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Review: Bolder than most Marvel films, Sam Raimi's 'Doctor Strange' packs a punch

The cast is uniformly excellent, but Elizabeth Olsen steals the show in Marvel’s scariest film yet.
Credit: Marvel

ST. LOUIS — One ingenious thing about the multiverse is the infinite array of possibilities it presents. A trait that doesn't just apply to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but to storytelling in general. What if you were able to visit multiple worlds, each with different yet strikingly similar versions of yourself, and recapture some of what was lost in your world? A level of seduction and intrigue that even one of Earth's mightiest heroes in Dr. Stephen Strange may not be able to handle.

Played assuredly once again by Benedict Cumberbatch, Strange is a powerful man dealing with the repercussions of his actions in December's "Spider-Man: No Way Home." He opened up a level of madness with his choice to aid young Peter Parker (Tom Holland) that may have awoken other problems, including seeing himself as the chief problem that the world must deal with and overcome.

He reaches out to the recovering Wanda Maximoff-who just survived her own ordeal in Westview-for help in understanding the multiverse that he has inadvertently brought into his own home. Other characters, including a mysterious yet vital new hero in America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) and Wong (Benedict Wong), get involved in Strange's adventure.

From there, things get very interesting and even a little scary. Yeah, that's right, I said scary. You could label this Marvel's first real attempt or two-foot touch into the horror genre of superhero tales. Sam Raimi directed "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness," and he puts his wicked "Evil Dead" stamp on the treasured MCU material. The man who rebooted the superhero craze 20 years ago with Tobey Maguire's "Spider-Man" makes his triumphant return with this sequel centered around Earth's most cynical hero.

Cumberbatch is so good in this role, it can be taken for granted. It seems like eons ago that we got our last full serving of Strange, and that's a shame because the British's actor's ability for cunning dry wit was missed. Don't get me wrong, it's always a joy to watch him cut down other Avengers and help the group win a battle or two-but no one had leaned into the strength and danger in his power until Raimi did with "Madness."

Here, the audience gets multiple servings of Cumberbatch, who tweaks and twists his Strange screen persona to delight and scare the audience in a variety of ways. I don't think people will be shocked by some of the events in the movie, but their eyes will be wide open and their jaws will hit the floor at least five times. Raimi isn't messing around, and neither is screenwriter Michael Waldron.

The mind behind "WandaVision" authentically shakes up the bag of MCU tricks here, taking full advantage of the multiverse being broken open for all ideas and "what if" scenarios to come out and play. It's one of the rare times there is only one screenwriting credit on a Marvel movie, and that speaks to the level of trust Kevin Feige has in his filmmaker and world-builder here.

This is the most freedom and misdirection I have seen in a Marvel movie since Taika Waititi's "Thor: Ragnarok." It's what happens when the wild-eyed and open-minded director gets the keys to the castle and builds a Cadillac. "The Multiverse of Madness" is better than all three of Raimi's "Spidey" films, including the very good second one. It's Marvel's best work since "Endgame," and I'm talking about a wow factor.

Raimi's film has it. It's shorter and tighter than most MCU films, an audacious experience that includes a multiverse world freefall that counts among the best scenes from this year and last as well. It manages to keep the usual light Marvel tone and make you jump in the seat as well.

And when I say the film is scary, there are no lies or hyperbole being hidden in that statement. This is the first Marvel flick that will legit scare kids, and maybe even create a few nightmares for young teens. Imagine the Tony Stark skeleton crawling out of the grave in "Far From Home"; Raimi's film doubles down on that visual. He really goes for it, aiming to not just make another Marvel movie but a Sam Raimi Marvel movie.

"Multiverse of Madness" never settles on one particular speed of storytelling either, which can create a frenzied pace. But that fit Raimi's world here, and delivered some very entertaining action sequences. In one scene, the combatants use music notes and songwriting lyrics as weaponry. Let's just say another fight scene with the all rumored and talked about cameos will be in your head for the next week. That's all I'll say or attempt to spoil. No names, just be ready for "WHAT!?!"

Here's what I can tell you. "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse" is a very good movie. One that lives up to the hype and even manages to surprise. The first time I have left very pleased after a Marvel movie in years. No offense to "Shang-Chi" adorers and diehard "No Way Home" addicts who wanted it nominated for Best Picture, but those films didn't deliver something completely different. What may seem scary or out of bounds to certain comic book loyalists was refreshing to this movie fan.

**SLIGHT SPOILER TERRITORY**

While all of the cast members put in fine work-including Wong as the ever reliable Sorcerer Supreme who only seems like a sidekick-it is Olsen who steals the show. She is no side pony here: vicious, enticing, and the kind of broken woman who still offers the opposition an easy way out first. It's her witchcraft-afflicted heroine who has suffered the greatest loss among the Avengers current active (or alive) roster, and that can create a grudge.

Raimi and Waldron have some fun with that notion and deliver one of the most thrilling scenes in recent memory late in "Madness." It stands out in a way that only Bucky tearing through the heroes at the headquarters in "Civil War" can come close to. It's Olsen who is the anchor of much of this movie's originality. She is Cate Blanchett's antagonist on steroids, at least when it comes to levels of vengeance and agony. Separate a mother from her kids-whom she created to partially heal the gap left in her heart by the death of the love of her life-and you have a foundation of loss that can't be stopped.

It's her performance, that full buy-in to Raimi's world, that elevates the film. Also, "Zombie Dr. Strange" is amazing. See this film, and look for the slight homage to "Everything Everywhere All The Time." If you ever imagined Quentin Tarantino directing a Marvel movie, this is as close as you will get. In Bruce Campbell we trust.