“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” had all the ingredients to be a mediocre cog in the ever-more-massive Marvel machine.
It’s a sequel to three separate Marvel stories at once, chiefly 2016’s meh “Doctor Strange,” and it’s directed by Sam Raimi, who hasn’t made a superhero movie since the widely hated “Spider-Man 3” 15 years ago.
But Raimi didn’t just deliver a sequel that will satisfy hardcore Marvel fans. Leaning into the sideshow kitsch of a superhero movie about a flying magician in an anthropomorphic cape, Raimi — in a marvelous act of movie prestidigitation — has pulled a cute rabbit from the old Disney hat.
The biggest flaw: You really do need to be a Marvel fan with a Disney+ login to understand what’s going on here. This is a sequel to the “WandaVision” TV show as much as it is the first “Doctor Strange,” and it will help if you’ve seen all four “Avengers” movies, too, which of course require you to watch dozens of other movies to understand them.
In light of this, the first act is a bit stiff and takes a while to start moving smoothly. I’ll try to describe it without spoiling it.
Benedict Cumberbatch is the sorcerer of the title, who loves his spell-flinging superpowers but enjoys his love life less as he attends the wedding of his once-lover (Rachel McAdams — one testament to how forgettable the first “Doctor Strange” was; I forgot she was even in it). Enter America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a young girl with the power to punch through universes, who is being chased by demons.
Demons = witchcraft, so Strange seeks help from the Scarlet Witch, Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen). But Maximoff is struggling with her own demons in the aftermath of “WandaVision” and she’s begun to flirt with black magic that threatens to overtake her.
Cumberbatch didn’t have much to work with here; Strange is essentially a less-sympathetic Iron Man with magic, down to the weird goatee. The script by Michael Waldron (“Loki”) injects some personal stakes via alternate reality mirrors of Strange, and an unintrusive, blink-and-you-miss-it trauma plot, but it wouldn’t work without Olsen, who is ironically the real star. She’s been forced to play a manipulated, damaged, then grief-stricken character for multiple movies and a TV show, but in this one she finally gets to have fun being overtaken by dark magic.
So does Raimi. His camera stalks like in 1981’s “Evil Dead”; his effects, though stretched at moments, can be effortlessly bone-chilling; he eschews the understated tone Marvel’s become known for and embraces the melodrama he’s always been good at. Plus, superhero scoring king Danny Elfman has created easily the most memorable soundtrack the Marvel Cinematic Universe has seen to date.
So sure, it’s a Marvel movie, but it’s more a Raimi movie.