It’s right there in the name. “Madness” is everywhere in Marvel’s biggest, broadest and darkest film to date – not just a blockbuster horror about broken minds, but a prog wizard epic tackling rifts in space and time and (at least) 27 other films’ worth of crazy crossover backstory. Punching a black hole right through the middle of Phase Four, the sequel to 2016’s Doctor Strange is also very much the prequel to the next bumper crop of Marvel movies – setting up an MCU of limitless cosmic impossibilities where anything can happen and everything usually does.
Following on directly from Spider-Man: No Way Home, but also from WandaVision and Loki (plus a bit of What If…?), you’ll need to spend a few weekends binging boxsets if you want to go in armed with everything you need to know. But if you do need a refresher course, Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness probably isn’t for you – holding newbies by the hand where it can but always much more interesting in giving long-time fans the deep cuts they’ve been waiting for.
Within the first 10 minutes, Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is fighting a giant cyclops octopus in the middle of New York. Crashing the wedding of his ex, Dr Palmer (Rachel McAdams), the alien squid has been magicked up by Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) to capture teen super-in-waiting, America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez). Now harnessing the power of The Darkhold spellbook (see WandaVision…), Maximoff is hunting Chavez for her “dreamwalking” abilities that let her step between the various broken strands of the multiverse (see Spider-Man: No Way Home and Loki) to find a reality where her imaginary children still exist…
With a setup like that, anything goes. And by anything we mean everything – with Strange and Maximoff fighting their way through so many alternate realities that it feels like fast-flicking through a stack of comics. Director Sam Raimi brings Evil Dead zombies, classical musical battles, future-tech robots and one world made entirely out of paint, but it’s the cameos and new franchise nods that will really mess up the timelines.
Spoilers are likely to fill feeds for months (stay off Twitter if you don’t want to hear about at least three huge new directions for the MCU) , but it’s debatable how many of them actually mean much since most of the crossover characters only exist in their own bubble. One criticism that’s been levelled at Marvel for years is how low the stakes are, and The Multiverse Of Madness only makes things worse. Time, space, reality and consciousness are all relative here, and two solid hours of deaths, reveals and universe flips starts to feel numbing – even with Raimi lending everything such cartoon charm.
Raimi, of course, is the weird uncle of the MCU: the guy who helped kickstart the super-era before it officially started with the original Spider-Man trilogy. Here, he brings his B-movie kookiness back to the table. This is a film that rolls with slapstick horror – somersaulting through sadness, comedy, scares and a story pitched somewhere between Fantasia and the last Ratchet And Clank video game.
Somehow, Raimi – with strong, grounded turns from Cumberbatch and Olsen – just about keeps the film from running too far off the rails. There’s a thin line between fan-service and… Space Jam 2. Though Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness is a franchise eating itself, it’s a meta-meal that that’s mostly fun, scary, visually bombastic and mad. Really mad.
- Director: Sam Raimi
- Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen, Chiwetel Ejiofor
- Release date: May 6