The summer blockbuster season is about to get off to a divisive start.
Five months after Marvel's enormously crowd-pleasing Spider-Man: No Way Home, the studio's follow-up, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, makes a hard pivot away from fan service. Instead, Marvel delivers a dark, weird, shockingly brutal movie with horror mastermind Sam Raimi's fingerprints all over it, and it takes some giant swings guaranteed to divide audiences. Some of its boldest choices don't fully work, but it's hard not to appreciate a Marvel blockbuster that strives to stir the pot and really lets Raimi be Raimi.
In the wake of Spider-Man: No Way Home, Multiverse of Madness sees Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) join forces with America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a teenager with the ability to move between universes who's on the run from terrifying extradimensional creatures. Meanwhile, Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) has been tapping into dark magic since her Disney+ series WandaVision in an effort to be reunited with her children — who don't technically exist in this universe since she created them in a fake sitcom world. But after seeking Wanda's help, Strange comes to a shocking realization: The person sending these creatures after America is Wanda herself, who hopes to find her kids by using America to travel across the multiverse.
This is when it becomes clear how big a swing Multiverse of Madness is taking: Wanda Maximoff, an Avenger, is the film's unambiguous evil villain. Given that WandaVision made the character one of the most popular heroes in the MCU, having her fully turn to the dark side like this could be the franchise's most controversial decision to date.
The choice is commendably daring, but Multiverse of Madness takes Wanda's heel turn a bit too far in a way that does some disservice to the character. Sure, Wanda previously kidnapped an entire town in WandaVision — but she also never intentionally harmed anyone, and when she saw how much the residents of Westview were suffering, she ripped herself out of her sitcom fantasy to free them. It's quite a leap to go from that to a version of Wanda who's a sinister force of destruction with zero regard for human life, and Multiverse of Madness doesn't bridge the gap between these depictions in a way that feels completely natural. Wouldn't it be more satisfying if, like Tony Stark in Captain America: Civil War, Wanda found herself at odds with the hero for understandable reasons but her behavior felt like a clear progression from what we've seen before?
It definitely helps that Wanda is said to be under the influence of the Darkhold, a book of dark magic, throughout Multiverse of Madness. But that also feels like an easy excuse to avoid putting in the work to really justify her dramatic actions. Raimi's desire to create a ridiculously fast-paced blockbuster clocking in at a tight two hours comes at the expense of showing us more of how Wanda has been corrupted by dark magic, which could have helped smooth out the transition. Still, Olsen makes the best of the abrupt character shift and knocks it out of the park whenever she's on-screen. To its credit, Multiverse of Madness does maintain sympathy for Wanda as one of Marvel's most tragic characters during a few tear-jerking scenes. Ultimately, whether you love or hate the Wanda turn, it's certainly the polar opposite of playing it safe, the go-to criticism of the MCU.
To that point, Marvel movies are also often criticized for adhering to such a strict house style that they may as well have been directed by anyone. But there's no question Multiverse of Madness is a Sam Raimi movie — and not the Raimi who directed the Spider-Man trilogy, but the Raimi behind bonkers horror masterpieces like Evil Dead II and Drag Me to Hell. After some of his signature horror-comedy tendencies are absent from the first act, Multiverse of Madness takes a turn into the overt horror territory that Moon Knight recently teased. We have jump scares, disturbing imagery, jaw-droppingly violent deaths, and a tense sequence that feels like something out of a slasher film.
Multiverse of Madness' wacky third act is even at times reminiscent of Raimi's slapstick horror-comedy Army of Darkness, and the results are simply deranged. He makes some delightfully weird filmmaking decisions audiences may not be sure whether to laugh at or with — including having a key emotional moment involve a rotting corpse. Marvel fans not attuned to the director's twisted sense of humor will probably leave the theater baffled, but those on his wavelength will have fun with it.
It's not hard to imagine a version of Multiverse of Madness much more devoted to pleasing fans. Leading up to its release, there had been rampant speculation that a trip through the multiverse would just consist of Doctor Strange bumping into classic Marvel characters for two hours, with rumors suggesting everyone from Deadpool to Iron Man could show up. Multiverse of Madness does have some surprises up its sleeve in the cameos department, but they're not a major part of the movie — and more importantly, their inclusion is not for the reasons you'd expect. That's a promising sign after No Way Home suggested Marvel was at risk of becoming overly reliant on giving fans what they want to see. On the contrary, Multiverse of Madness is a movie that seems to delight in disturbing fans and even making them angry.
It feels appropriate that Multiverse of Madness concludes a story arc that WandaVision began last January. When that show kicked off Marvel's fourth phase with bizarre, off-putting sitcom pastiches, there was some hope we could be heading into the MCU's most audacious, oddball era yet. That didn't exactly pan out after WandaVision, though. No MCU entry since then has felt as daring, and even WandaVision's own finale played it safe. But Multiverse of Madness allows Raimi to bring some of this risk-taking spirit back to the franchise.