Fans should be happy to hear that Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness wastes no time plunging into the Sam Raimi of it all. A flying, swooping camera POV, something supernatural giving chase, and heroes getting physically slammed all over the place. The Spider-Man movies saw Raimi adapting to a very classical hero-narrative structure to stay faithful to the tone of the comics he grew up with. Here, the comic book movies the current generation grew up with adapt to Raimi’s classic Evil Dead style, at least to the extent that’s possible in a PG-13 flick. Parents be warned: the onscreen deaths herein feature significantly more gory details than usual.
No spoilers here, but one thing this movie is definitely not…is Doctor Strange leaping into the realities of previous movies and TV shows. Best to discard that notion completely. What it is is Strange trying to protect MCU newcomer America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), who enters his reality pursued by monsters from another. Recognizing the creatures as magical, Strange turns to the most powerful witch he knows for help. That, of course, would be Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), the Scarlet Witch.
Enough specifics. Suffice it to say that Raimi unleashes the sort of mayhem he’s proven very, very good at in the past. And thanks to Wanda, he gets sort of a mulligan on those witch battles from Oz, the Great and Powerful. Considering the additional characters, fans may find it surprising how much of a pure Doctor Strange movie this actually becomes. His personal growth remains at the heart of the story, with a multiverse allowing him to see ramifications of different choices. It’s enough to make the argument that It’s a Wonderful Life is the first true multiverse movie. But since this is Raimi we’re talking about, there’s not too much brooding reflection before creatures show up and hit people, or whatever else they may do.
Mildly disappointing, though, is the extent to which the doesn’t really follow up on the first Doctor Strange much. To be fair, lots has happened since then, with Strange previously assisting Thor, all of the Avengers, and Spider-Man. But Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) deserves more screen time than he gets here. The man wanted to rid the world of magic, but he doesn’t appear to have gotten very far.
On the other hand, this movie very much follows WandaVision, and Wanda and Vision’s interactions with Strange in Avengers: Infinity War. Unlike a lot of Marvel movies, Raimi makes no attempt to catch the viewer up on previous installments, so casual fans without full context might miss a lot. They will quickly figure out who’s good, who’s bad, and those basics. But a lot of dramatic impact will get missed by any viewer who is not up to date on their MCU. Thankfully, this isn’t like reading comics, where a bunch of back issues need seeking out and purchasing to catch up. Do a trial week of Disney+, and everything’s there. Which is probably the idea. And the movie leaves plenty of new threads for further projects to pick up on.
Raimi also brought Danny Elfman back to do the score, which is full of stings, raucous rhythms, and even a sequence uniquely blending music and visuals that plays like full-on Fantasia tribute. Elfman punctuates jump-scares and dangerous situations throughout. Where the first Doctor Strange movie drew on the more psychedelic comics, the sequel pulls more from the gothic horror subset of Marvel. We’ve seen some of that in non-canon projects like the Ghost Rider movies as well as episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.LD.. But with a seemingly limitless budget to show anything the concept artists can imagine, it goes to new levels here.
What keeps Multiverse of Madness from being an all-timer is the story. To the extent that it has depth, it carries it over from previous projects. That’s no sin, but the structure feels more about building insane individual sequences than creating an epic journey with a beginning and end. Within reason, of course, since the MCU never ends. It’s hard to discuss thematic elements without spoiling key details, save the fact that whether or not Strange is happy becomes a repeated motif. And ultimately the movie doesn’t have a lot to say about that.
In fairness, the change in writer-director teams midstream might have had a lot to do with it, along with COVID reshuffling the schedule. Originally, for example, this was to come before WandaVision, which would make no sense whatsoever for the current story.
However, if Raimi is game for part 3, the disappointing Spider-Man 3 memories should not stand in his way. Besides, Army of Darkness proved that Raimi can pull off a second sequel. Like The Force Awakens, Raimi puts enough things in play here that it would really suck to have a follow-up filmmaker simply treat them all as disposable red herrings. There’s ample evidence in this film to suggest Kevin Feige will let him be as crazy as he wants to be.
In the meantime, celebrate the fact that indeed, there’s a new Sam Raimi movie out in the world, and it’s extremely recognizable as his.
Recommended Reading: Doctor Strange Vol. 1: The Way of the Weird
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