Doctor Strange has been a busy guy in the MCU, despite his only solo outing happening six years ago, a massive gap in the usually tightly scheduled coordination of these superhero stories. Still, even with the gap in his resume Strange has certainly not been absent from the movies as a whole, with major parts other outings to keep him growing and changing. With that said, it's easy to see how Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness would have a lot of plates to keep spinning, serving not only as a sequel to Doctor Strange proper, but as a sequel to multiple Avengers movies and more recently, Spider-Man: No Way Home.
Thankfully, veteran superhero director Sam Raimi stepped up to the plate, and, despite some stumbling blocks, delivers a solid and unique Phase 4 movie--at least, for the most part. Multiverse of Madness sends Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) on a horror-flavored jaunt through the recently cracked open MCU multiverse alongside newcomer America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) who has the ability to hope between universes, much to the chagrin of some apparently demonic forces that would like to take her power for themselves. Also returning are Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), fresh off her traumatic experience in the Disney+ TV show, WandaVision, Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who hasn't been around since Strange 1, Wong (Benedict Wong), the put upon Sorcerer Supreme, and Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) Strange's ex.
Multiverse of Madness excels when Raimi's voice is the loudest one in the room. Multiple sequences nostalgically harken back to the stylistic influences in his pre-MCU Spider-Man days while others dip deeply (sometimes even shockingly) into true horror. This actually may be the least kid-friendly Marvel has ever allowed one of their movies to get while still remaining safely in the PG-13 rating zone. There is blood, some light gore, and multiple graphic death scenes that all feel deeply subversive and interesting. Interestingly, these sequences also feature some of the movie's cleanest and most organic looking visual effects, which are otherwise wildly uneven in quality throughout the rest of the film. It's not hard to tell which parts were Raimi's darlings, and which were being handled with the most care and consideration.
Meanwhile, the same cannot be said for large swaths of the movie outside of these moments. Many of the effects and CGI set pieces border on distracting in their uncanniness and the trading of real actors for digital ragdolls in fight scenes is glaringly obvious. Around the halfway point, shortly after one of the movie's most interesting and most shocking fight scenes, the flow of the story begins to go largely off the rails, and begins feeling like a flip book of randomly taped together ideas. It just can't quite keep up with every character it wants to juggle and never really recovers its momentum for the back half.
Thankfully, even for these pacing and plot-based stumbling points, the cast is anchored by both Cumberbatch and Olsen giving some of their best MCU work to date. Olsen in particular shines in this new take on Wanda, though there is something to be said about retreading the same ground and the same arc we've already seen her take this character on in WandaVision--though, ironically, cranking the WandaVision beats up to 11 and condensing the story into a 2 hour movie only seems to have helped it stick the landing. To elaborate too much further would definitely get into spoiler territory but suffice to say, Olsen's fully unleashed rendition of Wanda is both a joy and a terror to behold. In the same vein, Cumberbatch is able to finally take Stephen Strange to unexplored territory, delivering up an introspective and sympathetic look at the regularly snarky, scoffing sorcerer.
While Olsen and Cumberbatch get the most screen time, Xochitl Gomez gamely steps up to the task of introducing the MCU's America Chavez, who undoubtedly has a bright future ahead of her in the franchise--though more than once during the movie she feels deliberately hammered down into a walking, talking MacGuffin to drive the plot forward. With any luck, Gomez's next MCU outing with America will allow her to exist in the spotlight more thoroughly.
All told, despite the unevenness in the presentation, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a fun, fresh take for the MCU and, with any luck, a hopeful indication of things to come in the future. While Phase 4 has certainly not been shy about taking risks and playing with styles and genres thus far, Multiverse of Madness represents Marvel's most extreme diversion from the mold in some key ways (while, unfortunately, being deeply beholden to the formula in others.) It feels exciting to think that the MCU may be getting less precious with its toys and allowing more directors to start pulling at the seams.