Six years after his cinematic debut, Dr. Stephen Strange’s mystical arts go toe-to-toe with an ally-turned foe in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. What appears as another business-as-usual MCU effort reflects an exciting change of pace with the involvement of Evil Dead and Spider-Man helmer Sam Raimi.
Raimi remains one of horror’s most respected auteurs, often enriching trademark narrative devices through his kinetic cinematic pulse and swirling camera movements. His latest foray into big-budget filmmaking has drawn surprisingly divisive reactions from critics and audiences alike. Some are even critiquing the auteur for conjuring a twisted take that opposes the universe’s family-friendly sensibilities (still in shock people think this should’ve been R).
I can see why Multiverse of Madness is drawing divisive reactions. The end product feels like an odd hodgepodge of narrative and sensibilities – a constrained blend of old-school horror and MCU machinations that constantly clashes with itself. While the tropes remain intact, Raimi extracts enough gonzo energy in a colorful and fittingly twisted stylistic deviation.
For the first hour, Multiverse of Madness delivers a shockingly disjointed vision. The film’s unsteady production process becomes deeply felt onscreen as the material jockeys between Dr. Strange’s internal struggles and Scarlett Witch’s descent into villainy without proper balance. Unlike fan-favorites Iron Man and Black Widow, Strange still feels like an enigma only defined by his crotchety attitude. On the other hand, Scarlett Witch’s well-defined arc in Wandavision feels noticeably absent as the script rushes the character into her untimely fate. The introduction of America Chavez, who Xochitl Gomez spiritedly portrays, barely makes a dent as the character receives little dimension onscreen.
Several scenes overloaded with exposition jargon and unfinished CGI showcase a shocking level of laziness for a Marvel big-budget production. Considering the narrative was stitched together after COVID-19 delays, the screenwriting team unsurprisingly struggles to cultivate a clear narrative direction for the film. I have a hard time blaming the talent involved because this is not how the moviemaking process should go.
Not to rain on the MCU parade, but Marvel largely shies away from filmmaking’s intricate craft as their massive cinematic world expands. Few auteurs can operate outside the strict confines of Producer Kevin Feige’s vision, which leads most filmmakers compromising their artistic identity in favor of meaningless world-building. The approach leaves many of the studio’s grand production looking and feeling like a commercial for the next super-powered character that will debut (Hawkeye on Disney+ embraces the visual profile of an artless Honda commercial).
While the Feige formula enjoyed unprecedented success, it’s clear the approach is showing its age. DC’s The Batman and The Suicide Squad garnered passionate audience responses as both films showcased the succinct vision of their helmers. Marvel may remain the top box office powerhouse between the two, but their artistic limitations feel more apparent than ever.
Thankfully, the second hour of Multiverse of Madness delivers the bold and artistically-invigorating experience I’ve been clamoring for. Raimi’s cinematic verve fully embraces the oft-kilter possibilities of his multiverse presence. Under his guidance, the typical cameos and action setpieces take on a newfound playfulness – an energy that’s been desperately missing from prior entries. After all, this is a superhero movie, and not all of them need to embrace solemnly-worn self-seriousness.
It’s a blast to watch Raimi renew his horror techniques on a big-budget scale. As the second half finds Scarlett Witch exacting her revenge, Raimi showcases the true horror behind her boundless powers. Inventive setpieces, creative camera movements, and an eye for unnerving imagery allow the film’s horror connotations to operate as intended. I also loved the ways Raimi plays with viewers’ expectations, including a hilariously cruel prank on fans who continue to fan cast an actor for a certain superpowered hero.
Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is far from great, but the film marks a welcome change of pace when finally discovering its comfort zone. I hope fans grow to embrace stylistically distinctive entries like this over been-there-done-that fare. Both Multiverse of Madness and the critically-disowned Eternals display much-needed creative life for the tried and true Marvel brand.