In 2002, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man swung into theaters and solidified the superhero genre as a dominant force in blockbuster culture. Raimi, previously most notable for his horror background thanks to his Evil Dead film series undoubtedly left his creative signature on all three of the films he directed with Tobey Maguire, even in the disappointing Spider-Man 3. Since then, he helmed 2009’s Drag Me to Hell, and 2013’s Oz the Great and Powerful. Nearly a decade after his last directorial outing, he returns to the genre that made him a household name amongst comic book movie fans with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.
Sam Raimi stepped into the director’s chair for this film after original director Scott Derrickson departed the project. The prospect of the visionary mind behind The Evil Dead and Spider-Man taking on an MCU film was extremely exciting, especially given that for all its entertainment value, the tried-and-true formula of the franchise is starting to show, and in some cases, like with Black Widow, feel a bit stale. Thankfully, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a magical, and sometimes scary showcase of Raimi’s cinematic sensibilities.
Set sometime after the events of Spider-Man: No Way Home, Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is attending the wedding of his former flame, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). Although he still harbors feelings, he understands that the weight of his commitments lie in being the respected Avenger he is known to be. To borrow a quote from Sam Raimi’s iconic film trilogy, “With great power, comes great responsibility.”
As expected, things just get out of hand for Doctor Strange, as he encounters the mysterious America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a teenager with unique abilities of her own that captures the attention of both him and his colleague, Sorcerer Supreme Wong (Benedict Wong). America discusses the Multiverse with the duo, teasing that there is danger afoot. With that in mind, Stephen calls on the assistance of his fellow Avenger, Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), who is still reeling after her episode (or episodes, rather) in Westview.
The difference between approaching the sequel to 2016’s Doctor Strange and his three Spider-Man films is the fact that Sam Raimi is now working under the watchful eye of Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige. Ultimately, each entry in the MCU is led under Feige, with only a handful of directors having had the opportunity to showcase their signature sensibilities through the MCU’s 28-film run. Joss Whedon, James Gunn, Shane Black and Taika Waititi are each known to have a distinct vision/writing style for their films, which is why their respective entries in the franchise standout amidst the episodic nature of the franchise.
That’s not to say that many of the MCU’s directors-for-hire don’t do a competent job. For example, Peyton Reed has consistently turned in the types of Ant-Man films that seem to fit the vision of the ongoing franchise, but he stepped into the 2015 origin story after Edgar Wright, a notable auteur, departed from the project due to creative differences. The factory that is the MCU has been subject to both praise and criticism. On one hand, each film feels consistent in tone and cohesive in the shared cinematic universe. On the other, this can lead to some of the films feeling very formulaic at points. Thankfully, Sam Raimi’s sensibilities are so distinct and exciting, that it stands out compared to most other entries in the franchise, even when some of the tropes are on display.
Although horror and superhero films are different types of genres, Sam Raimi was able to implement both of those elements through previous films such as Darkman and his Spider-Man trilogy. Perhaps the height of his style shining through is in the unforgettable Doctor Octopus hospital scene in Spider-Man 2. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness has plenty of moments sprinkled throughout, particularly in its opening action sequence and third act climax that are unequivocally Raimi, not just in how he moves the camera, but also his distinct blend of horror and humor as exhibited in Evil Dead 2.
As expected, Benedict Cumberbatch shines. Here, he gets his most emotionally-satisfying singular film arc in any of his appearances thus far, showcasing a strong evolution in his development since we were first introduced to him in 2016. After battling with Thanos and dealing with his pesky friend Spider-Man’s Multiverse shenanigans, Doctor Strange thinks he’s seen it all. Clearly, the unleashing of the Multiverse humbles him, and pushes him to some of the most morally-complex decisions any MCU protagonist has faced thus far. As we recently witnessed in his Oscar-nominated turn in The Power of the Dog, Cumberbatch is brilliant in the dramatic scenes through his acting subtleties and also really impresses in the film’s third act climax, which gives him a chance to also showcase some of Sam Raimi’s signature horror/humor hybrid.
After her Emmy-nominated performance in WandaVision, Elizabeth Olsen continues to elevate Wanda Maximoff to greater emotional peaks and valleys. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness shows her encountering some of the darkest terrain any Avenger has dealt with, and she sells it with just her eyes alone. Obviously, this arc mainly works for those who have seen WandaVision beforehand, but she sells it nonetheless.
Benedict Wong is once again, a delightful presence in the MCU. As the Sorcerer Supreme, he serves as a wonderful foil to Doctor Strange, further showcasing the duo’s dynamic as one of the MCU’s most entertaining. As for the rest of the cast, Rachel McAdams has a far-more interesting role here, especially when compared to her rather forgettable turn in the 2016 film, and newcomer Xochitl Gomez shines as America Chavez, even though her character serves mostly as a MacGuffin and doesn’t really have much of a character arc.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is at its best when Sam Raimi is allowed to have his signature freak flag fly. Thankfully, that is showcased in every action scene, which is ingrained with his horror sensibilities. However, much of the discussion regarding the film is based on some of the many secrets that the marketing campaign is keeping under wraps. Without spoiling too much, the film has its share of fan service, which many fans have anticipated especially after the unprecedented levels of that seen on display in Spider-Man: No Way Home, but while the fan service worked narratively and emotionally in that film’s favor, when used here, it calls too much attention onto itself. So much so, that it can take viewers – especially those that obsessively participate in following fan theories – out of the immersion of the movie.
Also, as mentioned above, the film’s script by Michael Waldron has a few narrative shortcomings, particularly in regards to the arcs of some of the supporting players. In particular, while America Chavez is important to the narrative of the story, her arc leaves a bit to be desired. Thankfully, the most important arcs in both Doctor Strange and Wanda Maximoff are satisfying and showcase growth. Ultimately, the script succeeds in the development of those two primary characters while it falls a bit short in some areas, particularly when fan service is involved.
Overall, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is an entertaining time at the cinema. For one, seeing a visionary like Sam Raimi make any film for the big screen again is worth seeing, but devoted fans of the MCU will still get the thrills they anticipate, and even a bit more, including a third-act climax that is in contention for the most enthralling for a standalone MCU film. Ultimately, one can’t help but feel that even with some of the distracting moments of fan service, Kevin Feige certainly has reverence for Raimi, allowing him to take some creative authority behind the camera perhaps more distinctively than any MCU director thus far. If this and Matt Reeves’ The Batman are any indication of where the future of superhero cinema is headed, then both Marvel Studios and DC Films should continue to embrace the unique sensibilities of their filmmakers so we can receive more refreshing experiences at the theater that are narratively fulfilling beyond just fan service.
Stay tuned for the latest news regarding Sam Raimi’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and make sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel for more content!