“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” 2022, directed by Sam Raimi — 3/5 Stars
Skepticism is warranted, even necessary, when it comes to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). It can’t be overstated how profusely virulent the comic book genre, and especially Disney’s multi-billion-dollar global franchise, has been for the industry, and it hasn’t slowed down for a minute. The MCU’s latest entry is “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.” Helmed by Sam Raimi of “Evil Dead” and “Spider-Man” fame, it’s the first film since the MCU’s inception in 2008 to delve into the horror genre. Despite Raimi’s impressive track record, one would be understandably wary of how much his style would really be implemented in such a monotonous, blatantly corporate series of movies. This isn’t the first time Marvel has brought in a respected auteur to direct; Oscar-winning “Nomadland” director Chloe Zhao was hired for last year’s “Eternals,” a film that, despite Zhao’s best efforts to limit green screen use and patiently engage with larger ideas, was weighed down consistently ugly visual effects and expository dialogue. Though “Multiverse of Madness” suffers from many of the same pitfalls, it’s much more recognizable as a project from a passionate, skilled director, and the times when Raimi’s style shines through redeem its most inane moments. This review contains spoilers.
The film’s most glaring issues stem from its script. The plot follows Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) as he traverses alternate realities to protect America Chavez (Xóchitl Gomez) from hero-turned-villain Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen). The concept of a multiverse is seemingly limitless, but the plot is clearly held down by fan service and generally pedestrian story threads. The majority of the premise’s potential is cashed in on recognizable character appearances and comedically silly scenarios that rival even “Spider-Man: No Way Home” in how closely they resemble fan fiction rather than professional Hollywood screenwriting. There are more than a few other issues as well; despite a few more practically built sets than usual, “Multiverse of Madness” is still weighed down by some obviously digital environments and the MCU’s usual lack of emotional depth.
When the film works, though, it works. Wanda’s emotional arc, largely thanks to Olsen’s performance, is genuinely compelling. Danny Elfman’s score, which works in some chilling electric guitar riffs, is one of the first MCU scores in ages with an ounce of personality. The real saving grace, of course, is Raimi himself, who manages to work in some impressive camerawork and authentically scary elements. The moments where Raimi’s style pops up are exasperatingly brief, but it’s always a joy to see such dramatically canted angles, head-spinning zooms, and even just a hint at campy gore. Perhaps the most Raimi-esque moment comes in the film’s third act, in which Doctor Strange possesses his own dead body in an alternate dimension, becoming an undead version of himself, zombie makeup and all. Raimi fans will also be thrilled to see Bruce Campbell, the “Evil Dead” star who has appeared in all of Raimi’s films, make an appearance as an alternate dimension pizza vendor known as “Pizza Poppa”.
It’s an entire plot overhaul away from perfect, but “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” is one of the first Marvel outings in quite some time that has even the leftovers of genuine style and care for the medium in which it resides. It’s an ugly mess at times, especially when Raimi’s style is smothered by the Disney machine, but it’s consistently fun and engaging to a point that most will be willing to forgive its flaws. “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” is in theaters right now.