source: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

The MCU has solved its core problem: how to keep a massive audience that largely can’t keep up with its deluge of product. Remember thinking 3 or 4 movies a year was a lot? Now there’s a series out on Disney+ almost every other month (alternating with a Star War), all of which advance the overarching plot and introduce new characters. If you love what the MCU is doing, I imagine you’re relishing all this time you get with your favorite story, and I’m happy for you. I really am. But there’s not enough of you to keep pulling in the box office numbers Disney expects of the movies, so the MCU has to court the partially interested masses who only have the bandwidth to pop in and out of a few blockbuster movies a year.

Phase Four has been testing different reinventions to solve this problem, but none has struck the kind of flippant, in the moment enjoyment that Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness finds. The answer, it turns out, is to embrace exactly what these movies become when you don’t have time to keep up with everything Disney churns out: absurdist.

I don’t mean a Camus-style descent into dead mothers, wanton killings, and numbness to your own mortality but a throw stuff at the wall, keep it fun, and breeze through every moment even if something big is going down kind of absurdism. Keep in mind, absurdism isn’t about existing in a world where nothing happens; it’s about existing in a world where you can’t derive purpose or meaning from events, and there’s fun to be had in that kind of freedom.

Doctor Strange’s trip into the multiverse is pretty easy to take in without spending much time on the nuts and bolts of the plot. A new character, America Chavez (an underutilized but game Xochitl Gomez), shows up with the power to move between different universes. Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen, who will always deliver more than required) wants Chavez’s power in order to alleviate her grief for the sons she made up in Wandavision. Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, Cumberbatching) won’t let Wanda have Chavez. Off go some of the most powerful people in the MCU on a chase across the increasingly bizarre multiverse, all filtered through the uncanny visual spectacle of director Sam Raimi.

In the theater, I was reminded of the anomalous, big budget auteur of our day, Christopher Nolan. The man who brought Batman to the Oscars and used that cachet to mount most of the massive, non-IP based event films we still get makes undeniably thrilling films, but how often do you think about what actually happened in Inception, Dunkirk, or Tenant? Do you need deep meaning to enjoy his films? I personally don’t, instead relishing the thrill of a master filmmaker turning his eye to brute entertainment, bowing in awe at every spinning hallway and gliding plane.

Raimi has the same power as Nolan, capable of spinning a tight story or a loosey-goosey romp, and while I have my doubts that Multiverse carries much narrative weight (big things happen, but the MCU feels like anything can be taken back at any moment these days), it is an unabashed joy to behold.

His style enters early, with shots bleeding and bursting into each other, establishing not just a visual language but a pace that few other MCU films have pulled off, especially this deep into the story. We’ve been trained to expect as much interweaving with the past and teasing of the future as telling of the story at hand, and while Raimi doesn’t really pull off the immediate story, he doesn’t spend much time on the other stuff, either. Again, this functions best as absurdism. The plot is just an excuse for Raimi to do Raimi stuff in a scenario with infinite possibilities, and he milks the opportunity for all its worth.

Those who know Evil Dead II, his kooky take on horror comedies, won’t be surprised by anything they see here, right down to the lo-fi aesthetic he brings to certain effects that are decidedly not lo-fi in reality. Nor will those who raise aloft Drag Me to Hell as perfect PG-13 horror be shocked by how many chilling moments he manages to get away with, even if the film only passes into true horror during one particularly captivating chase.

There is, unfortunately, some acquiescence to expectation, but the requisite showstopping cameos and peppered jokes are blended into the mix much better than they usually are. Fans who love that stuff may be disappointed with how flippantly these and the overarching story of the MCU is disregarded (Wanda’s journey in particular feels like a rehash of WandaVision, but when have they ever done that character justice?). The franchise, though, can’t maintain its current status by only catering to its most ardent fans. Multiverse wanders from MCU standards without completely losing the trail, and every strange cranny it finds proves more enlivening than hundreds of Spider-Man: No Way Homes and Black Widows ever could be.

Release: available in theaters May 6th
Director: Sam Raimi
Writers: Michael Waldron
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen, Xochitl Gomez, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, Rachel McAdams

Author: Emily Wheeler

Member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. Rotten Tomatoes certified critic. Movie omnivore.

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