The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a busy place. With its crisscrossing sequels, superheroes who dart in and out of each other’s movies, and labyrinth of laws and totems and over-the-cosmos-and-far-away lands, it’s become a metastatic playground, the kind of place that even the most ardent comic-book fans have to dedicate themselves to keeping up with. But if you’re the kind of viewer who surveys the Marvel landscape and thinks, “Nope. Sorry. Not busy enough,” the MCU has good news for you: It’s going to get even busier. Last year’s mega-hit “Spider-Man: No Way Home” was a multiverse fantasia that felt like a Rubik’s Cube, though if you ignored the plot gyrations (which were triggered by Doctor Strange), you could sit back and enjoy it as a glorified “SNL” sketch featuring all three of the actors who had played Spider-Man. (How could they occupy the same universe? That’s a comic-book mystery best explained by studio accountants.)
Now comes “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” an entire film about the interface of parallel universes. In the first “Doctor Strange,” a compact and debonair origin story released back in 2016 (time flies when you’re getting busy), Benedict Cumberbatch’s mordantly witty and self-obsessed Stephen Strange started off as a playboy surgeon, then lost the use of his hands in a car crash, then underwent a kind of “Karate Kid” training under the mystic eye of Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One. He then went out into the world, armed with his new gift for creating weaponized circles of light, and faced down a team of Zealots whose central threat seemed to be their ability to turn a metropolis intersection into an erupting, folding-in-on-itself M.C. Escher-meets-“Inception” dreamscape.
What they did to the physical world “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” does to storytelling. It’s a movie set in several universes at once, and it keeps shooting off into ever more insane dimensions of alternate reality. Its story doesn’t develop so much as it multiplies. In theory, this should multiply the fun, though that’s not necessarily the way it works out. “Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness” is a ride, a head trip, a CGI horror jam, a what-is-reality Marvel brainteaser and, at moments, a bit of an ordeal. It’s a somewhat engaging mess, but a mess all the same.
Early on, there’s a bit of good old-fashioned comic-book overkill, as Strange, now with a full dagger goatee and a shock of white hair along the sides, attends the wedding of Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), the colleague he has never stopped regretting jilting. A rampaging monster with octopus tentacles, looking like “The Eyeball From 20,000 Fathoms,” is tossing vehicles this way and that. Strange, assisted by the stoic Sorcerer Supreme Wong (Benedict Wong), has little trouble slaying this walking creature feature, but the monster is only a messenger. It’s been sent to capture America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a teenager who possesses the singular ability to leap between universes.
That’s her only gift, but it’s a transcendent one, and it’s a power coveted by Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), aka the Scarlet Witch, who has been featured in several MCU films, like “Captain America: Civil War” and “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” sometimes on the side of good. Now, after the 2021 miniseries “WandaVision,” she’s a villain who will destroy worlds to become the person she was and still most wants to be: a mom.
We’re shown one of the multiverse versions of Wanda, where she’s a single mother of two adorable boys. That’s the identity she covets. But she needs the power of multiverse-hopping to fuse with it. And Doctor Strange, now fully at home in his role as red-caped savior, can’t allow her to have that power; it would wreak havoc on the entire multiverse. So after taking his young charge to Kamar-Taj, which turns out to be a failed fortress once Wanda lays siege to its defending army of warrior monks (in other words: their golden light circles prove less powerful than her red fireballs), Strange and America escape to a different universe — a New York City in which the buildings are overgrown with flowery vines, a red light means go and a green light means stop, and pizza comes in balls.
They wind up trapped in giant cubes overseen by Christine, who in this universe is a brilliant multiverse researcher. It’s a slightly different Christine, who had a relationship with a slightly different Stephen Strange, but they’re still variations on the same people, which may get you asking: How is it that everyone in one universe is just a slightly different version of who they are in another universe? Doesn’t that fracture the essential idea of one detail having the ability to knock huge chains of events off course? (What if X didn’t marry Y?) If “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” proves anything, it’s that multiverse movies hold even less water than time-travel movies — which sounds like nitpicking, but when you’re building an entire movie around this stuff, threadbare logic starts to balloon into chaos. As it turns out, having alternate versions of the characters mostly sands down their appeal — a key case in point being Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo, who has gone from Shakespearean rock-star sorcerer to blunted antagonist.
The film was directed by Sam Raimi, making his first movie in nine years (after the mediocre 2013 smash “Oz the Great and Powerful”), and in a number of scenes you feel the companionable spirit and shifting imagistic flair he showed in the first two “Spider-Man” films. It’s amusing to see him feature the Illuminati as a kind of skewed-reality superhero team, or stage a duel fought with literal musical notes (a scene in which Danny Elfman’s “Night on Bald Mountain”-meets-doom-rock score excels). Olsen’s performance generates an operatic fire even as she’s styled like a barefoot mom soaked in Carrie White’s blood.
But Cumberbatch’s Strange winds up playing addled master of ceremonies to a loopy psychedelic chase movie that never settles down enough to locate its emotional core. Raimi has a gonzo side, which emerges when one of the three Stephen Stranges on hand turns out to be a rotting-zombie Strange accompanied by feral beasties. Even if you dig the anything-goes Raimi of the “Evil Dead” films and “Drag Me to Hell,” it feels a little incongruous in a movie that sometimes threatens to turn into a stoic primer on the MCU rules of engagement. Dreamwalking, the Darkhold, the Book of Vishanti — by the time the end credits roll, you may expect a pop quiz along with the traditional teaser sequence. Is this the future of comic-book cinema? Let’s hope not. For just because you followed it all doesn’t mean that “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” earns every one of its elaborate and at times exhausting convolutions.