'Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness' is a madcap rush into a magical maelstrom (review)

"Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness" poster.
"Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness" calls on Doctor Strange to save the multiverse from a surprise threat. (Image credit: Marvel Studios)

The Master of the Mystic Arts returned to the silver screen this weekend as Marvel's "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness" debuted with a stellar $450 million opening worldwide, pleasing Marvel Studios and Disney while becoming the biggest release of 2022 so far. 

Warning: Potential spoilers ahead

But the multiverse may have overstayed its welcome as a Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) plot device in this hurried affair that has Doctor Strange bouncing through a variety of alternate realities to protect a dimension-hopping girl named America Chavez and stop the Scarlet Witch from enslaving the multiverse using an evil spell book called the Darkhold.

"Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness" again showcases Benedict Cumberbatch as the titular wizard, Benedict Wong as Wong, Rachel McAdams as Dr. Christine Palmer and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Karl Mordo. Also appearing for the magical pyrotechnics show are Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch and Xochitl Gomez as America Chavez. (If you need a sci-fi catchup on the Marvel universe, check out our guide to the Marvel movies in order along with how to watch Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness once it leaves theaters for Disney Plus and other services.)

Teasers and trailers for "Doctor Strange 2" were somewhat misleading as to the Scarlet Witch's motivations and purpose, so brace yourselves for a sly bait and switch.

It was essentially a foregone conclusion that director Sam Raimi would bring his trademark horror show to Marvel's sequel to 2016's "Doctor Strange," and the results are a troubling, phantasmagoric mind trip into untapped depths of insanity linked to a spotty narrative that is often puzzling. It was hoped that director Scott Derrickson would return to helm the sequel, but due to creative differences and time constraints, he bowed out early on to do "The Black Phone."

Raimi cut his cinematic teeth with popular cult horror flicks like "Evil Dead," "Evil Dead II" and "Army of Darkness" before venturing into more mainstream fare when Hollywood harnessed his twisted visions in the "Spider-Man" trilogy of the 2000s starring Tobey Maguire.

The last time Raimi directed a feature film was back in 2013, when he helmed "Oz the Great and Powerful," and SFX technology has made major leaps forward since then, allowing the filmmaker to present some truly jaw-dropping special effects, including a cyclopean space squid, musical notes turned into magical shrapnel, and a paint dimension of splattered color.

"I didn't come close to direct anything after that," Raimi told Collider. "I needed time away after that to get hungry again, learned about filmmaking, taking some lessons, do some gardening."

If you haven't watched any Marvel TV shows, you may want to check out WandaVision before seeing "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness." (Image credit: Marvel Studios)

This newest MCU film, long in development, is a convoluted mess at times, becoming exhausting by the final smackdown, which feels like something out of a hyperactive Harry Potter spectacle. Whereas Derrickson's "Doctor Strange" offered a more measured approach to the character and delivered genuine pathos in his origin story, Raimi's bombastic sequel feels like too many cooks spoiled the narrative broth.  

His flair for dramatic Dutch angles, undead heroes and cackling demons is evident, and if your idea of a killer Doc Strange flick is a putrefying zombified sorcerer clashing with a witchy mom trying to unite with her imaginary kids, then you'll be thoroughly entertained. But have a set of earplugs at the ready!

The film is loud, often visually arresting, oddly unengaging and rushed all at the same time. Clocking in at just a hair over two hours (including the interminable credits) it's one of the shortest MCU films in recent memory, though you'd be hard-pressed to find fans who would have yearned for any more sizzling energy bolts and mystic shields exploding in endless showers of sparks.

Whereas 2016's "Doctor Strange" felt like a sophisticated, adult-aimed film, "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness" is bolted together as an adrenalized after-school special on acid with a teen protagonist who's not very compelling, at least not enough to anchor an entire MCU movie.

But brilliant special effects are a revelation here, and the interdimensional contortions Cumberbatch experiences will leave you feeling like you've been strapped into a looping hyper-coaster for two hours after ingesting a couple of foot-long corn dogs and a funnel cake.

The obligatory post-credit surprise sets up the MCU's future Multiversal War as the sorceress Clea (Charlize Theron) appears to tell Strange he's caused a dimensional incursion that must be fixed.

Doctor Strange travels the multiverse with a teenager who can punch through realities in "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness." (Image credit: Marvel Studios)

There are necessary references to Marvel TV shows like "WandaVision" and the "Avengers" films, and having a strong handle on past events in the MCU are necessary to ingest all that occurs.  

The disjointed screenplay, written by Michael Waldron (Disney Plus's "Loki"), does present some unexpected jump scares and paranormal fireworks, but it makes little sense if you dare pause to think about it too much. 

In the comics, America Chavez is a powerful lesbian Latina superhero raised by two mothers, but here, she's reduced to a generic teen wearing an Old Glory jean jacket and sporting a rainbow flag pin. There was a chance to create an intriguing team-up here, but that never really manifested. Her pairing with Doctor Strange and his sympathy toward her seem awkward at times, with inconsistent tones and an utter lack of chemistry.

One bright note we can attest to is that Raimi-film alum Bruce Campbell ("Evil Dead" trilogy) makes a fun cameo as a food vendor selling pizza balls in an alternate Earth. When Doc Strange zaps him with a spell, he reprises his famous self-inflicted face-punching scene from "Evil Dead II."

Despite its express train pacing, tiring exposition dumps and extra-large plot holes, all of the performances are rock-solid, and it will be interesting to see if "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness" flies or fails at the box office once more people have endured its Bizarro vibe. 

Should there be a moratorium on multiverses in Hollywood? Yes, please!

"Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness" is now in theaters. You can check out our Marvel streaming guide to get caught up on the first "Doctor Strange" and the multiverse of superheroes. 

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Jeff Spry
Contributing Writer

Jeff Spry is an award-winning screenwriter and veteran freelance journalist covering TV, movies, video games, books, and comics. His work has appeared at SYFY Wire, Inverse, Collider, Bleeding Cool and elsewhere. Jeff lives in beautiful Bend, Oregon amid the ponderosa pines, classic muscle cars, a crypt of collector horror comics, and two loyal English Setters.