Go big or go home: This has always been the unspoken motto of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In every film, it seems, the stakes are unimaginably high, involving the imminent destruction of not just the free world as we know it but often other worlds, on other planets, in other star systems. But these risks sound positively penny-ante compared to the franchise’s latest entry, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” in which, if the villain gets her way, “she could enslave the entire multiverse,” as one hero puts it. Even our alternate Earths cannot escape the impending peril, unless our cloaked superhero with the greying temples can do something about it.
Fresh off his appearance in “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) has reached a pinnacle in his mystical powers. In the first 20 minutes or so of “Multiverse,” not only does he bisect a bus hurled at him by an enormous cycloptic octopus-like demon (it’s another day in New York City), but he ties a Windsor knot with no hands. Practical magic, indeed.
He sports the tie for a bittersweet occasion: the wedding of his love interest, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) to another man. It’s a bummer, but Strange will soon have a cataclysmic distraction from the associated emotions. America Sanchez (newcomer Xochitl Gomez), a mysterious girl who showed up in his “dreams” the night before, is being chased through the metropolis by the tentacled beast. It turns out she’s an unwitting multiverse surfer of sorts; she can create portals to traverse probabilities, but she hasn’t developed the ability to control this power.
Naturally, a nefarious entity would like to possess this skill. Enter the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), a high-level practitioner of chaos magic, an Avenger who broke bad and, more to the point, a psychotically grieving mother who lost her children in this reality and will enact all manner of bloodshed to restore her family in the multiverse.
Full disclosure: I usually skip Marvel movies, but I was quite fond of the original “Doctor Strange” (2016), owing to the theoretical physics inherent in its premise. “Multiverse of Madness” offers many of the liminal, elastic charms of its predecessor. Reality is pliable, nothing is solid. Recognizable matter can suddenly shift into a labyrinth of mirrors. In one brilliant and sonorous touch, Strange harnesses notes off pages of sheet music and weaponizes them; at another point, a character creates a literal tempest in teapot. I can’t get enough of this stuff.
Throwing the multiverse into the pot only enhances its trippy visions, as in the moment Strange and America plummet into one of the latter’s vortices through countless spit-second universal permutations—from jungle to ocean to bustling cityscape to an animated reality to one in which the characters are made of paint. Truth be told, I could have used more of this imaginative whimsy; compared to the other multiverse movie now in theaters, “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” “Multiverse of Madness” is not as deliriously bonkers.
But this is also a Sam Raimi film, the cult director’s first in nine years. He infuses the Marvel Cinematic Universe with the grisly style of a B-grade genre film, complete with necromancy, rotting flesh, characters impaled on stakes and vaporized into red mist, a villain that, in the relentless style of the slasher, is always in hot pursuit, even when bloodied and limping. This is a grungy picture, a gnarly picture, and it benefits from this visceral approach.
“Multiverse of Madness” doesn’t reinvent any wheels in the MCU exactly, though it does introduce new entities, and it offers more than a handful of uncredited, geek-out-worthy cameos that I won’t spoil. As with many of these action-crammed blockbusters, I would have liked a deeper engagement of character—Strange’s gnawing melancholy is never explored beyond the surface, as well as America’s merely hinted-at status as an LGBTQ heroine—but there’s enough in here for Marvel die-hards, horror fans and maybe even the occasional quantum physicist to enjoy.