Like every other 90’s kid, I grew up with Sam Raimi’s movies. The journey started with his “Spider-Man (2002)” and by the time of “Spider-Man 3 (2007)”, we were old enough to watch “The Evil Dead (1981),” “Evil Dead II (1987)”, “Darkman (1990)”, “Army of Darkness (1992)”, and “Drag Me to Hell (2009)”. After helming a few TV shows, when it was announced that he is replacing Scott Derrickson as the director of Doctor Strange’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) new outing, there was a bitter-sweet sentiment in the air. Because Derrickson is amazing, but Raimi is our childhood hero. And the thought of him going into full horror mode with Strange definitely seemed promising. But as soon as the first trailer for “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)” dropped, it was evident that we’re in for two movies: one is Raimi’s “Doctor Strange 2”, and the other is Marvel Studios’ “Multiverse of Madness.”
Directed by Raimi and written by Michael Waldron, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” opens with a variant of Strange and a girl named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) running away from a demon of sorts and towards the coveted Book of Vishanti. In an attempt to stall the demon, the variant-Strange decides to extract her power because he can control it and keep it away from the demon, since Chavez can’t. Accidentally, Chavez opens a portal through the Multiverse and ends up on Earth 616, the universe in which the Doctor Strange exists. Upon her arrival, Strange has to cut his visit to Dr. Christine’s (Rachel McAdams) wedding ceremony short and learn about the new dangers of the Multiverse. He and Wong (Benedict Wong) think that Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) will be able to help them with this new threat. But, it turns out that Wanda cannot help Doctor Strange because she is the threat. And she is the one who wants Chavez to herself so that she can use her powers of traveling through the Multiverse to reunite with her children, Billy (Julian Hilliard) and Tommy (Jett Klyne).
So let’s talk about Raimi’s “Doctor Strange 2” first. Raimi essentially takes a whole lot of magic, rock music, horror, action, and humor and distills them through a camera to make one of the best looking, best sounding, and most horrifying Marvel movies to date. The cinematography by John Mathieson is hugely reminiscent of Raimi’s work in the “Evil Dead” movies, filled with Dutch angles, crash zooms, and a lot of kinetic whip panning shots. The abundance of cross-dissolve transitions (courtesy of editors Bob Murawski and Tia Nolan) makes all the heavy exposition seem so visually interesting. The use of color, inventive set design, character design, CGI-driven body contortions, gore, and jump-scares (which is probably a first in Marvel’s 14-year cinematic run) makes the movie feel delicious and tangible. The way Raimi handles heavy themes of motherhood, lost love, and the tragic reality of not feeling content despite doing so-called heroic things is undoubtedly fantastic. Although Michael Giacchino’s almost iconic tune for Strange is faint, Danny Elfman’s score gives an adrenaline shot to the heart every time he hits that electric guitar.
But then, unfortunately, Marvel Studios’ “Multiverse of Madness” kicks in.
Personally speaking, I’m not a fan of the Multiverse. Yes, it’s a thing in the comics. But something about its cinematic interpretation just isn’t clicking. Something about it seems like Marvel’s attempt at re-educating the audience that they don’t need to care about anything for too long because they’ve got a replacement for it. It’s probably a surprise or exactly what audiences expect. And either way, you can scream your lungs out and live under the illusion of happiness. “Spider-Man: No Way Home” had a similar problem where a character-driven drama about Peter Parker (Tom Holland) trying to prove his innocence was short-changed for bland, water-y Multiversal things. “In the Multiverse of Madness” suffers from that, too, as it goes into cameo-mode and hops through universes and whatnot. Raimi literally kills fan theories and maybe metaphorically asks us (yes, there are two characters who break the fourth wall to look at us, the audience): are you happy now? Which is strangely meta, if you think about it, since the movie’s running theme is understanding the futility of short bursts of happiness instead of achieving self-sustainable fulfillment.
The performances from the cast of “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” are some of the best in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s important to point out that it’s the best in the MCU because this is merely a glimpse of what Cumberbatch, Olsen, Wong, and even Chavez are capable of if they aren’t bogged down by the expository dialogues. But, yes, Raimi gives ample opportunities for Cumberbatch and Olsen to shine, and they utilize the hell out of them. When Cumberbatch isn’t hidden under massive amounts of well-done prosthetics and CGI, or conjuring spells, he speaks so much with his eyes. He manages to illustrate Strange’s trepidations about himself and the quest he’s on so beautifully that you will find it hard to not be moved by him. Olsen does a marvelous job of balancing the unhinged and the nurturing sides of Wanda/The Scarlet Witch. You do need to watch “WandaVision (2021),” though, to connect with her, which is kind of a bummer. However, even if you don’t and fail to connect with her on an emotional level, Olsen will definitely scare the living shit out of you. The cameos are fine.
In conclusion, does this push and pull between Raimi’s film and Marvel’s algorithm-based product hurt “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness”? Definitely, yes. And it’s high time that Kevin Feige learns that self-contained, character-driven, director-driven endeavors are better than whatever interconnectivity he is trying to achieve via the Multiverse. Because it is Raimi’s horror-based touches, his eye for visually-stunning imagery, and his ability to craft engaging action set-pieces that prevent “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” from breaking in half. Now, to answer Sam Raimi’s question, “Am I happy?” Well, I am happy to finally experience a Sam Raimi film on the big screen again. And I am glad to say that he hasn’t lost his step. I appreciate the thrill he made me feel despite the rushed, exposition-heavy script. The man is a true genius, and I will be happy if he keeps doing more of this, but without the burden of fitting into a pre-set, studio-mandated tapestry.