Perhaps it was destined to be this way. 20 years ago, Sam Raimi swung into the superhero genre with 2002’s Spider-Man, thus changing the modern blockbuster landscape for decades to come. In a poetic, maybe ironic, twist of fate, Raimi returns—nearly to the day that he influenced and rejuvenated comic-book movies—to once again play in the Marvel sandbox, this time with the latest MCU venture, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (read our full review here).
Was this all pre-determined? Or was he merely cursed? In true Raimi fashion, maybe both are true. Maybe Raimi was fated and subsequently doomed to be reunited with the Marvel machine? Maybe he’ll always be haunted by Marvel’s dark spell? Otherwise known as money.
Though trapped within the confines of this convoluted and ever-diluted cinematic universe, the general story at the heart of this sequel to 2016’s Doctor Strange is surprisingly fitting inside Raimi’s wheelhouse. As a filmmaker who tells haunted stories about men out of their elements who are caught in a whirlwind of chaos due to dark magic, supernatural entities, and the ancient plagues of an evil book, it makes a great deal of sense why Kevin Feige, the ringleader of this connective monolithic enterprise, recruited Raimi to take on the reins here. It’s not merely a show of respect toward the man who molded the genre as we see it today.
Owing as much, if not more, to Raimi’s hyperactive, rambunctious Evil Dead trilogy as it does to the man’s impressionable ‘00s Spider-Man blockbusters, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, the first Raimi-directed movie in nearly a decade, is an opportunity for him to do something of a Greatest Hits album with a lofty budget that nearly doubles the cost of his first Spider-Man. Finally, Raimi can return to the goblins and zombies and ghouls and boils that has defined his career since the 1981 release of The Evil Dead and beyond. Would it be better if the director had the chance to make another mid-budget affair like 2009’s exuberant return-to-form, Drag Me to Hell? Certainly. But ultimately, in an age when movies only continue to grow anonymous in style and overambitious in mining the overturned depths of comic book lore, it’s refreshing and encouraging to see a filmmaker with a vision at the forefront of one of these films.
Of course, it’s been a long time since MCU’s Phase 1 kicked into gear with Iron Man, which remains the sole time outside of a select few noted examples (Black Panther and the Guardians of the Galaxy movies among them) where a movie-maker was given the free reign to make any sort of dynamic, stylistic impression. There’s an inherent clash between Raimi’s whiz-bang-buck camera wizardry and the dreadful, exposition-laden heavy-lifting of Marvel’s increasingly overstuffed assembly line of movies and shows. The whiplash between Raimi’s frenetic sensibilities and the MCU’s overworked plotting can make for a wobbly viewing experience. But in that sense, Multiverse of Madness still complements Raimi’s sensibilities as a filmmaker. His roll-with-the-punches mentality allows this corporate exercise to retain more of the director’s individuality than one might have initially anticipated. Sure, this movie is ultimately a rather watered-down Raimi blockbuster. But that’s still better than nothing.
As someone who has developed and often thrived from telling stories about people attempting to overcome the odds and battle the demons that haunt them, there’s often a dual narrative at hand for every Raimi movie, which must overcome a variety of obstacles of their own—financially, creatively, what-have-you—in order to make it to the finish line. Undoubtedly, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness would’ve been made one way or another. There’s no doubt that, if things didn’t work out with Raimi, as they didn’t work out with the movie’s initial director, Scott Derickson, that Feige would’ve found another way. Alas, Raimi can get the keys to the Oldsmobile, but he has to get it back home before midnight.
As a result, Multiverse of Madness can have an awkward, unsettled energy for a director given full creative reign in a couple scenes, moderate inspiration in others, and no influence in quite a few. This is a Raimi movie. This isn’t exactly a 50/50 deal. But Raimi can only do so much when he has certain story beats that need to be hit and high-profile cameos that need to be doled out and set-ups that need to be established. The man is fully in the midst of his own chaotic mission. It might not be as elaborate as the one at the center of Doctor Strange’s story, to be sure, but there’s no denying that Raimi is caught between honoring his own individualistic quirks and doing what’s expected of him as the director behind the 28th installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Still, for all the tiresome storytelling mechanics that need to be stuffed and incorporated into this strained Marvel movie, there are just enough moments of Raimi giddiness and glee that it’s hard, especially as a fan of the man’s work, not to get excited yourself. Though Feige’s enterprise has been increasingly nullified by a film/streaming multiverse that has become dull in its excess and monopolizing of cultural capital, Raimi’s somewhat-infrequent camera whips, zippy zoom-ins, and twisty Dutch angles give this movie enough of a boost to make you sludge through the void.
It’s been nearly a decade since we’ve gotten a new Sam Raimi movie, and when Raimi is done eating his producer-enforced vegetables and allowed to play with his supernatural toys, there’s such a rapturous glee and re-energized spirit it be found here, that it makes you yearn for that lost era of superhero cinema when the director at the charge was allowed to make bold, striking, and sometimes even non-sensible choices. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness isn’t completely beholden to Raimi’s influence, which makes it his weakest comic book adaptation by default (I will hear no disparaging of Spider-Man 3, thank you very much).
But as MCU’s Phase 4 is increasingly undermined by soggy, lackluster visuals, overcooked story meals, cynical corporate intention, and a cavalcade of cameos that lack any sort of intended surprise factor, it’s safe to say that Multiverse of Madness is the best MCU movie to come out in a few years, if also by default, because it actually showcases a director given the long-overdue opportunity to bring his own uncompromising signatures to the form. As Doctor Strange wrestles with being a man out of time and place, it can be easy to parallel Raimi’s uneven attempt to bring his creative stamp back to a genre that he once fortified. It’s also fitting to see Raimi fighting against the odds to break the curse in his own shabby, irreverent, and uniquely, if not completely, Raimi way. Ultimately, I’m just glad to see Raimi get another chance to be mad.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is now playing in theaters. Watch the trailer here.