2022 | PG-13 | starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen, Benedict Wong, Xochitl Gomez, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams | directed by Sam Raimi | 2 hrs 6 mins |

Despite prominent appearances in the last several Avengers and Spider-Man movies, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness only marks the 2nd stand-alone adventure for Benedict Cumberbatch’s sorcerer. For the entry Marvel enlists Sam Raimi back to the comic book world for the first time since 2007’s Spider-Man 3 and the result is a spry, richly imaginative and surprisingly entertaining film that provides a great match between filmmaker and material. For a franchise that seems as closely regimented and assembly line as these Marvel movies there is a surprising amount of Raimi’s touch all over this movie. It is a lot of fun.

Years after turning to dust in the blip, Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is trying to get on with his life and move on from ex Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). On Christine’s wedding day a giant squid monster invades the city chasing a young girl named America (Xochitl Gomez). The investigation into why leads Strange and sorcerer supreme Wong (Benedict Wong) to learn that America has the power to jump through universes and that she’s being pursued by Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), now fully taken over by the Scarlett Witch, in a desperate, violent, bid to get back all that she’s lost. A crusade that may bring down all universes in the process.

For a movie that requires a lot of runway to get into, that continues the stories set up in Scott Derickson’s original Doctor Strange, the Disney+ series Wandavision and the multi-verse story of Spider-Man: No Way Home, Multiverse of Madness is a surprisingly light, fluid and coherent payoff. It allows Strange to be a hero again, after so many depictions as just an uptight stick-in-the-mud against Peter Parker, it closes up the Strange/Christine story and, best of all, it solves the problem that hangs over most Marvel films – the villain problem. Wanda is a terrific villain, played with multi-dimensional rage by an excellent Elizabeth Olsen who is both god-like monster and grieving wife and mother. The film also opens up and lets Raimi scratch his weirder impulses indulging in fun multi-verse creations and battles with the undead. This movie has a vision, joining the ranks of Shane Black’s Iron Man 3 and Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok as comic book films that feel like the work of their creator.

One of the movie’s glaring mis-steps is the casting of Xochitl Gomez in a central role. It’s the worst, most out of place, performance in a franchise film since Kelly Marie Tran in The Last Jedi. Like that movie, this one feels like Gomez won a “Walk on Role in a Marvel Movie” contest. It isn’t just that these performances are bad, they feel self-aware, like an audience surrogate. A real person in a comic book world sticking out like a sore thumb. Like any minute she’s going to wink into the camera and quip “Can you believe this”.

From it’s giant squid monster to it’s undead finale, nothing about Multiverse of Madness feels generic or assembly line. It’s action scenes are a lot of fun, colorful, whimsical and a bit creepy with Raimi crafting terrific set pieces from Wanda battling Wong’s army and Wanda battling an alternate universe Avengers team known as the Illuminati. The Marvel franchise has floundered a lot since Endgame, with a series or new character duds and lackluster sequels. Thanks to Raimi, Cumberbatch and Olsen, Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness is easily the best film of the current phase.