One of the common complaints about the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that all of their films follow a specific formula which makes them pretty much the same movie. It’s a fair criticism, although one I think gets overused by critics who try to diminish the success the MCU has had since its inception with 2008’s “Iron Man”.

Some MCU films have deviated from this formula to varying degrees of success (i.e. “Guardians of the Galaxy” was a hit and resonated with fans whereas “Eternals” did not). Personally, I prefer when they push the envelope and take chances because it’s refreshing and brings a whole new element into their very successful universe.

“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” does just that. Directed by Sami Raimi (Spider-Man trilogy, Evil Dead franchise, “Drag Me to Hell”), this movie pushes the MCU into territories it has yet to go to on the big screen. While technically it’s a sequel to Scott Derrickson’s “Doctor Strange”, the movie picks up after the events of “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and the Disney+ show “WandaVision”. Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is having what appears to be nightmares when he meets America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a young woman with the power to create portals that can travel through the multiverse. She is being hunted by creatures from different universes who want to take her power away. After discovering that these dreams are real and a form of magic called dreamwalking, Dr. Strange visits Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) who he hopes can give him insight on the multiverse and why America Chavez is being hunted. Much to his chagrin, Dr. Strange finds that Wanda is no longer the Wanda he knows and has fully become the Scarlet Witch, and she is dead set on getting payback from what unfolded in Westview during WandaVision.

This sets us on a wild, fun journey through multiple universes where we meet some old familiar faces and are introduced to some new ones. There are can’t miss moments that are going to make fans very happy. However, what really stands out is just how much Raimi is allowed to push the MCU onto a level we rarely see them go. There are horror elements and graphic deaths that are unusual for a Marvel movie. It is a bit risky for a studio that has traditionally been family-friendly with its superhero offerings, but it is a welcome and necessary change in order to keep these movies from getting stale.

The visuals are stunning and Danny Elfman’s score is fantastic, but that should be no surprise. This is right in Elfman’s wheelhouse. The music perfectly accompanies the beats and fast pace the movie runs at. Do not get up to go to the bathroom because you most definitely will miss something.

If I have critiques they would be that unless you’ve seen WandaVision you’re going to have a hard time following what’s going on. Raimi doesn’t take the time to explain why things are the way they are, which is problematic for people who haven’t kept up with the MCU. Also, the character development of America Chavez is extremely weak. She is a huge part of the story but we find out very little about her outside of a few notes here and there.

However, none of that takes away from the spectacle this movie is. I applaud Marvel for letting Raimi be Raimi and making the movie he wanted to make because it hits on all of those levels. We saw this first with Chloe Zhao’s “Eternals”, and it continues here. Marvel seems to have reached the point where they are not only comfortable letting directors play in their sandbox, but also allowing them to bring their own shovels and buckets to do so. – Eric Holzmann