After the events of 'WandaVision', Wanda Maximoff / The Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) is desperate to be reunited with her children and will stop at nothing to find them somewhere in the infinite realities of the multiverse. America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) has the ability to move throughout these different realities but cannot control it, and needs the protection and guidance of Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch)...
Although it's been six years since there's been a solo outing for 'Doctor Strange', the bearded conjurer hasn't been all that absent from our screens and appeared in some shape or fashion in the Marvel Cinematic Universe throughout this time. As a character, Doctor Strange has always been something of a third wheel in proceedings when paired with Iron Man. They've both got questionable facial hair, they're both quippy, and they both possess abilities that alienate them from other people. Squint your eyes hard enough and Stephen Strange looks like Tony Stark. To that end, he works best when he's mixed in rather than leading the show.
It's to that end that Elisabeth Olsen as the anguish-riddled Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch not only steals the show out from under everyone but is the whole damn show itself here. Her performance is that good. In fact, it's up there with the very best performances throughout the entire franchise. Olsen's ability to shift from heartbreaking loss, steely resolve, and quite terrifying presence in the blink of an eye means she's able to keep pace with Sam Raimi's breakneck speed of direction. Benedict Cumberbatch, for his part, does the heavy lifting of the story and sets aside any of his ego in order to service it and allow for many of the cameos - yes, there's lots of them - to have their due and proper attention. Xochitl Gomez, sadly, is very often relegated to a walking, talking prop, though Rachel McAdams and Benedict Wong get much more to do and say this time around.
Despite the sharp pacing, Raimi's strong direction, and a real powerhouse performance from Elisabeth Olsen, 'Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness' too often feels like it's always on the verge of bursting itself apart at every moment. In trying to shove in so much, there's almost no breathing room before it's off to another place or another reality for more CGI-warping adventures. Michael Waldron's script does trip over itself with exposition, but it never feels skilfully achieved and often just clogs up the proceedings. Moreover, it's practically a requirement that you've watched 'WandaVision' in its entirety in order to fully grasp both the emotional stakes of the story and the story itself. Otherwise, you're going to miss large chunks of the story and have to contend with trying to piece the significance of certain events in it.
After a decade and a half away from comic books, Sam Raimi's return to it with 'Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness' reminds us that his talents haven't dulled in his absence. There's a clear command of tone and style, never sacrificing his own instincts in order to keep in line with the almighty Marvel franchisedom. There are moments of (12A rated, it should be noted) horror in this that have the ability to startle audiences, not to mention embracing the out-there Steve Ditko weirdness of its '60s origins. Raimi is able to grasp all these disparate ideas and themes and make them work for him, rather than trying to bend and contort to them. It's not to say that he's fully unchained and let off to make 'Evil Dead' all over again, or even something like 'Darkman', but there's enough of his fingerprint here to make it his own. Even the Oldsmobile shows up. If any character or story was going to bring Raimi back, 'Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness' would undoubtedly be it. Even the endless cameos - again, there are A LOT of them - are handled beautifully in his care, never giving over any more time or importance than is absolutely necessary.
Never quite a full-blown horror or as weird as it could be, but nowhere near as rote as the first one, 'Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness' is a swirling mixture that only Sam Raimi could possibly concoct and make this good.