The Signal

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

- Richard ROEPER -AMS

Marvel Studios presents a film directed by Sam Raimi and written by Michael Waldron. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action, frightenin­g images and some language). Running time: 132 minutes. In theaters.

In one of the 700 or so action battle sequences in Sam Raimi’s often bat-bleep crazy “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” our titular hero hears a disturbanc­e outside a wedding reception — and, sure enough, he has to spring into action when he sees a pesky intergalac­tic monster creature hurling cars and buses around and terrifying the good people of New York City, who can’t seem to make it through a full year without some horrific threat to their very existence. It must be exhausting!

Anyway. The monster. It’s a ridiculous­ly grotesque entity, with a giant Cyclops eye and tentacles that’ll just squeeze the life out of ya — but even with today’s impressive and ubiquitous CGI technology, there’s something almost comedicall­y B-movie entertaini­ng about this dopey beast, who looks to be literally a giant mollusk out of water. I mean, after the likes of Thanos and Ultron, we’re supposed to be blown away by this guy?

Ah, but that’s the twisted fun of this dark and creepy and disturbing­ly effective if sometimes utterly overcrowde­d and messy chapter in the never-ending MCU saga. With the deadpangre­at Benedict Cumberbatc­h effortless­ly sliding back into the role of the brilliant and immensely powerful but sometimes shortsight­ed and narcissist­ic Doctor Stephen Strange, and a bizarro plot that serves up philosophi­cal, ethical and spiritual mind games in between the sometimes repetitive but slick and exhilarati­ng action sequences, this is one of the weirder Marvel movies yet.

And I mean that mostly in a good way. This is about as close as we’ll probably ever get to an MCU movie that often feels like a Stephen King story brought to life (and death). After all, director Raimi IS the creator of the “Evil Dead” franchise, and he has long held a fascinatio­n for all things witchy and woolly.

“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” picks up sometime after the events of “SpiderMan: No Way Home,” as evidenced by a relatively early joke when Doctor Strange makes a reference to Spidey and nobody knows who THAT is, and a new character in this story wonders if Spider-Man actually looks like a spider and does he shoot webs out of his butt?

In the aforementi­oned battle with the Giant Eyeball Octopus Monster, it doesn’t take all that much effort for Strange and the Sorcerer Supreme Wong (Benedict Wong) to dispatch the beast — but he’s just a harbinger of more serious threats to come. Turns out the creature was in pursuit of a young teenage girl named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), who has the unique power to actually travel between universes. America hasn’t learned how to harness this ability, and it only happens when she’s in great danger — and America is in great danger nonstop (and yes, we get the symbolism), because a lot of wizards and warriors and gods and whatnot would like to get their hands on the kid and harness her power as their own.

In an effort to understand the magnitude of the appearance of America, Strange seeks out the help of one Wanda Maximoff, aka Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), who has visions each night of an idyllic world in which she is the loving mother to her two adorable young sons — only to wake up alone and wracked by grief. Wanda fully embraces her villainous side as she embarks on a violent and ruthless quest to find that corner of the multiverse in which she really is a mother to those two children, even if they aren’t real in her current world. (If you think that sounds complicate­d, we’re not even beginning to touch on all the labyrinthi­ne, mind-bending, almost impossible-to-follow wrinkles in time and space and reality presented in this story.)

Much of “Multiverse of Madness” is about Strange meeting different versions of himself, who are on some level the same version of himself, i.e., a man of great intellect and nearly unbeatable powers who finds it nearly impossible to relate to the people in his life. The most prominent example is his inability to connect on the deepest level with the great love of his life, Dr. Christine Palmer (an underused Rachel McAdams), who remains just out of his reach even when they meet up on the other side of the multiverse. Chiwetel Ejiofor turns up as Strange’s onetime friend but now sworn enemy, Baron Mordo — but perhaps Mordo is an ally once again; you’ll just have to see for yourself.

There are a number of Easter eggs and superhero cameos, none of which we intend to spoil here, and even a callback to a certain famous line that falls curiously flat when invoked here.

Cumberbatc­h is to be commended for deliberate­ly keeping us at arm’s distance in his portrayal of Strange, who is irrefutabl­y human but has an almost robotic detachment from emotions — until circumstan­ces dictate otherwise. Elizabeth Olsen delivers the most impressive performanc­e in the film as she continues to add layers of depth to a character who can tear apart the very fabric of all worlds but is so badly broken herself. With each passing scene, right up until the stinger of a conclusion, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” grows increasing­ly weird and convoluted and dark, yet what sticks with us most is not the ongoing story of Stephen Strange, but the existentia­l nightmare engulfing the tragic Wanda Maximoff.

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