High fantasy, conspiracy thriller, and screwball comedy are just some of the genres that the MCU has covered. Under the family-friendly Disney umbrella, though, can the MCU seriously produce a work of horror? Marvel movies like The New Mutants and Morbius suggested no. Even with Sam Raimi at the helm, it seemed unlikely that Marvel would let the director behind Evil Dead and Darkman go all out. But damn! Like Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a horror picture that barely gets away with a PG-13 rating. Throw in a bit more blood, an f-bomb, or a sliver of nudity, and this would’ve been the MCU’s first R-rated outing. We’ll likely have to wait until Deadpool 3 for that.
Although the horror theme is different, it suits Doctor Strange well. Multiverse of Madness slowly eases us into the horror elements, starting on a Lovecraftian note as Strange battles a cycloptic beast. This leads to an encounter with America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), who’s unable to control her ability to leap between dimensions. Strange turns to Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) to help America, although she’s still dealing with the repercussions of her Disney+ series (which you should probably rewatch beforehand). It isn’t long until Strange finds himself searching for another Marvel MacGuffin with America providing the gateway.
In the film’s most stunning shot, Strange and America tumble through a revolving door of dimensions. If each of these realities received more focus, Multiverse of Madness might’ve ranked alongside Everything Everywhere All at Once as one of the year’s most original movies. However, most of the film takes place in one alternate universe that’s visually by the numbers. That’s not to say this universe doesn’t provide several intriguing ideas, moments, and cameos. Without delving into spoilers, some of your theories will come true, some were way off, and there are at least two moments where the crowd will applaud. Like The Last Jedi, though, there’s bound to be a mix of cheers and people going, “seriously?”
Remember Supreme Leader Snoke? A character who had a ton of buildup and then gets tossed aside? Multiverse of Madness does something similar with a few characters. Where Last Jedi was part of a trilogy, though, the MCU is a never-ending story with a multiverse of possibilities. So, they can always elaborate on some underdeveloped plot points down the line. As a standalone movie, however, parts of Multiverse of Madness leave you wanting more. Thankfully, other parts deliver, especially when Raimi is allowed to go off the rails.
The film earns that almost-R rating in its second half with gothic settings, demonic creatures, and echoes of a slasher picture. It amounts to some of the most graphic deaths in the MCU. Gore is kept to a minimum, and much of the violence occurs off-screen, but the suggestion alone is enough to make your skin crawl. While the film has pacing issues, nobody can say that Multiverse of Madness doesn’t take chances. Olsen perhaps takes the most risks as Wanda. Building upon her character development in WandaVision, the film continues to explore Wanda’s grief in fascinating, devastating, and even horrifying ways. The film goes to places I genuinely wasn’t expecting, but the descent into darkness feels earned.
Ironically, I went into Multiverse of Madness skeptical about the horror element, but excited for the worldbuilding. I walked out loving the horror angle, but underwhelmed by the worldbuilding. For all the expectations it subverts, however, the film delivers a satisfying foray into uncharted territory for the MCU. Raimi deserves a shot at directing the sequel, especially if Strange visits a medieval universe with skeleton puppets.