It’s been six years since the first “Doctor Strange” movie. Now there’s “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.” It opens in theaters on Friday.
Stephen Strange, once a surgeon and now a sorcerer, hasn’t exactly been a stranger during the intervening years. Marvel superheroes do get around. After showing up in “Thor: Ragnarok” (2017), he was in the final two “Avengers” movies (2018, 2019) and got rather cross with Peter Parker in “Spider-Man: No Way Home” (2021). The sourest of superheroes, Strange is very good at getting cross — and Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays him, is even better.
In that “Spider-Man” movie, you will recall, all sorts of bad things happened because of multiverses. They’re alternate universes; and when they overlap or collide or whatever it is alternate universes do, watch out. Here the multiverse business goes into overdrive.
For instance, there’s the unexpected presence of a teenage girl being attacked by a giant tentacular one-eyed something or other. It’s especially unexpected because the attack takes place in the middle of a New York City street, and Strange notices it while attending the wedding — not to him — of his heartthrob, Christine (Rachel McAdams). Formidable as giant tentacular one-eyed something or others tend to be, they are no match for Strange, especially when aided by Wong (Benedict Wong), Sorcerer Supreme — imagine having that job title on your LinkedIn page — who is easily the best Marvel sidekick. Please give Wong his own movie.
The teenager is named America. Make of that what you will. She is appealingly played by Xochitl Gomez (the Netflix series “The Baby-Sitters Club”). America, wouldn’t you know, is from a multiverse. We already met her in the film’s quite confusing opening sequence, which looks like a cross between a video game and an extended hallucination.
The Strange pictures live up to their protagonists’ name, easily being the trippiest of the Marvel movies, not that there’s much competition. Some of the trippiness is verbal. “This time it’s going to take more than killing me to kill me,” a character says — and it makes sense! Usually, it’s visual. One of the more hey-man-like-wow sequences could be a CGI redo of the hall-of-mirrors scene in “Lady From Shanghai.” Has anyone thought about hiring Alejandro Jodorowsky to direct a sequel?
The director here is Sam Raimi. Raimi directed the first three “Spider-Man” movies, way back in the franchise’s Toby Maguire days, getting things off to an excellent start. Before that, Raimi was best known for directing the first three “Evil Dead” movies, which means he cut his cinematic teeth, so to speak, on horror. But let’s save that discussion for a little later.
The boundaries between multiverses aren’t the only ones that get crossed. The characters call them “incursions.” Marvel universe incursions abound here, too. As noted above, superheroes do get around. The biggest incursion involves the very potent presence of Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). America can go between portals, and that’s a power Wanda is eager to have. The reason she wants it so much relates to “WandaVision,” the Disney+ series from last year. Olsen has the saddest eyes in all the Marvel movies, and why Wanda seeks incursion mastery lends an emotional seriousness to the movie that poses tonal problems.
It should come as no surprise that Strange ends up going the incursion route himself. In one of the multiverses, he encounters a version of Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). In the previous movie they did not have the best of relations — not that Strange has the best of relations with pretty much anyone. Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) pays a welcome visit from the “X-Men” movies. Also on hand are some alternate-universe incarnations of some highly recognizable Marvelites (not to be confused with Marvelettes). John Krasinski plays one — the twist is in who the character is — and another . . . well, let’s just say that Brexit supporters will be thrilled that a certain famous shield gets both a new logo and new thrower.
That last bit is the movie’s single niftiest imaginative flourish. There are others: a ballistic motorcyle, the sentience of Strange’s cape (“It’s a cloak,” he grumbles, after hearing the other term being used). When the sanctuary of Kamar-Taj is threatened, a hail of magical arrows is loosed. Hawkeye might want to consider some for his quiver. Best of all are a pair of Benedict Wong line readings: “I don’t even want to know,” this in response to Strange starting to explain a very involved chunk of plot; and an “Uh-oh,” that is wholly, and drolly, self-explanatory.
Drollery is in fairly short supply. In keeping with the Scarlet Witch’s witchiness, this is the closest the Marvel Cinematic Universe has come to including a horror movie. Is Raimi returning to those “Evil Dead” roots? An eye emerges in a very familiar forehead. An alternate Strange looks like a cross between a zombie and the Phantom of the Opera. Skeletal souls of the damned fly through the air with the greatest of unease. In several sequences, a bloodied Wanda is the spitting (or bleeding) image of Sissy Spacek in “Carrie.”
The expert astringency with which Cumberbatch plays Strange is all the more welcome as an antidote, even if only partial, to how overblown the movie can be. No small offender is Danny Elfman’s score. It’s bombast on stilts. Ah, for the death-wish Bruckner of his great score for Tim Burton’s “Batman” (1989).
Strange’s superpowers are many. So are Cumberbatch’s, and one of them is making sneering seem practically jolly. A useful rule of thumb in watching “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” is that if Cumberbatch (or Wong) isn’t in a scene, go for popcorn. True, that means the plot will be almost impossible to follow. But that’s probably going to be the case anyway.
DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS
Directed by Sam Raimi. Written by Michael Waldron; based on characters created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen, Benedict Wong, Xochitl Gomez, Chiwetel Ejiofor. At Boston theaters, Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square, suburbs. 126 minutes. PG-13 (intense sequences of violence, some language, and a scene of terrorized children that should make it criminal to take anyone 10 or under).
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.