With a little distance, and ability to talk spoilers, Sam Raimi‘s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness plays out as a fun mess, one somewhat necessitated by its rushed production. A heavy amount of misdirection in the marketing led fans to believe it would be a leap through various prior Marvel continuities, with cameos from alternate existing and proposed incarnations. None of that actually happened.
Instead, we got one major alternate reality with new variant heroes who were promptly knocked off. Deadpool 2 did the gag first, but what made this version particularly Raimi was the way the various deaths were Freddy Krueger-style ironic backfires of their powers, giving the whole thing a slasher movie vibe. It’s what made some viewers express concern that Multiverse of Madness was more violent than standard Marvel flicks, even though there’s very little actual blood and gore.
At its best, the movie is pure Raimi. Strange possessing a zombie version of himself and then making a flying cape out of demons is the stuff to make Evil Dead fans cheer. Even Bruce Campbell’s along for the ride, this time as a cameo character with an actual comic-style name, Pizza Poppa. But even though Raimi proclaims, on the commentary, that Reed Richards is his favorite Marvel superhero, his disinterest in expanded lore beyond the scope of the movie at hand is palpable. Most of the world- and character-building exposition scenes drag. Yet as soon as anything can be played as a classic monster movie or a horror film, you can feel the director’s glee kick in.
It’s all a bit like Spider-Man 3 in reverse. There, viewers can feel his disdain for the specific Marvel material that’s forced upon him. Here, fans feel his joy at being able to force himself upon MCU material.
In Elizabeth Olsen, Raimi is also gifted with perhaps one of the best leading actors he’s ever worked with. Even Raimi’s more serious movies typically have a bit of a wink at the audience, but Olsen as Scarlet Witch plays this as deadly serious tragedy. On the audio commentary, the director recalls feeling bad about asking her to do emotional take after emotional take, and she replied that as far as acting goes, she is a bottomless well of emotion. While Olsen plays two primary roles, Scarlet Witch and another Wanda variant, she also cameos as Gargantos. Yes, that’s her eye in the middle of the tentacle monster.
Benedict Cumberbatch, seemingly having more struggles with his American accent than ever (possibly due to a lot of last-minute line rewrites), risks being upstaged in his own movie. And not just by his own magic-marker colored hairpiece. Benedict Wong’s Wong adds instant gravitas with every line reading, and it’s a damn shame he gets no scenes with Patrick Stewart. Doctor Strange himself is put in the awkward position of having to be the straight man reacting to weirdness, while also being the one major Marvel character who is supposedly used to weirdness. It’s a really tricky balance to maintain at the best of times, and probably a miracle he manages at all.
Chiwetel Ejiofor is excellent as always as Mordo, although it’s a minor disappointment he’s not the same Mordo from the first film. Xochitl Gomez adds a needed vulnerability as America Chavez, or as Raimi insists on saying, America Cha-VEZ.
Perhaps the most surprising contributions come from Danny Elfman, often pigeonholed for the “lalalalalala” themes he does for Tim Burton. For Doctor Strange, he put his full range as both classical composer and rock star, with psychedelic and metal guitar, along with industrial rumblings, in addition to full orchestra, and of course that musical note fight between Stranges. Welcome back to superheroes, Danny. We missed you.
The 4K and high dynamic range does wonders with all the dark interiors and cross-dissolves. Shadows still make everything creepy, but every carved runes and spells on every back wall show in full detail. HDR cannot fix some of the greenscreen issue inherent to the movie — scenes like the opener feature noticeable visual separation from the background, and lighting that doesn’t quite match.
But Raimi has literally never relied on visual effects being 100 per cent convincing. The use of stop-motion in the Evil Dead movies, and the CG we knew even back then was primitive on Hercules and Xena’s monsters, never stopped fans from loving them. His secret is to keep things fast-paced enough that nobody cares. Most of Multiverse of Madness does that.
The best bonus feature on the disc is, of course, the commentary, featuring Raimi, writer Michael Waldron, and producer Richie Palmer. They discuss numerous details, including dropped ideas like the Wong romance subplot. (Hints of it remain in the looks he shares with Sheila Atim’s ill-fated Sara.) Perhaps in the interest of furthering a clean narrative, however, they do not mention any previous versions of the film, like whatever stage of development Scott Derrickson got to. To hear them, you might think Waldron dropped a script fully formed from the beginning, although a closer listen reveals more. Listen for the number of times Raimi mentions that they wrote the dialogue for a scene five minutes before shooting it, or various permutations thereof.
All three do seem legitimately enthusiastic and possessive of the final product, regardless. But it makes one long for a Marvel Studios movie that has Raimi aboard from the beginning.
Because Marvel understands the fans, there’s a lot of Bruce Campbell on the extras, including a slightly longer Pizza Poppa take. And many of the behind-the-scenes looks seem calculated to showcase the fact that more of the movie required practical sets than casual viewers might think. So many in fact that some of the background separations that seemed to be due to greenscreening are not. Perhaps rushed lighting?
Other featurettes highlight America Chavez and Sam Raimi, along with the standard gag reel, which serves a dual purpose as something parents can show to kids as proof that Elizabeth Olsen isn’t the scary Scarlet Witch in real life. Rather, she messes up and does dance breaks as much as anyone else.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness probably won’t rate on anyone’s list of all-time classics, but it’s at least full of fun. Marvel will probably always lighten its scarier moments with some comedy (Hi, Moon Knight!), so having a bona-fide master of horror comedy aboard allows for a better mix and a fun departure from the usual fidelity to source. Even if some fans would prefer a more serious Strange.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is now available on digital, and debuts on Blu-ray and 4K UHD July 26th.
Recommended Reading: Doctor Strange Vol. 1: The Way of the Weird
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