It’s not unfounded to say that Marvel’s Phase Four hasn’t exactly hit the ground running. With five MCU movies and six Marvel television shows under its belt, it isn’t clear where the series is going next, as the MCU timeline continues to find its feet in the aftermath of Endgame, with mixed reviews for most of its releases. Nevertheless, as the wheels keep spinning, we’re never too far away from the next instalment. In this case, it’s a hotly anticipated return to the world of magic and time-travel, with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.

In the aftermath of WandaVision, Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) is scouring the multiverse in search of her lost children, Billy and Tommy. Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), dealing with the consequences of saving the universe from Thanos, has lost the love of his life, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), to another man. Strange finds himself attending her wedding before his day is rudely interrupted by a huge, tentacled demon roaming the streets, hunting the multiverse-hopping America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) for reasons unknown. So, Doctor Strange, Chavez, and Wong (Benedict Wong) set out to find who is responsible. I bet you won’t guess who it is.

There is a bizarrely high amount of set up to get the film up and running. With so much Marvel content happening almost simultaneously – the finale of Moon Knight aired the very same day Multiverse of Madness released in select countries – the task of the writer is becoming impossible. The writer must satisfy an audience filled with die hard, content-consuming Marvel fans, fans who don’t own a Disney+ subscription, and just a regular cinema-goer with a passing interest in the series. They have a few too many spinning plates to manage and as a result, Doctor Strange 2 feels like a microcosm of this very problem.

Michael Waldron’s screenplay regularly buckles under the weight of the task at hand. With so much information needed for the events of the film to take place, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness has a seemingly endless sequence of exposition dumps, that brings its pace to a standstill, concocting clumsy methods to force characters to simply walk and talk.

Now, there is a way to make the walk and talk feel cinematic and fast-paced (you need only look at the works of David Fincher to see how engaging they can be), but it’s not something for which horror legend Sam Raimi has ever been renowned. This stretch, in which we learn all about America Chavez’s past and how the multiverse works, is a genuine slog, something we’re not accustomed to in the family-friendly adventures of the MCU.

There’s always been something exciting just around the corner in the MCU, but it felt as if the only thing around the corner here was yet another tedious conversation. For a journey into the so-called multiverse of “madness”, there are a remarkable number of leisurely strolls.

So much exposition regularly leaves worthwhile character development in the dust, though despite the minimal material with which to work, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness at least has its wildly talented cast and a legendary director to fall back on in times of dire need. One of the criticisms levelled at Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange is that he comes across far better in the ensemble films – and never better than in Infinity Warthan he does in 2016’s Doctor Strange, but he goes some way to righting that wrong here.

Cumberbatch gives a terrific performance throughout, both as Strange and as his several variants we meet along the way, adding more nuance to the character than ever before. Rachel McAdams’ Christine brings out the best in Strange, and their interaction is playful and endearing, convincing you that their love surely could transcend the multiverse.

Elizabeth Olsen set the world alight in early 2021 with WandaVision, as she earned awards plaudits for her portrayal of Wanda struggling with loss and questionable coping strategies. Her hot streak continues here, with Olsen feeling incredible ownership over her character, someone millions of fans the world-over have come to rank as one of their absolute favourite MCU characters. If WandaVision was a character study of Wanda Maximoff, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness tracks her journey to becoming the infamous Scarlet Witch, one of the most powerful beings in the multiverse.

Despite its problems, Multiverse of Madness sells the power of the Scarlet Witch incredibly well. Lengthy sequences of her chaos magic wreaking total havoc on anyone in her path as she traverses the multiverse are a joy to watch and a level of anarchy rarely seen in the MCU. Scarlet Witch is at the cold, black heart of inarguably the film’s most shocking sequence, as the audience was filled with genuine shrieks at the horror on show. You don’t hire Sam Raimi for nothing.

Raimi’s devilish fingerprints are all over Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. It’s reasonable to say that the film has some growing pains in the first act as it struggles through the aforementioned exposition and some weightless CGI action. Although, it must be acknowledged how fun it is seeing an action sequence up the side of a skyscraper, in the middle of New York, directed by Sam Raimi.

There is a shift in action both in front and behind the camera once Strange finds himself in front of the mysterious Illuminati, after which we finally begin to witness the titular Madness we were promised. Raimi has such a definitive style, and it’s a real delight to see some of his trademark qualities come to the fore in the middle of the most mass-produced, paint-by-numbers franchise in history. Cameras tilt and zoom at will, and numerous point-of-view shots are ripped from the pages of Evil Dead; Raimi deploys all of his favourite moves to remind us just how much fun the camera can be.

In the Doctor Strange 2 ending, in which Strange literally enters a haunted house, we see the film’s creative shackles released as it finally achieves some of its massive potential. Scenes of genuine horror and a deliriously fun magic battle between Strange and a variant of himself using musical notes are the highlights here, showing a certain other magical franchise what can be done with wizards at their disposal. As an aside, it’s curious how unremarkable Danny Elfman’s score is (a classic MCU problem) when we have a scene like this using music to such impressive effect.

For all of the good work done by those in front and behind the camera, there is only so much you can do when the material on the page leaves so much to be desired. So much of Multiverse of Madness works to such a high standard, that its problems come well and truly to the fore. For how good Scarlet Witch is, Wanda Maximoff feels forgotten and leaves a lot of the hard work done by WandaVision trapped in the recesses of her mind, struggling to progress her story arc beyond the oft-repeated line “I am a mother.”

Dialogue feels heavy-handed and overly corny, even for a Marvel film, and talented actors like Olsen, Cumberbatch, and several special guests struggle to muster the necessary emotion as they blurt endless multiverse jargon. Meanwhile, the multiverse seems boring, only committing to its weirdness in literal glimpses, as Strange and Chavez fly through several all at once. Instead, the film opts for the “madness” of overgrown bushes and cars going on red rather than green. Multiverse of Madness comes together to create a whelming experience. It’s not underwhelming, but it never threatens becoming overwhelming either.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness feels like a missed opportunity. There is so much to like – and even love – about it, particularly from Cumberbatch, Olsen, and Raimi. It has a number of impressive sequences, with one in particular that will go straight into the MCU hall of fame. There’s excellent visual effects, and a talented filmmaker behind the camera who was allowed to express himself. And yet, despite the numerous positives, the biggest negative of its screenplay is such a negative that it threatens to bring the whole house of cards toppling down. The end result is a film that promised so much, but which fails to completely deliver.

Rating: ★★★