Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness: A Perfect Mix of Sam Raimi's Groovy Horror and the MCU

When Marvel Studios announced that Sam Raimi, the visionary behind the cult-classic Evil Dead and blockbuster Spider-Man franchises, would be directing the new Doctor Strange movie, I knew we were in for a special treat. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is exactly what I hoped it would be, and then some. It’s a crazy ride exploring the multiverse while keeping it personal for both Doctor Strange and Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch, packed to the brim with every unique trick in the Sam Raimi book of horror.

There are a lot of expectations going into this one, and with a title as crazy as that it’s justified. However, I will suggest fans temper their expectations. It’s a joyful ride full of new reveals and fan service for sure, but it’s not as big or revelatory as some might expect, and that’s good. The film’s plot is fairly simple, keeping the focus on Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen), and new MCU addition America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), who plays a pivotal role.

The film goes deep into Marvel lore and relies heavily on the viewer’s investment in the MCU as a whole, so it’s hard to assess the film without going into spoilers. Nevertheless, I’ll try to keep it spoiler-free until the warning section below.

Starting off a few months after Spider-Man: No Way Home, the film follows Doctor Strange as he tries to protect America Chavez, a unique individual who can travel through the multiverse, from a mysterious evil. Picking up on threads from both his origin movie and the later Avengers films, particularly around Strange’s rule-breaking actions against the space-time continuum, the film dives deeper into his regrets over the life he has chosen and what he has lost because of it. On the other end, the events of WandaVision have left Olsen’s character in the deep end, mourning the loss of her (kinda imaginary) children. That is the direct motivation behind Wanda’s actions in the film, hence the ‘madness’. How that plays out is delightful for those who’ve waited patiently to see the real Scarlet Witch in action, and it includes some of the most gruesome action we’ve seen in the MCU to date. Well, as gruesome as it can get for a Disney-produced PG13 film, it has a sense of gut-punching that Sam Raimi is a master at.

While the Spider-Man films had bouts of horror tropes occasionally, Multiverse of Madness is chock full of them. I wouldn’t call it a straight-up horror movie, but it damn well feels like one in extended scenes which remind me of a classic haunted house and unseen monster movie tropes. This includes the classic Raimi cam (zoom! snap!) and editing (for which Raimi’s longtime collaborator Bob Murawski returns), which is the inventive use of camera angles, moves and immaculate marriage of frame perfect cutting. As many know, sound plays a pivotal part in crafting any sequence designed to horrify the viewer, and Danny Elfman’s score along with fitting sound design does extremely well here. So much so that there’s an entire music battle in the film, perfectly using cinematography, visual effects, music, sound and editing for a delightful sequence that I never thought I needed.

Of course, the very things I’m praising aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. The film is at its best when it’s focused squarely on Raimi’s unique skillset, and for that reason I see it being a little divisive among the larger audience. This just isn’t what you expect from a Marvel movie, but the studio and Kevin Feige at its head have shown that they can venture away from its relatively secure style to give filmmakers more room to breathe. Raimi joins the likes of James Gunn, Taika Waititi and most recently Chloe Zhao as standing out from the crowd in a somewhat overcrowded market.

Loki scribe Michael Waldron returns to the multiverse, albeit looking at it through a different lens. While the Disney plus show about the god of mischief explored alternate timelines, the big screen multiverse is about completely different realities. Of course, they both are about the vast multiverse where anything is possible anywhere, but there is a subtle distinction in how the show and film explore the topic. However, not all is perfect, and the script can fall prey to expositional problems, with a somewhat uneven structure. It shows that sometimes it can be too much for a 2+ hour movie to handle, and that’s where Loki did pretty well exploring the multiverse and its personal effects on the different people traversing it. Both Doctor Strange and Wanda meet alternate versions of themselves, and through those interactions come new revelations. There are moments where the impact of those revelations takes effect a little too fast, and spreading them out with extra scenes or a handful of moments would have been handy.

A note on fanservice — it’s there, it’s great, it’s surprising and it doesn’t detract from the focus of the story, so long as you’re willing to accept and understand the rules of the multiverse. This is where some people might turn their noses up and say “it’s just blatant fanservice” and it can be from a certain point of view. But the film doesn’t stop for it, it leads to some extremely awesome sequences and surprises, and it lasts just long enough to make a fun impression. The only way you’re going to get confused or feel it’s convoluted is if you don’t grasp the central concept and theme of the film itself, at which point you may as well leave the theatre after the Marvel logo comes in.

I hope Raimi comes back into the MCU and that Marvel Studios continues to find such unique voices to tell its stories.

Verdict

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness shows what happens when the MCU can let a director go crazy with inventive ideas while keeping the larger lore and continuity of the universe in mind. It’s a feat of strength for the studio to tie in concurrent streaming services with features in a personally motivated story that pushes characters in new, exciting directions. Not all is perfect, but it’s pretty close to it, and if this is what the rest of phase 4 offers, then sign me up because it’s about to get groovy!

[Check back on this space for our video review and spoiler discussion on The Screen Zone Podcast!]

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