'Doctor Strange in The Multiverse of Madness' review: Sam Raimi delivers Marvel's scariest entry yet
Courtesy of Marvel Studios
Hard to fathom it’s been 20 years since Sam Raimi redefined the modern day stigma around superhero films with 2002’s “Spider-Man.” Some may call it a curse while others a blessing, but Raimi hasn’t directed one since 2007’s beleaguered “Spider-Man 3,” and now with the carefully laid schematics of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it becomes a question of whether the horror maestro can find his niche within the sandbox while maintaining artistic integrity. On that note, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” feels like the perfect marriage though not without blemishes and convoluted storytelling mechanics. Once you get past the initial 45-minute foundational legwork and Raimi leans into the narrative’s horror elements, “Multiverse of Madness” allows for some imaginative set pieces and gonzo “Evil Dead” inspiration as if a Marvel movie were trapped inside a haunted house.
There’s plenty of fan service, obviously, and rumors have been swirling about what characters, especially now that Disney owns Fox, might show up thanks to the Multiverse concept which basically gives Marvel a scapegoat for any decision they make. When you start to think about logistics, it’s easy to wonder if anything matters in the grand scheme of the Marvel universe. Nonetheless, “Multiverse of Madness” feels like two movies cobbled together and considering original “Doctor Strange” helmer Scott Derrickson (a horror filmmaker himself) left the project over creative differences, that checks out. Having Raimi create his own version of the story from the ground-up might have done wonders, but the incredible blend of CGI and interdimensional travel is oodles of fun alongside Danny Elfman’s wild score. Raimi finding a way to make the script his own is probably the best outcome anyone could ask for.
Benedict Cumberbatch is back as the former sorcerer supreme, Stephen Strange now contending with the life he left behind, including former girlfriend Christine Palme (Rachel McAdams) who is getting married to someone else. It’s a somber and emotional catharsis for a character hellbent on making sure the best outcomes are always in play, but those fundamentals are tested with the arrival of America Chavez (newcomer Xochitl Gomez), a spunky young kid with an unknown skill that grants her the freedom to travel between universes and has demonic entities, who want to harness the power, hot on her tail.
It leads Strange, along with right-hand man Wong (Benedict Wong) and the assistance of Wanda Maximoff aka Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen who turns in a series best performance) on a cross-multiverse journey into the unknown that yields surprises and major implications for what the future MCU will hold. The visual palette and CGI is wondrous (a scene where characters jump through literally a dozen alternate universes is killer on the eyes). Writer Michael Waldron has a blast opening up the floodgates for endless fan theories and easter eggs that’ll engage some and polarize others.
“Multiverse of Madness” solidifies Marvel Studios ability to pull off a bait and switch in the director’s chair and come out the other side, several nods and crazy references to Raimi’s filmography (including, yes, “Drag Me To Hell”) give it a substantial leg-up on the Marvel competition. “Multiverse of Madness” also pushes the boundaries of the MCU canon while staying planted in the world (again, every decision no matter how consequential has an easy out). Still, I was surprised at the darkness and fever dream aesthetic employed during the film’s latter half and if “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” proves anything, it’s that a good filmmaker can interweave their signature flair and style while maintaining important series continuity. Sure, it might feel like episodic television (make sure to stick around for two post credit scenes) because Marvel can’t stop dwelling on the future, but if they want to keep subverting audience expectations, giving directors akin to Raimi creative leash isn’t the worst idea this reality has seen.
DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS opens in theaters Friday, May 6th.