Still, there are enough crowd-pleasing moments to reward the faithful, Cumberbatch remains enjoyable in a role he’s played in five previous films (and a season of What If…?) and Gomez hints at a bright future in the MCU. But it’s impossible not to envision another world in which Raimi lets loose with this character, with more satisfying results.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is in UK cinemas now, US theaters on May 6. For more, check out our guide to Marvel Phase 4.