The thing about Sam Raimi is that he was once a magician.
Over his indelible career, Raimi’s garnered a reputation as a horror director, a Three Stooges-slapstick connoisseur, and the guy who brought Spider-Man to the big screen. He’s got the director origin story of many a renowned filmmaker from Steven Spielberg to J.J. Abrams – grabbing ahold of his parent’s 8mm camera and making movies with family and friends. But there’s another alter-ego hidden in his backstory that I think puts everything into perspective: lil Sam Raimi used to perform magic tricks at kid’s birthday parties.
Raimi might’ve been a Spider-Man dork throughout his childhood, but he was secretly perfect for a Doctor Strange movie one day.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is the MCU movie I didn’t know I wanted until it gave everybody’s favorite narcissistic sorcerer his grand suit-up sequence. Every superhero’s got at least one. Tony Stark had several. Batman had some moody costume changes from the Matt Reeves and Christopher Nolan reboots, to the more campy suit-ups via Joel Schumacher and Tim Burton. This tracks all the way back to the Christopher Reeves era of Superman. On top of having the suit, heroes gotta be suave, and they gotta have the moves. Finally, after one solo movie, two Avengers appearances, and featuring in Spider-Man: No Way Home, Stephen Strange gets his cheesy hero entrance—while drinking a martini at his ex’s wedding, no less. (That’s beyond ballin’.) Strange puts on a show before he slices and dices a one-eyed octopus like a teppanyaki chef.
It would be Sam Raimi to do it. Which is to say he brings the flavor with a whole lotta cheese. His trademark zooms and twisty angles find a home in the horror elements of the movie. The vibe is just the right mix of campy and sinister – Raimi’s whole deal, basically – and it’s what you want in a Lovecraftian-banger title like MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS.
Characters like Strange and Wong (hell, even Mordo) feel looser, livelier this time around. Wanda, too, coming off a wide-range showcase in WandaVision gets to thread that needle forward and stitch something of a payoff. The jokes and attitudes are cartoon-y and vibrant compared to its by-the-book predecessor, which barely managed a chuckle outside of some Beyonce gags. (I love Scott Derrickson’s other movies, but somebody would have to pay me to watch the first Doctor Strange again.)
Multiverse of Madness had me so spellbound that halfway through, when a character dishes out the usual exposition, I didn’t mind it one bit. Raimi overlays the scene with an intercut montage of the major players, their closeups crossfading into another like a séance complemented by an ethereal rock n’ roll score by Danny Elfman. Visually, Raimi and cinematographer John Mathieson paint the MCU’s most lushly realized movie by a mile. It’s not just Raimi who mounts a comeback here. Colors! Lighting! After dabbling in fluorescent lighting and greyscale throughout Phase Three, Marvel is starting to remember what sunlight ought to look like again. There’s action sequences in shadows, too, that are shockingly legible. (Captain Marvel, we gotta talk.)
Some MCU stans don’t know what to make of Multiverse of Madness, and it’s funny how a scene transition or mere tilt of the camera can send fanboys in a frenzy. Some horror fans say it’s not Raimi enough, which is fair because Raimi’s got his hands tied like every Marvel director thus far. I don’t know what to tell ya, I had tons of wicked fun with Multiverse of Madness. It gave me a fanboy thrill I didn’t think I’d get after two game-changing Avengers movies.
I’m biased, I’ll admit that. There’s a cross-section of stuff that made this my most hyped Marvel movie of the year. One of my favorite directors, plus Danny Elfman a.k.a. one of the GOAT composers, plus a WandaVision wrap-up – my favorite Disney+ show above them all. As far as “MCU content” goes, I can clock out for the rest of 2022.
But let’s get the fan service-y stuff out of the way, because it’s what knee-caps Raimi and the movie for the sake of teasing out the larger Phase Four. It’s also spoiler-y, so you’ve been warned. Get out NOW.
Reed Richards is in this a.k.a. Mr. Fantastic, played by John Krasinski. Patrick Stewart also shows up as none other than Professor X. There’s also Peggy returning as Captain Carter (payoff for Marvel What If? I’m guessing???) and Lashana Lynch is the Captain Marvel of this world. And there’s Anson Mount returning as Blackbolt of Inhumans in case anybody remembered that one ill-fated ABC Marvel show. With Karl Mordo, they’re the Illuminati – the super-group that protects Earth-838.
This is the egregious part of the movie for me because it’s engineered for the kind of raucous theater reactions meant to blow up social feeds and trending pages. We’ve got Patrick Stewart in the fold now, implying the X-Men movies are “canon” in that they happened somewhere in these here infinite universes. (They’re on Disney+, so, same thing.)
My thing is, there’s nothing new about this Professor X than what we already know from the 7 X-Men movies prior. He’s there and that’s it, like finding Waldo. It’s the same fleeting sensation as Krasinski popping up (and popping out at the end) as Mr. Fantastic. This isn’t a Fantastic Four movie, nor is this an X-Men movie. So all we know about this Reed Richards is that he’s played by that guy from The Office, thereby vindicating the rabid fan casting over the years. And that’s it. Marvel is trying to have their multiverse cake topped off with fan service frosting and eat it too.
