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Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness review – Sam Raimi helms the weirdest MCU entry yet

This sequel thrives when it lets its director's personality shine through, but excess fan service and low stakes throw it off balance

Twenty years ago this very week, Sam Raimi redefined the role of the modern superhero movie with his seminal Spider-Man, paving the way for what would amount to two decades of wonder, CG excess and (for some) audience fatigue. Now, he has returned to the director's chair – 9 years after his critically panned Oz the Great and Powerful – to the genre he helped to popularise with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, a film as excessive in its design as Spider-Man was simple. How times have changed.

Benedict Cumberbatch is back for a more unconventional second solo outing, his initially colder performance recalibrated as “sardonic but likeable” through countless appearances in other people's movies. Again, it's the “Multiverse” that provides the narrative quirk (or irk) of this interdimensional adventure, as a teenager named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), hunted for her ability to travel between dimensions, arrives on Earth with the corpse of an alternate Doctor Strange in tow. Together she and the Doctor must move between realities as to prevent a dark magic apocalypse, working alongside Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), who is now living off grid following the events of a TV series you may or not have seen.

In many ways, this is business as usual. But just as Doctor Strange hijacks the body of an alternate version of himself in the film's later stretch (don't ask), Raimi is able to occasionally steal out the movie from the studio and utilise it as a playground for his personal whims. Now and then, these inspired interjections break the illusion of the Marvel factory: inventive camera movements; zany set-pieces like the one that sees a giant octopus eye being pierced with a flagpole; Three Stooges-esque physical comedy; zombies and dark magic and witchcraft – in isolated moments the shiny rigour of the MCU is temporarily broken, showing a way forward that is interesting and new.

As such, this is unquestionably rendered as the outright weirdest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date – and the most violent. Here, we witness things that are usually off-limits, and the results border on disturbing, so used are we to the Disney censor that ensures “gruesome” is very much off the table. Heads explode. Heroes die (sometimes horribly). There are close-up shots of flesh as it sizzles and melts. And there is a real macabre streak that harkens back to Raimi's own Evil Dead franchise (with a Bruce Campbell cameo to boot), a bizarrely out of place (but brilliant) sequence in which Doctor Strange wields musical notes as weapons, and another where he battles “The Souls of the Dead,” shrieking demons that could have been plucked right out of Raimi's underrated 2009 horror-comedy Drag Me to Hell. 

In spite of these welcomed detours there's no denying we're still being forced to run the corporate treadmill. Disney rules this universe and the only thing on their mind – true of all universes, perhaps – is expansion. Multiverse of Madness is packed with in-jokes, references, cameos, and a handful of moments that are sure to fly over the heads of everyone but the truly devout (in other words, those who endured WandaVision on Disney+). Multiverse feels like more of a bridge than a self-contained entity – a midpoint in which various loose strands come together under the guise of a “story.” But it's weird for a director of mostly original material, like Raimi, to find himself marching to the beat of somebody else's drum, juggling plotlines he had no involvement in creating.

One of the film's oddest sequences takes us to an alternate reality – a lusher New York that looks like one massive version of the High Line – and builds one shocking reveal on top of another, a sticky layer cake of fan service that opts for instant gratification over logic. But the fact all this takes place in an alternate reality means we might as well be watching a dream sequence. Marvel's decision to frame much of Phase Four around the existence of the Multiverse has allowed for some interesting narrative curves, but there's a cost to such self-referential and freewheeling storytelling: nothing seems permanent. Only as far back as Avengers: Endgame we could at least be convinced that death was irreversible. Of course, the notion of the Multiverse is perfect for a franchise that wants to live forever: anything's possible.

The film goes back and forth in a tug of war – a director trying to wrestle a personal statement out of a soulless product, where the real aim is never the moment itself but the ongoing idea of franchise longevity. This is just idiosyncratic enough to call it a Raimi movie, though one imagines – given free rein – the madness suggested by the title would have been intensified. In the end, it's too weird a film to dismiss, but too compromised to fully embrace. “Something for everyone” is often mistakenly assumed as a noble intention. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness confirms such an approach often gets in the way of this thing we call “vision.”

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is now showing in UK cinemas.

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