By Elias Savada.
Sam Raimi follows the Marvel bible but still manages to have his own directorial flair…. Action is almost non-stop, and you might just be gasping for air as you stick it out through the final credits.”
Note: Some spoilers follow relating to “character developments” in this film.
It’s been a dozen-plus years since Sam Raimi sat in the director’s chair on behalf of the Marvel Universe. That was for Spider-Man 3 (he also helmed the other two films in that Tobey Maguire-Kirsten Dunst trilogy). As the MCU has grown increasingly crowded and hectic over the last several years, there might be some folks who wonder if he’s up to task with the newest adventures into the mind-bending universes that the Marvel characters are tumbling through. He most definitely is, although I wish he’d take some time in this just over two-hour film to allow his audience to take a breath and sort some plotlines out, especially for those of you wandering in off the street without knowing anything about Marvel. Action is almost non-stop, and you might just be gasping for air as you stick it out through the final credits. And yes, you best do that, as there are two end-credit sequences, one featuring the filmmaker’s favorite muse.
Raimi has always known how to toss out one-liners in his many films, while blending human pathos, tacky action, and good storytelling skills. He makes fun films. With Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, he’s poised to welcome back fans of the comic book characters with an action-packed pleaser that might just approach a $200-million North American opening weekend. That figure is what the film cost to make. Even with some millions more to market the movie, it’s on target to be the biggest opening of the year. Ah, the magic of Marvel.
Raimi’s Spidey-sense is working on all cylinders here. He follows the Marvel bible but still manages to have his own directorial flair. Sometimes that works against your expectations if you, like me, are an avid fan of this very special series. The same visuals are there, the many special effects (look, a giant octopus creature!), the plot hooks and character arcs that tie the film in with the rest of the past, present, and future tv shows and movies. Yet there’s a brooding sense of despair and denseness that runs through the film. Formidable foes aside, I felt a heavy presence of fatigue as the film wore on. You won’t have the same sense of wonder you’d find with James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy), Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok), or even Jon Watts (last year’s Spider-Man: No Way Home). Here, the MCU has taken a side track to the world of horror, where Mr. Raimi has found fame and fortune. That streamlined sleekness you usual find in most of the MCU is served with darkness, with a side of death. At one point I could have sworn I was watching Carrie, as a blood-drenched character wanted to lay waste to anyone in her way.
The director has a knack for turning out well-received films, critically and commercially, since he brought us Evil Dead back in 1981, spawning another, still flourishing franchise. There’s more than a nod to those horror comedies, especially as the movie enters its climactic battle on a remote mountain-top shrine.
Benedict Cumberbatch returns as the eponymous Avenger who finds his dream and real worlds colliding in Michael Waldron’s screenplay. The good doctor is pushed into quite a few excursions in alternate realities. As you might expect, the Multiverse offers hundreds of ways to move the story through these outlandish worlds, where his own character (and friends) there view him with startling different sensitivities. There’s a lot of self-discovery as he finds himself in a never truly convincing civil war with one of his own, Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), as she turns very dark and determined and demonically possessed as the Scarlet Witch. If you’ve watched Wandavision, you know what damage she’s capable of inflicting.
Along for the fantastic ride are Wong (Benedict Wong), Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Mordo), and newcomer Xochitl Gómez as a frightened teen, America Chavez, whose superpower is the ability to jump between the multiverse worlds. Her problem is she doesn’t know how she’s doing it. The Scarlet Witch wants that ability for herself. Chaotic megalomania follows. There are other superheroes that pop up in cameos, and their appearances will please fans, but I’ll leave those for humorous discovery when you venture to the multiplex.
It’s not a perfect film, but it should sell plenty of popcorn. And Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness might just scare you silly.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).