This image released by Marvel Studios shows, from left, Xochitl...

This image released by Marvel Studios shows, from left, Xochitl Gomez as America Chavez, Benedict Wong as Wong, and Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange in a scene from "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness." Credit: AP

PLOT A sorcerer meets a teenage girl with a mysterious power.

CAST Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen, Xochitl Gomez

RATED PG-13 (strong violence and gruesome imagery)

LENGTH 2:06

WHERE Area theaters

BOTTOM LINE A Marvel entry meant for mega-fans, but with intriguingly dark shadings and moments of emotional power.

Of all the strange beings who rip reality asunder in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” the one having the most fun is surely the director, Sam Raimi. Fifteen years since wrapping up his beloved “Spider-Man” trilogy, Raimi returns to the world of Marvel with this sequel, which proves that his freewheeling spirit and macabre sense of whimsy are fully intact.

It's a gleefully dark superhero movie that traffics in the ghoulish and the ghastly, as might be expected from the director of such Looney Tunes horror-comedies as “The Evil Dead” and “Drag Me to Hell.” For the casual moviegoer, there are two things to know: One, this installment is geared toward omnivorous Marvel fans who have seen the other several dozen movies and Disney+ series (especially “WandaVision”), and two, it pushes the outer edge of its PG-13 rating with some pretty startling deaths, including,by my count, at least two exploding brains.

Another warning: “The Multiverse of Madness” gets off to a weak start, as Stephen Strange, played by an elegant and soulful Benedict Cumberbatch, dashes out of a wedding to rescue a teenage girl from a one-eyed squid-monster. It’s the kind of slam-bang sequence that Raimi did so thrillingly in his Spidey films, but this one is hampered by inexplicably weak CGI. (The squid never looks like it’s really there.) That girl is rather dated-seeming, too, which is odd because she’s a newish Marvel comics addition, America Chavez, with hip Latinx and LGBTQ+ credentials. Little is made of her identity here, though. As played by Xochitl Gomez (Netflix’s “The Baby-Sitters Club”), Chavez is a fairly generic “next-gen” type, and mostly serves as a passive MacGuffin to be tossed back and forth by the main characters.

A minor spoiler here: The story goes that Chavez has an unpredictable ability to travel through the multiverse, a power coveted by someone we usually think of as a hero, Wanda Maximoff, also known as the Scarlet Witch. And this is where things get interesting: Wanda, a grieving mother, is now willing to destroy all of creation just to find the parallel universe where her vanished children still exist. In a movie that often feels overstuffed with fan-pleasing cameos and side-stories, Elizabeth Olsen delivers a bravura Jekyll-and-Hyde performance as Wanda and provides some moments of genuine emotional power. (Screenwriter Michael Waldron deserves credit for a skillful juggling act.)

Here's what four other critics are saying about the latest "Doctor Strange" movie:

Perhaps the Marvel universe is finally starting to feel like a long running comic book series. Or maybe Phase 4 just hasn’t kicked into gear just yet. -- The Associated Press

Auseful rule of thumb in watching “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” is that if Cumberbatch (or Wong) isn’t in a scene, go for popcorn... the plot will be almost impossible to follow. -- Boston Globe

Even down to the last obligatory post-credit scenes [Sam] Raimi forges his own weird, irreverent magic, a method in the Madness. -- Entertainment Weekly

While the Marvel-ness of “Madness” will make your head spin, Raimi’s signature style, penchant for the macabre and sense of humor oddly ground the film.-- USA Today

It's all hugely entertaining, if a little overcomplicated. The obligatory post-credits kicker tells us Doctor Strange will return — but will Raimi? Let’s hope so, because that would be a cinematic universe worth living in.

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