It’s becoming increasingly difficult to watch Marvel films. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is ostensibly the sequel to the 2016 hit Doctor Strange but since Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) shows up in subsequent Marvel shows, prep for this new movie involves more viewing. The latest Spider-Man film, Spider-Man: No Way Home would be good to rewatch since Strange shows up. One of the major characters in this new film is Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), which means you’ll also want to be familiar with the terrific Marvel TV series WandaVision.
The character you still won’t know unless you’re a hard-core comics fan is America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), who was introduced in the 2011 comic Vengeance #1, then got an updated origin story in last year’s America Chavez: Made in the USA #3. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is darn impressive, but it can be bafflingly enormous, at times akin to watching a play that stars everyone who lives within five miles of the theater.
Marvel has also used the idea of alternative universes as a comic book storytelling device for decades. You name the superhero, they’ve probably encountered an “alternative” version of themselves. Even Doctor Strange has visited alternative universes on-screen; When egotistical surgeon Doctor Stephen Strange becomes the sorcerer after recovering from his terrible car accident in the first film, he travels through alternative worlds. Heck, one of the key scenes in the Avengers vs Thanos story arc has Strange explain that he has explored thousands of alternative universes to ascertain his optimal decision at that moment in Avengers: Infinity War.
In Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Strange is troubled by peculiar, recurring dreams that feature an otherworldly chase with a young woman in an American flag jeans jacket. Dreams, we learn, are actually windows to our experiences in alternative universes. The film opens as Doctor Strange is attending the wedding of his long-time romantic interest Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). She’s marrying someone else. Chaos erupts on the street. It’s a monster, and it’s pursuing the young woman from the dreams that have been plaguing Strange. She’s America Chavez. To figure out what’s going on, Strange decides to visit his witchy pal Wanda Maximoff (who is also Scarlett Witch) and the multiverse madness begins!
Because of its convoluted storyline, I can’t really explore much more of the film without revealing spoilers, but suffice to say, as with all multiverse films, Strange encounters peculiar worlds, some quite similar to our own, some quite divergent, and even meets up with other versions of himself. In some of these universes he’s a hero, while in others he’s not so heroic. His traveling partner through the multiverse adventure is American, who might just have some superpowers of her own.
Visually, Multiverse of Madness is as inventive and eye-popping as we’ve come to expect from the enormous budgets of the main MCU films. It’s worth seeing in IMAX in a theater with an excellent sound system. The sets and settings are wonderful and some of the alternative universes seem even better than our own. Cumberbatch delivers a solid performance, and Olsen is a standout as the internally conflicted witch and wanna-be mother. The problematic casting is Xochitl Gomez as American Chavez. Her character is dull and Gomez makes her even more uninteresting, a stark contrast to the impressive acting abilities of the rest of the film’s cast.
Fortunately, there are a lot of distractions, including major roles for Strange sidekicks, most notably the charismatic and wise-cracking Wong (Benedict Wong). There’s a plethora of thrilling action scenes and amazing visual effects to help distract you too, not to mention the endless “okay, well, now what?” questions as you realize the multiverse can’t help but dilute any actual dramatic tension in the story.
The last Marvel film I saw in the theater was The Eternals and it was pretty awful. By comparison, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is terrific, with its action, intriguing story, creativity, and focus on a couple of the most liked Marvel characters. There are definite story hiccups, however, and how Chavez ended up so uninteresting a character will leave you scratching your head, but still, it’s gorgeous. Go see it in the theater. Just don’t worry about it all making sense. Remember, in an alternative universe it totally works.