Doctor Strange started life as a character back in 1963, debuting in an issue of a Marvel comic line appropriately enough titled "Strange Tales." As created by Steve Ditko (the original artist and co-creator of Spider-Man), with dialogue penned by the legendary Stan Lee, the mysterious doctor was a "master of the mystic arts," who used his skill with spells to broach untold realms and different planes of existence to protect everyone from a host of evil demons, sorcerers and similarly transcendental beings looking to make metaphysical inroads in this earthly province.
As a result of Ditko's transformatively bizarre worldscapes-- with orbs, tendrils, and jagged lines floating in a kind of trippy limbo -- and Strange's peculiar milieu, standing apart from many of the other Marvel characters, though his Sanctum Sanctorum was located in Greenwich Village (at the time, a haven for artists, beatniks, and revolutionaries), the character became very popular with the burgeoning counterculture of the mid-'60s. Kids devoured Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, and the Hulk; hip college students dug the good doctor.
The MCU version of Doctor Strange has taken pains to keep at least some of the particulars from the early comic series -- including Lee's penchant for alliterative gobbledygook (the "Wand of Watoomb," the "Eye of Agamotto," and when Strange was aghast, he would often say "by the Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth!") -- while keeping him very much in the mix of the Marvel world of characters. In this post-Thanos world (both in-story, and with the newer phases of the MCU itself), Strange's penchant for otherworldly explorations promised to be a good launching point for the idea of the MCU multiverse, itself, we imagine, the thematic link to everything that's going to be coming down the pipeline from the gleaming gates of Marvel Studios over the next few years.
But to combine such acid-tinged flights of surreal fantasy, while remaining a bedrock cornerstone of the MCU's next giant narrative concern, is a tricky needle to thread. To that end, Kevin Feige and company have made an inspired choice to helm this latest opus, Sam Raimi -- he of the long background in gonzo horror ("The Evil Dead" series), suspense thrillers ("A Simple Plan"), and, of course, superhero sagas ("Darkman," and the first round of Spider-Man films). For his first feature film in nearly a decade, Raimi pulls off an extremely thorny assemblage with "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness," adding just enough of his own visual flair and madcap stylings to bolster an otherwise spotty script from Michael Waldron.
As usual, I'll avoid spoilers as much as possible, here (my daughter, an MCU fiend, learned from her past experience with "Spider-Man: No Way Home," and tried heartily to avoid the avalanche of speculation about the cameos and surprises in "Multiverse of Madness"-- I will observe strict forbearance in her honor): As the film opens, we are in a Ditko-like spiraling universe, with a multiverse version of Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), sporting a ponytail, running madly across geometric forms with a young woman named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez). They are trying to make it to a distant platform, where a glowing book stands on a small pedestal, but are barred from getting there by a multi-tentacled octo-demon, who ensnares them in its steely grip right up until America somehow opens a portal between that universe, and good ol' 616 (the Marvel code for our "regular" universe, whose timeline we've been following over the past two dozen movies).
Once there, she meets our (regular) Doctor Strange, unhappily attending the wedding of his old flame, Christine (Rachel McAdams), before America appears in the middle of Manhattan with another giant monster chasing after her. It turns out Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), still in isolation in the countryside after the tragic events of the "WandaVision" TV show, has been studying the "Darkhold," a book of evil demon magic that, among many other horrible things, allows users to "Dreamwalk" between universes, possessing a different version of themselves in an alternate reality.
Wanda is still catatonic about the loss of her beloved, Vision (real), and the loss of her pair of children (imaginary, in this universe), and is searching the multi-cosmos to reunite with them, in a universe in which they are actually manifest. She is after America (the character, not the country) to absorb the teenager's multiverse-channeling powers, and doesn't care who gets hurt along the way.
Got all that? At odds with Wanda, now in this violently obsessed form known as the all-powerful Scarlet Witch, Doctor Strange, with America in his care, attempts to thwart the Witch's plans with a showdown at his temple, Kamar-Taj, which doesn't go well for him. Forced to flee, Strange and America jump to yet another universe, one in which Thanos was defeated by that world's Doctor Strange, but who lost his life in doing so.
Things continue to get more complicated for our heroes, especially after Strange meets the mysterious Illuminati -- a collection of the greatest minds of that world -- and tries to warn them of Wanda's impending attack, in vain. He must protect our universe, and America Chavez, while suffering the continual heartbreak of encountering that universe's version of Christine, with whom he maintains undying love.
Much of the film is set at such a breakneck pace, things are happening all at once and in a jumble, but Raimi is a skilled enough filmmaker to establish specific sequences as sort of mini-genre epics to give the narrative some needed punctuation. One scene, with a bloodied and manic Wanda pursuing the Doctor and his friends down a dark, macabre tunnel, plays like something straight out of one of his "Evil Dead" horror flicks; early in the film, a fight scene between Strange and a squid creature is a razzmatazz of CGI spellcasting and a goofy, one-eyed monster iteration. Raimi even throws us a winning cameo from Bruce Campbell (long his muse) to better establish the film as his own, and not just a pile of colorful clips off the MCU assembly line.
In this way, much of the film hangs together pretty well, even given the elaborate fan-service section about midway through -- no details, but you will definitely know it when you see it -- that seems to come and go without leaving a trace to the rest of the story. Where the film falters, in the end, comes down to a simple bit of human psychology that simply doesn't work except as a convenient plot-finisher (in this way, it echoes the last episode of "Breaking Bad," an otherwise brilliant series that seemingly lost its nerve at the very end).
Still, much of the action is thrilling, Cumberbatch seems to be enjoying playing different versions of his character, and the film dutifully stirs up the cauldron of further sequels on its way out the door. It's mission accomplished for Raimi, even if these latest iterations of the MCU can't seem to generate the feeling of palpable excitement going forward as much as their predecessors. Eventually, of course, we will get a full version of some of the previously owned Fox properties (X-Men, and the Fantastic Four, in other words), but until that happens, there seem to be a few gears grinding at the cinematic House of Ideas (as the old Marvel bullpen was called). Note: It's worth it to stick around for the pair of bonus scenes, the first, which throws us into the next sequel without much fanfare, and the second just for Raimi's final gag.
‘Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’
88 Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Xochitl Gomez, Michael Stuhlbarg, Patrick Stewart, Bruce Campbell
Director: Sam Raimi
Running time: 2 hours, 6 minutes