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“Doctor Strange” is Kinda “The Evil Dead” Sequel We Never Got

When I walked out of “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” I had an ugly feeling in the pit of my stomach. Like most people on this planet, I am a fan of what the Marvel Studios live action universe has cultivated over the last 14 years. Not every entry has been completely successful, but when everything is firing on all cylinders, it is hard not to see why it has become the most dominant force in pop culture today. The ability to tell pretty much any type of spectacle, from trippy science fiction, to political thriller, to high fantasy can make for some amazing sights.

But I did find myself becoming one of those people who had grown a little fatigued with keeping up with everything. A big part of that is with 28 released films, it’s getting harder and harder for these movies to capture that same sense of wonder that earlier entries did.

Marvel Studios class photo, celebrating the first 10 years of the MCU

Most of the post “Endgame” films had their own share of problems, from the drab “Black Widowto the ponderous “Eternals.” In my opinion, the best Phase 4 entry was “Shang Chi,” but even that one takes a nosedive for most of the third act. I felt like I hit a breaking point with “No Way Home,” where instead of a movie, all I could see was the way that Disney and Sony were working together to polish up the brand to make a couple more bucks on older Spider-Man movies. It certainly didn’t help that “No Way Home” is probably one of the ugliest Marvel Studios films, where everything looks flat on screen, and no one looks like they’re in the same room together, even if behind the scenes footage proves otherwise. It felt like there had been a significant dip in quality that starting making me think that maybe I just wasn’t into comic book movies anymore. 

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“Spider-Man: No Way Home” Marvel Studios

Even after that I remained cautiously optimistic for “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.” The first “Doctor Strange” is one of my favorite Marvel Studios movies. I loved the visual flair that director Scott Derrickson brought to the film, which captured a lot of the energy that artists like Jack Kirby brought to comics at the height of the silver age.

It also has one of the best third acts of any Marvel Studios movie, where the villain is not destroyed via CGI figures punching each other for a half hour, but with a conversation. The film isn’t perfect, with some pacing issues and having the egregious crime of wasting Rachel McAdams, but it is one I return to just to look at it. When Derrickson left working on the sequel over ‘creative differences,’ I had a genuine worry that we were going to lose one of the most distinctive elements of Marvel Studios. 

Enter Sam Raimi

Long before comic book movies were the force they were today, I was a super fan for Raimi. Films like “The Evil Dead,” “Darkman,” and “Army of Darkness” were formative experiences for me, and I treated them like gospel. Raimi’s visual style and look was completely idiosyncratic, with wild camera shots and wonky sound design that turned things into live action cartoons. Being a budding movie buff in the late 90s, I poured over behind the scenes details of how Raimi and his crew were able to take budget limitations to making films that were wildly inventive without losing coherence of pacing. I also got to see Raimi’s work evolve in real time and he started to settle down and become used to using actors as people rather than props. “A Simple Plan” proved that Raimi is just a solid storyteller, and while other work like “The Gift” wasn’t as good, you could see his skills improve.

Sam Raimi on “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” set with Benedict Cumberbatch and Rachel McAdams. Marvel Studios

Then came “Spider-Man” (2002), where he was able to take everything he developed and synthesize it into a film that was fun, funny, and juggled having a massive budget without losing the low budget tricks that made Raimi’s style so effective. “Spider-Man 2” is even better and remains a high water mark in the genre, and the less we say about 3, the better. Since then, Raimi has continued to work as a producer with much less time as a director, with “Drag Me To Hell” being a highlight and “Oz the Great and Powerful” less so. When news broke that Raimi had come aboard on “Multiverse of Madness” I was overjoyed but still a little anxious over how much of his style would come through when processed through the MCU grinder.

For every Taika Waititi who managed to thrive in that ecosystem, there were others like Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (“Captain Marvel“) who got swallowed whole.  

Lots of pressure for this film to be good.

All of this preamble is to say that nothing was guaranteed for “Multiverse of Madness” to work as a film, and not just an extended trailer for more movies and tv shows. With all the behind-the-scenes shenanigans, and how much this movie would supposedly lay the groundwork for the next several years of movies and shows, there was a lot of pressure. So it comes as a relief that “Multiverse of Madness” is a wonderful return to form that plays off the strengths of both the material and the filmmakers.

The DNA of Raimi’s work is absolutely carried over here, and you can see his presence all over the film, both in terms of how the movie is shot and where the story goes. Part of that is in how this film is the first to really go headlong into being a horror movie, with outright jumpscares and some genuinely grotesque imagery. Originally, Derrickson had planned to do something similar with his version of the film before leaving, which might create a sense that maybe Disney/Marvel wanted something a little tamer than that. If that was their intention, Raimi fairly quickly dispels any notion that this will be a safe film for all ages.

Marvel Studios

Anyone familiar with “The Evil Dead” franchise will be right at home, where some of the creature effects and makeup is taken straight from the aesthetic of those films. For a PG-13 film, this film goes surprisingly hard, with some genuinely gruesome deaths, though I wouldn’t dream of spoiling what that means here. Limbs go flying, heads explode, and all manner of undead creatures pop up to scream at the camera. Many of the action set pieces are visually inventive, with Raimi carefully balancing elements that Derrickson introduced in the first film while also making them his own.

