Marvel Studios is infamously known for hiring up-and-coming independent directors to assemble their focus-grouped-to-death features, but when was the last time they brought one with such an established style and cult fandom as Sam Raimi? The man behind The Evil Dead, Drag Me to Hell, Oz the Great and Powerful (well … we can forget about that one), and yes, the initial cinematic outings of Spider-Man was brought on to spearhead the newest Doctor Strange project after Scott Derrickson, director of Strange’s first solo adventure, left over “creative differences.” It was assumed Derrickson wanted to make Marvel’s first real horror-ish outing just a little too scary – then they brought on the guy who gets his kicks directly from campy frights.
It’s no surprise, then, that there’s an interesting tension at play within Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, the strongest MCU outing since Black Panther, that’s nevertheless as much Marvel Machine as it is Raimi enjoying his return to the big screen after almost 10 years away, deploying every trick he keeps up his sleeve. It’s a movie well-suited to his sensibilities, full of monsters, portals to other worlds, evil spiritual books, doppelgängers, eyeballs where they don’t belong, and even the undead. When he’s able to let loose, it’s a total blast that’s replete with creative scene transitions, generous use of Dutch angles, a few jump scares, weird grunge guitar riffs, superimposed editing, and some appearances of his signature projectile POV camera effect.
Harder to determine is how much say Raimi had over Michael Waldron’s script that has the ultimate obligatory task of moving the greater universe along, which means this is still an MCU movie that is forced to go through the motions. We catch up with Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) not long after the events of Spider-Man: No Way Home, as he saves a multidimensional traveler named America Chavez (Gomez) from a giant, one-eyed alien monster trying to kidnap her for her powers. Strange attempts to enlist the help of Wanda Maximoff (Olsen), still reeling from the events of WandaVision, in protecting Chavez. Things don’t go as planned, to put it lightly, and Strange and Chavez end up in a multidimensional chase to outrun the evil that threatens them.
As is requisite for these films, all of this means dealing with a lot of info-dumping and clunky exposition shot in generic coverage about this film’s context within the MCU at large. Being a sequel to both Doctor Strange, WandaVision, and a general extension of the franchise, it also cannot escape feeling like various parts and ideas cobbled together into a single entity that, surprise, doesn’t always mesh. That said, there are portions outside of the genre leanings that are pure echoes of the more overt earnest sentimentality and attuned sense of story and character present in Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy that find their way into this. Even the quipping is amazingly reduced down to the absolute barest essentials. There are several truly touching moments around the climax that feel downright refreshing in how they allow the emotional character beats to just breathe.
Also noteworthy is how surprisingly mean this is able to get at times. This is maybe somewhat pushing the boundaries of a PG-13 rating, but it certainly is pushing the boundaries of what has been acceptable in the MCU up to this point. One particular segment around the halfway mark has some kills that carry a genuine sense of shock from just how bleak they are. This seems about as far as Marvel would be willing to go on the gore and scares while still maintaining the brand identity, but it’s the most revitalized the franchise has felt in a long time. There are plenty of reservations to be had about the baggage that comes with it, but it’s also just a ton of fun to sit back and watch the keys to the castle get handed over to someone who knows what to do with it.