When you think about the Avengers, how long does it take for Doctor Strange to pop into your head? Iron Man, Spider-Man, Hulk, Black Panther, Captain America, Thor, Black Widow: They all probably come to mind before Marvel’s Master of the Mystic Arts. That’s not the fault of Benedict Cumberbatch but, rather, the fact that Stephen Strange, at least in the films, has always felt like a second-tier superhero. When Honest Trailers took on 2016’s Doctor Strange, the running joke was that this brilliant, egotistical neurosurgeon was basically a less-compelling carbon copy of Tony Stark — all the way down to both men engaging in love affairs with underlings. It was hard to get excited about the guy. While the other Avengers possessed cool powers or nifty suits, Doctor Strange just moved his hands in circular motions to make stuff happen while wearing a silly magic cloak. Even the other Avengers didn’t seem to take him all that seriously — not as much as they totally looked down their nose at Hawkeye, of course, but still.
In the wake of Iron Man’s death, Captain America’s retirement and Thanos’ death in Avengers: Endgame, the Marvel Cinematic University has struggled to regain its mojo, unable to craft movies that featured the same stakes and star power as those final Avenger adventures. Last year’s Spider-Man: No Way Home seemed to be a step in the right direction after the disappointing Black Widow and Eternals, but with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, I’m starting to wonder if maybe I’ve underrated Strange all this time. He’ll never be as magnetic as the MCU’s most iconic characters. But he once again proves to be a welcome addition — and more than capable of carrying his own movie.
Strange’s rise up the Avengers food chain has been noticeable over the last few years. Since the 2016 film, he’s been an important character in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame — and in Spider-Man: No Way Home, he became Peter Parker’s de facto mentor now that Stark is gone. That rise has echoed Cumberbatch’s growing comfort in the role. Prior to The Power of the Dog, his film work could sometimes seem a bit stuffy and mannered. (I believe everyone who’s raved to me about how great he is on Sherlock.) And likewise, when he first donned the cloak and goofy goatee, his Strange lacked the effortless authority that, say, Chris Evans brought to Captain America. But eventually, Cumberbatch found his sweet spot in the role, letting the character be snarky but also sincere, imposing but also soulful. He was especially warm around Tom Holland’s insecure Spider-Man in No Way Home, everyone’s favorite web-slinger humanizing this haughty sorcerer.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is the character’s second standalone feature, and I like it better than the original — alongside Spider-Man: No Way Home, I think it’s the best MCU film since the Avengers triumphed over Thanos. It’s a movie about making peace with your choices and coming to accept your limitations — or, put another way, it’s a film whose themes are well-suited to a second-tier Marvel character. You could argue that Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is where Stephen Strange realizes he’s never going to be Iron Man or Captain America. Still, he’s gonna try to be the best Doctor Strange he can — after all, as he’ll learn in his journey across the multiverse, some versions of him aren’t very good at all.
The movie gets going when a generically frightening interstellar beast starts wreaking havoc on Earth, with Strange discovering that the creature is targeting America (Xochitl Gomez), a seemingly ordinary teenager, except for one thing: She can transport around different universes, even though she can’t control her powers. The beast trying to get her has been sent by Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen), who became the Scarlet Witch at the end of WandaVision. The boys she had on that show who weren’t real? Well, in the multiverse, there are other iterations of Wanda in which they are, and she wants to reunite with her kids. That requires her capturing America and harvesting her power — which, of course, would kill America. Strange can’t let that happen.
Sporting appearances from some of the characters from the 2016 film — sadly, Benedict Wong doesn’t have a ton to do — Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is an epic showdown between Strange and Wanda, whose magic is so strong that perhaps no one can stop her. Strange and America crash-land in a separate universe, Wanda still hot on their heels, and they end up running into Christine (Rachel McAdams), who was Strange’s occasional girlfriend in our reality. (As the new movie starts, he’s trying to accept that he’s forever lost the opportunity to win his Christine back, showing up at her wedding, where she’s smitten with her new love.) The Christine in this other universe had her own Stephen Strange — and, well, things were complicated there, too. To his surprise, Strange will end up having two missions in this sequel: Not only does he want to keep America alive, he wants to see if things might work out better with this Christine than the one back home.
Early on in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, the Christine of our world asks Strange if he’s happy. This is a core question in the movie, which ponders how we find contentment and whether our achievements will bring lasting satisfaction. It’s a familiar trope in superhero cinema that the dude in the cape defeats the bad guys but ends up empty-handed. (Poor Batman is always falling for the wrong woman — or, if it’s the right one, she’ll inevitably die before the end credits.) Strange gets to face this dilemma in a fresh way, working alongside this New Christine, who’s wary of him because of past experience. (It’s a long story, and laden with spoilers that Disney wouldn’t be pleased if I revealed.) Romance didn’t work out in Strange’s universe, but maybe he can do things differently this time — maybe he can finally get it right. Maybe then he’ll be happy.
On the surface, there wouldn’t seem to be much that’s similar between Phil Burbank, the closeted cowboy of The Power of the Dog, and Doctor Strange outside the actor who plays them both. But what they have in common — especially in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness — is a certain sadness that’s hidden beneath a veneer of rigid stoicism. Strange isn’t a bully like Burbank, but they’ve both learned how to shield themselves off from their true feelings, hoping that if they can fool everyone around them, perhaps they can fool themselves, too.
To be clear, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness director Sam Raimi isn’t making some grand tragedy — quite the contrary, this is a cheeky, sometimes scary affair — but he seems to understand that the character gave everything to stopping Thanos and then helping Spider-Man, and what he’s been left with isn’t very enticing. Strange may now be beloved on Earth, but he’s not one of the really cool Avengers — and he doesn’t have a rich personal life that might compensate for those shortcomings. One of the film’s cruelest ironies is that Our World’s Christine tells Strange that her new husband is a big fan of his: Doctor Strange is amazing enough to defeat Thanos, but he couldn’t be there for one particular woman who he really cared about. As Strange flits around the multiverse, he will start to recognize something about his alternate selves, and since I don’t want to ruin the surprise, I’ll simply say that it plays into the old adage that wherever you go, there you are — even if you happen to be a superhero.
Funny, bizarre, occasionally campy — it’s a blast to see Raimi pull out tricks he hasn’t used since Evil Dead II — Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is one of the rare post-Endgame films that doesn’t make you miss the rest of the Avengers. It helps that the Doctor Strange movies revel in their dimension-jumping, paradigm-shifting, logic-shattering trippiness — they simply feel different than other MCU flicks. But I also think it’s because Doctor Strange himself is becoming a more nuanced, melancholy character.
Spider-Man will always be a more ubiquitous cultural figure, and certainly there will be plenty of excitement for this summer’s Thor: Love and Thunder — to say nothing of the curiosity surrounding this fall’s Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, which will try to reckon with the untimely, devastating death of Chadwick Boseman. But where I once waited impatiently for Doctor Strange to get off the screen so that I could focus on the many other Avengers I liked better, I now find myself being drawn to him. He’s still got that silly cloak, but I have to say: I’m starting to come around on how Cumberbatch so confidently does those little hand circles when he’s unleashing his powers. In Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, the character comes to grips with his meager standing across the different universes. But he’s more than good enough for this one.