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Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness Review: A True Marvel

Movies have always been about good vs. evil, and there are certain villains every filmmaker has to overcome: The audience expectation that the lead characters won't die, vain actors concerned about how they will be perceived, plots that require dumbed-down moments of explanation and clear, simple, typically happy resolutions. The brilliance of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — on full display in "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness" — is that it has battled, bent and broken such expectations to the point where those rules no longer apply.

The film is a psychedelic mind-flip masterpiece. At any given moment, it feels like any of several dozen MCU characters — or perhaps a wholly new one — could come walking in. Or make a universe-shattering statement. Or die. This is the sweet spot for a moviegoer, one where expectations fade away and excitement takes over. If you thought "No Way Home" had surprises, you ain't seen nothing yet.

Where do you even begin to explain this plot? Our old pal Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, noticeably wiser and more confident than in the first film, truly showing his character's growth) is being haunted by nightmares, and one particular sweat-inducer involves a young woman named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez); when America shows up in his reality, it's enough to make him leave the wedding of his old flame Christine (Rachel McAdams) and sit down with loyal friend/Sorcerer Supreme Wong (Benedict Wong) to figure out what's going on.

As it turns out, America has the supremely desirable power of travel throughout the multiverse; as it also turns out, she has no idea how to make it work. But this is enough to get Wanda Maximoff (now in post "WandaVision," full Scarlet Witch mode) on her scent, determined to suck out the girl's powers and use them to find a universe where her children still exist and she can bend reality to fit her idyllic family dream. Strange cannot allow this to happen.

Describing more plot would just ruin the fun, so suffice it to say this is a wild ride worth taking. A big part of that, and perhaps an unexpected one, is the return of Sam Raimi. This is such a pleasant surprise because Raimi has been effectively missing in action since his "Spider-Man" films concluded on less-than-ideal terms; in the 15 years since, he has directed two largely forgotten films ("Drag Me to Hell" and "Oz the Great and Powerful") and produced and dabbled in TV and lower-profile efforts. "Multiverse of Madness" announces his return to form with authority.

Going to her happy place

All the Raimi trademarks (perfected in his "Evil Dead" films and others like "Darkman") are present, and every bit as creative in servicing even a story as big and popcorn-fueled as this blockbuster. There are undead creatures, zooming cameras on slamming doors, lots of eyeball imagery, the obligatory (and quite brilliantly self-referential) Bruce Campbell cameo, and all sorts of inventive shots organically necessitated when Strange is crashing through multiverses (one is animated, one futuristic, another in wet paint) or Wanda is trapped in a prison filled with mirrors. The film can be genuinely horrifying at times, in no small part because Wanda feels like Robert Patrick in "Terminator 2": unstoppable, unrelenting, inevitable.

What this scaffolding ultimately constructs is a brain-bruising experience, in the best way possible. As Wanda and Strange chase each other from one universe to the next, with America as the MacGuffin, anything goes. A major character with far-reaching implications on the MCU can appear, explain an entirely different scenario in their reality where an alternate Strange did something else, and why it did or didn't work. A major character can be killed without true cause for concern — remember, they just died in universe 838, not our universe 616. This can be intoxicating (could Strange find a universe where he ends up with Christine?) or terrifying (if Wanda does get to her children, what will she do to the Wanda of that universe?).

The actors are clearly having a lot of fun with these ideas, and how could they not? Imagine being told that today you're going to be a zombie, tomorrow you get to be an evil version of yourself, and the day after that you'll play a flashback to a younger, naive one. Some people look down their noses at Marvel films and say they're brainless blockbusters; it's mind-boggling to think anyone could watch Elizabeth Olsen's character arc from "Avengers: Age of Ultron" through "Civil War," the "Infinity War/Endgame" films, "WandaVision," and now into "Multiverse of Madness" and not appreciate the depth and complexity of the character (and the performer). The same can be said for Cumberbatch, who in a mere six years has taken the odd, distant Strange from the comics and turned him into possibly the most beloved (still alive) Avenger not named Spider-Man. The fact that we've also taken this journey just makes moments — like when Wanda's kids withdraw from her in fear and she insists "I'm not a monster!" — all the more effective.

People are strange

Another element of "Madness" that deserves attention is the delightful creativity in the spells on display. Doctor Strange always seems to have another dazzling trick up his sleeve, be it magical hands that can pick up objects and throw them on his behalf, buzzsaw blades that saw a bus in half — or, if you're falling, a portal that comes out at a horizontal angle, making you pop out unharmed. One amazing sequence has Strange fighting ... well, Strange ... using musical notes brought to life from piano sheet music.

This comes moments after Strange discovers one universe's Sanctum Sanctorum is a set of stairs that seemingly stretch out forever over the ocean. It's a beautiful, memorable set piece, as is the Gap Junction (another location for battle, between universes) and of course, Wanda's all-too-familiar living room with those adorable moppets sitting on the couch, waiting for mom to bring them ice cream.

At the end of it all (and yes, there are two end credit sequences worth sticking around for), "Madness" is smart enough to keep returning to a pair of themes that keep this Easter egg-friendly film from becoming mere fan service. One is a Raimi-esque appreciation for the eyes as the window of the soul: a one-eyed monster attacks America, Wanda's eyes tell us when she's in Witch mode, Christine pulls open one of Strange's eyes to release demons; in a film filled with deception, it's one of the few "truths" we can rely upon. The other theme is the question: "Are you happy?" For Marvel fans, their answer will be overwhelmingly in the affirmative.