One scene early on shows Strange conjuring spells that use many of the same tricks we saw in “No Way Home,” but then uses wild zooms and quick edits that Raimi is known for. There is a genuine respect for what worked in the first “Doctor Strange” film, while still being its own thing. The idiosyncrasies only increase as the film goes on, where magic is used in ways we’ve never seen before.

Raimi’s energy carries over to everyone else on the crew, especially for the score, where frequent collaborator Danny Elfman gets to do some of the most interesting work he’s done in years.  Time has not slowed down Raimi’s energy or ability to keep a propulsive momentum, which was so much fun, I was grinning like an idiot for almost all of it. 

Lots of Easter eggs!

For those that are unfamiliar with Raimi as a director, there is still plenty to enjoy here. Easter eggs both very big and very small are over this film. The whole affair is greatly enhanced for people who watched “WandaVision,” and have been keeping up with all the arcs so far. So much so that one’s enjoyment of this film in terms of being MCU is largely dependent on doing the homework.

Marvel Studios

While keeping up is to be expected, especially after 28 movies and hours of TV shows, some more casual fans might be completely lost. Not just in terms of what happened previously, but for what some scenes mean in terms of wider impact on the future of the franchise. A lot of what I am talking about is tied directly to spoilers, so I don’t want to go too much into detail.

However, I can safely say that people not intimately familiar with ALL of Marvel Studios’ live-action (and even the animated “Marvel’s What If…?“) releases will likely find themselves lost at one point or another. Some might consider this a flaw, but I disagree- because at least what we are seeing on screen remains interesting and fun, even if it is just a better version of the brand management that plagued “Far From Home.”

The big difference is, again, this feels like a movie that is planned and storyboarded to make things visually unique, even if one might get lost in the plot particulars. The main thing is that it just keeps moving, with only small pauses to do a quick flashback here and there. I could see the experience become overwhelming for some, where the script starts to falter and become an info dump for stretches at a time. There are some lively quips here and there, but they are mostly little punctuations that mostly alleviate the amount of times characters have to outright explain what the hell is happening.

(L-R): Xochitl Gomez as America Chavez, Benedict Wong as Wong, and Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Stephen Strange in Marvel Studios’ DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2022. All Rights Reserved.

Strong performances all around.

Strong performances across the board does a lot to keep those exposition scenes lively, with everyone doing solid work as usual. Benedict Cumberbatch already feels well at home in the role, and is able to handle all the situations he finds himself with aplomb. Benedict Wong also gets plenty of time to shine, given both humor and gravitas while also just looking damn cool. The biggest improvement is in how Rachel McAdams gets a lot more to do here both in terms of action and performance. It is still less than I would like, but at least she isn’t wasted. The MVP by far remains Elizabeth Olsen, who has to do the bulk of the really dramatic stuff.

Marvel Studios

Xochitl Gomez as America Chavez is an engaging presence, and she is able to display a wealth of emotions that help keep her sympathetic, but she also has to spend a lot of time screaming in scenes of peril that can get repetitive. That sense of repetition occurs a couple times in the movie, where you start to see the weaknesses in the story as it has to stop itself and lay breadcrumbs for future movies. While some of these detours are a blast, others can feel a little bit like padding.

There are some elements that could stand to work a little bit better, but to mention those would mean to go into some light spoiler territory. 

An America Chavez not quite like the comics

Multiverse of Madness’s” greatest strength and weakness is how the film just constantly moves. From the first frame, we are right in the middle of the action, where we are first introduced to America Chavez. While the momentum is appreciated, it also puts a lot of weight on America, who has been in the comics for several years now but is probably brand new to most people. Not only is she a new character, but she is essentially what the movie is all about. Villains want her, heroes want to save her, and she spends a lot of the film simply running from one place to the next trying to stay alive. We only get brief glimpses of her life before the film, most notably in a flashback scene that is both interesting and clunky.

Marvel Studios

I am also a little bummed that we only get the barest of mentions about America being an openly queer character, other than the fact that she wears a little pride pin. The story doesn’t really have time to get into romance, so its not a major flaw. But, it is another missed opportunity. It turns out more as lip service representation without following through. (We do see her two moms as a consolation!)

Score: 9.5 out of 10

I really enjoyed the creativity on display throughout “Multiverse of Madness.” Its the closest any of the live action films have gotten to the visual heights of a film like “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” which is still the best comic move out there. There are plenty of surprises for long time fans, and enough energy to carry people that might not be up to date on all the tie-in media. The production design and camerawork is a significant step up, and you really get a sense of how much of a difference it makes to let someone with a strong directorial be behind the camera.

For me, the film was like reuniting with an old friend and getting to remember some good times. I cannot express how overjoyed I am to see one of my favorite filmmakers back in action and not missing a step. Some people might be put off by the go for broke nature of Raimi’s humor and sensibilities, but I think he gave the franchise the shot in the arm it needs to carry it forward for the next chapter of the Marvel saga.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” hits theaters on May 6th, 2022.

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