Review: Sam Raimi Shows the MCU How Comic Book Movies Should Be Made With Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness


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Screenshot: Walt Disney Pictures

Despite adapting a medium built on dynamic images and eye-popping primary colors, Marvel Cinematic Universe has established pop culture dominance with largely boring visuals. Sure, directors like Ryan Coogler, Taika Waititi, and James Gunn could sometimes sneak in some color and flair, but Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok proved the rule that most Marvel movies erred on the side of CG muddiness and limited colors.

Few entries so perfectly captured this problem as 2016’s Doctor Strange. Director Scott Derrickson attempted to replicate the psychedelic images that Steve Ditko and others conjured in comics that thrilled the counter-culture crowd of the 60s. But the shifting buildings and clockwork streets of that film felt like an Asylum version of Christopher Nolan’s Inception, not a mind-melting trip through time and space.

So when Marvel announced Sam Raimi as Derrickson’s replacement for the sequel Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, I did not have high hopes. After all, while the madcap camera of his early horror days and his virtuoso work on the Spider-Man films of the 2000s established him as a visual stylist of the highest degree, Raimi had not made a Hollywood film since the lackluster Disney flick Oz, the Great and Powerful in 2013. Worse, Marvel’s maudlin visuals come straight from the top, a house style controlled by MCU chief Kevin Feige. Whatever tricks Raimi had up his sleeve, surely they would not make it through the Marvel middle-of-the-road machine.

So imagine my surprise when, after an opening of heroes running through goopy CGI nonsense, the camera twisted in a 360-degree summersault to show Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange awakening from a nightmare. Later, Raimi transitions between scenes by superimposing Benedict Wong’s sorcerer supreme Wong over one image and letting the background fade behind him. By the time a rote exposition scene gets punctuated with numerous dissolves, split-diopters, cross-fades, and nearly every other camera trick, I sat back and relaxed. This wasn’t just a Marvel movie. This was a Sam Raimi movie.

Although following narrative pieces set up in previous MCU entries, especially the Disney+ series WandaVisionMultiverse of Madness feels more akin to Spider-Man 2 and Drag Me to Hell than it does to those universe-building properties. Written by Michael Waldron (Loki), the movie has a barebones plot that involves Strange fighting to protect young universe hopper America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), from Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) aka the Scarlet Witch. Having achieved ultimate power by studying an evil book called the Darkholde, Wanda longs to find a reality where she can reunite with her children.

For those deeply invested in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Strange and Wanda’s multiversal tussle promises plenty of cameos and winks toward the comics. Returning fan favorites and little-loved stars join forces with new characters and an actor straight from the internet’s speculative casting department. But while these characters do have a memorable moment, their scenes operate more as another visceral set-piece for Raimi and his camera to gleefully execute.

In fact, Waldron’s script serves as little more than a skeleton over which Raimi can hang his reality-bending hijinks. This isn’t to suggest that the story doesn’t pay off in a satisfying matter. It’s surprisingly poignant in the end. But if you’re looking for a deep character study or even a tour of the alternate worlds of Marvel, then you’re going to be disappointed.

Instead, everyone here feels as if they’ve come to frolic in a gory and gonzo playground. Having finally shed the Tony Stark comparisons (and largely nailed the accent), Cumberbatch feels at ease in the role, a game participant in Raimi’s funhouse. Rachel McAdams, a virtual nothing in the 2016 Doctor Strange movie, gets much more to do here, even if Raimi doesn’t quite take full advantage of her comedic chops (outside of putting her in a silly wig).

But the real standout of the movie is Elizabeth Olsen, who leans into the self-righteous malevolence of the Scarlet Witch. In the same way that Raimi coaxed painfully earnest performances out of Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst in the Spider-Man movies, he asks Olsen to channel her inner Universal monster, and she accepts with aplomb. Olsen sneers and cackles her way through the movie, never forgetting to play the tragedy of her character, but never letting the pathos get in the way of unhinged fun.

It\’s a testament to the movie’s strength that Olsen’s performance manages to shock, despite the fact that she’s often buried in red CGI goop. Raimi sneaks in a practical effect here and an old-school video effect there, but Multiverse of Madness does suffer from the same weightless computer graphics that handcuffs most modern movies. But even in those moments, Raimi’s restless camera and Danny Elfman’s melodramatic score – his best work in years – sell the effect, making you believe what your eyes tell you is fake and ugly.

In short, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness may not be the smartest Marvel movie, it’s not the most emotional Marvel movie, and it is absolutely not the most superheroic Marvel movie. But it is the best looking, giving us hope that someday, the MCU may properly honor its four-color predecessors.

GRADE: A-

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