I wouldn’t mind this if Raimi got to put his stamp on the Illuminati, zooming in on their iconic faces and getting buck wild with their powers. But this part of the movie halfway in is just a series of bland and static closeups holding for applause. Up until then, it’s been a propulsive chase movie with Wanda on the hunt for Strange and America Chavez. And then the chase (and the camera) halts. Enter another round of exposition, minus the visual and audio oomph that came before with Raimi and composer Elfman working their magic.
I suppose we’ll have to wait for the behind-the-scenes details to come out, but I’m betting not all of these actor cameos were set in stone. The Illuminati doesn’t interact in a cohesive manner. Captain Carter or Marvel don’t look at each other in the same frame; Carter looks in the direction of Marvel, CUT TO Marvel looking back at Carter, and so on. It’s chopped up staging. Even when they band together to fight Wanda, there’s so much space in between them. Like they were inserted in post-production, because their coverage was shot separately, because Feige and the collective Marvel braintrust are swapping cameos in and out of different projects back and forth, etc.
One can see why Scott Derrickson left Doctor Strange 2 just months prior to production. Hard to commit to any story when scenes are constantly subject to change. These movies are made on the fly, because Disney has X-Men, Fantastic Four, and now the Netflix shows under their belt, and Marvel is incorporating them where they can right now because they can’t get to their solo outings until later. A cameo has to satisfy the crossover in the meantime. So the fans “win,” but the movie takes a hit as scenes like this become a Frankenstein in the edit.
In the end, the Illuminati is just fodder for the Scarlet Witch. She’s the strongest engine in the movie and blazes past any stumbling blocks. All the world-building, or moments for cheap applause breaks, thankfully, doesn’t last because Scarlet Witch is ripping apart safe havens for Strange and Chavez. When the horror component swings back around, Raimi puts the pedal to the metal.
I was initially hoping for more Lovecraftian leviathans to show up like the hydra or the kraken, but Scarlet Witch embodies that cosmic terror and then some. Raimi paints Wanda like Carrie and it’s AWESOME. She gets to be a demonic entity full of jump scares, and a slasher villain with an inspired kill count. The kills in this are gloriously gnarly. I suppose I can’t be too ungrateful for the film’s midway cameos and fan-service. Scarlet Witch becomes an ungodly threat in a single sequence by laying waste to Earth-838’s protectors and it leaves you wondering: how the hell can Strange or Chavez stop her?!
There’s a quote going around that Raimi didn’t watch all of WandaVision prior to Multiverse of Madness. It’s become a rallying point for disgruntled fans who didn’t like Wanda’s villain turn, claiming Raimi “didn’t understand the character.” Or worse, that Wanda was out of character.
It’s worth remembering that Wanda started out as a villain in this saga. She tore the Avengers apart in Age of Ultron and later pays the price for becoming an Avenger. She pays the price again in Civil War, and again in Infinity War & Endgame. (That is its own problem with the MCU; sometimes you have to take scenes out of context and piece those together to get a sense of an arc.)
It’s true that Raimi cuts loose with Doctor Strange, but it’s Wanda whom Raimi empathizes with the most as someone who just wanted her happy ending but is doomed to never get it. Any scene with Wanda alone and wrestling with her grief left me breathless. Raimi might not have watched all of WandaVision, but he had Elizabeth Olsen. He understands Wanda’s complicated tapestry, that she’s forever walking the line between being the strongest Avenger on the roster, or the multiverse’s most terrifying villain.
The stakes in this movie, incalculable as they are with whole universes in question, somehow feel personal. How many times can any of us hear the end of the world plot without groaning post-Endgame? Fortunately, it’s less about the trolley problem. It’s about Wanda getting back to her kids, and Strange standing in the way. That’s the only conflict that matters. It’s not even Wanda’s movie, yet Multiverse of Madness does her justice. The only character who can stop the Scarlet Witch is Wanda herself.
Is Multiverse of Madness a horror movie? I think it’s about as close as Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a “political thriller” in the vein of an Alan J. Pakula movie. Or Ant-Man being a “heist movie.” DC, admittedly, does this genre-blending stuff better. Because the MCU is so beholden to its formula of 3-4 set-pieces + jokes + world-building + tie-in, that there’s less room to embrace other genres, even less for individual directors to have a voice. This movie can wear the bloody horror gown at times, but these films HAVE to swing back around to Marvel’s prevailing (and rigid) house-style.
When Multiverse of Madness is gunning for the thrills, chills, and kills, it’s exhilarating. Raimi’s personality shines through about 40% of the time. (And that’s me being generous.) But since that 40% comes with the backing of $200 million and all the big budget tools at his disposal, those little director flourishes are enormously hype and felt. In the Grand Guignol finale, when Raimi flips the dial to Evil Dead-mode by bringing a character back from the dead WHO THEN WEARS THE SOULS OF THE DAMNED LIKE A CAPE, reader, I was vibrating in my seat.
If Oz the Great and Powerful nearly spelled Raimi’s doom almost a decade ago, then Multiverse of Madness is a ferocious reassurance that he’s not down for the count, and that horror is still part of his DNA all these years later. It’s good to know what a Doctor Strange movie looks and feels like, finally. Bottom-line: it’s just good to have Sam Raimi back.
4 Darkholds out of 5 📕📕📕📕