Don't expect Marvel business as usual from "Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness," now exclusively in theaters and taking an early run at the summer box office. What we have here is a funhouse horror thrill ride, directed by Sam Raimi, who made his bones with the "Evil Dead" franchise way before he embarked on his "Spider-Man" trilogy between 2002 and 2007.
There are squid attacks, rampaging zombies and ghouls, and a book of dark magic to stretch the PG-13 rating to the max as Benedict Cumberbatch takes his second solo turn at Dr. Stephen Strange, a neurosurgeon who became a master of the mystic arts with the ability to spawn multiple versions of himself from Sinister Strange to heroic defender.
Since "The Multiverse of Madness" picks up right after last year's "Spider-Man: No Way Home," when Strange nearly brought on Armageddon by designing a spell to make everyone forget that Peter Parker was the webslinger, the mostly good doc needs to learn that with great power comes great responsibility. Good luck with that.
Luckily, Cumberbatch, as his recent Oscar nomination for "The Power of the Dog" proved, can do anything, including survive the storm of special effects and villainous multiverse variants that keep trying to steal his thunder. Not gonna happen.
Despite all the scare tactics, this movie has its romantic side. Strange still pines for his former fiancée, Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). But it's Wanda Maximoff, aka the Scarlet Witch, played by an off-the-charts fabulous Elizabeth Olsen, he needs to keep tabs on. Marvel is not known for spawning Oscar nominations for actors -- Olsen may be the exception.
If you've been binging "Wanda/Vision" and the animated "What If...?" on Disney+ -- and if not, get busy -- you know Wanda has suffered the grievous loss of husband and children. Can she find a multiverse where she can be whole again? And what does she need to get there?
Look to teenager America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), who's just dimension hopped onto the streets of New York with a multi-tentacled creature on her tail. Strange and his sorcerer pal Wong (the invaluable Benedict Wong) rush to her rescue, but are they enough to keep Wanda from seizing America's power for herself? That's pretty much the crux of the plot.
The spoiler police at Marvel will digitally erase me if I reveal more. What can be told is that Raimi survives a draggy start and herky-jerky pacing to create a dizzying wall of multiverse mirrors for audiences to lose themselves in as they indulge in more Strange adventures. Don't worry, the gore is more squishy than gross.
There are cameos galore (no spoilers here) and a post-credit sequence that lets you know you are still in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The fun comes in watching Raimi make the doctor march to his own sense of demented humor and visual dazzle. No knock on original "Strange" director Scott Derrickson, but there's nothing like the experience of Raimi breaking bad.
Raimi is the livewire who scares up a fresh vision for Marvel in "The Multitude of Madness." For those of you who haven't hit the multiplex since the pandemic pounced, see "Doctor Strange" in IMAX where minds will be blown on a scale home viewing can never match. Get your popcorn ready, people, movies are back.