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Sam Raimi returns to his horror roots to fight against MCU sameness


Rachel McAdams, Benedict Cumberbatch and Xochitl Gomez in Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness - MARVEL STUDIOS
  • Marvel Studios
  • Rachel McAdams, Benedict Cumberbatch and Xochitl Gomez in Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness
We know what a Sam Raimi superhero movie looks like. We know what a Marvel Studios superhero movie looks like. The real question, then, was what would a Sam Raimi Marvel Studios superhero movie look like?

If Raimi’s original Spider-man trilogy didn’t literally kick off the 21st century’s Age of the Comic-Book Movie—X-Men beat it to the punch by a couple of years in proving the box-office appeal of lesser-known costumed characters—it certainly set a standard for both creative and financial success. Raimi brought his gonzo kineticism to stories that ultimately felt human, allowing them to be almost corny in their emotional beats. Yet even as the Marvel Cinematic Universe looked to those movies as a model for what was possible, the individual humanity of the MCU entries has since become far less important than keeping the machine rolling. So as Raimi returns after 15 years to the world of filmed splash pages for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, it was reasonable to wonder which paradigm would win out. Is it a Raimi movie? Is it a Marvel movie? Could it actually somehow be both?

The Marvel side is certainly on display as Multiverse pulls from the long-running saga’s other chapters, though not so much the similarly multiverse-focused Spider-man: No Way Home. Here, master of the mystic arts Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) discovers a threat to multiple realities that centers on America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a young woman with the power to cross between universes. Some mysterious force wants to use that power for its own ends, and for help, Strange reaches out to Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), still mostly in isolation while grieving for Vision and the life she imagined into existence for herself in the Disney+ WandaVision miniseries.

Wanda’s desire to find a happy version of herself somewhere in the multiverse forms one of the story’s pivot points, along with Strange’s mourning for the lost opportunity with his beloved Christine (Rachel McAdams). In theory, either or both of these subplots could create the same emotional hook that Raimi found in the Peter/Mary Jane relationship from the Spider-man films, but the script by Michael Waldron (Loki) never quite finds that feeling in the same way. Instead of treating heartaches with earnestness, Multiverse feels like it approaches them with calculation.

That’s because it feels impossible at this point for the Marvel movies to exist within themselves fully. Because they’re always looking to the next chapter, or making sure they reference the previous one, they’re like someone incapable of living in the moment; they’re not movies that are fully present. They work within their formula because the formula works, even when you can practically set your watch by the point in the third act when a bunch of CGI laser beams are going to interact with a bunch of other CGI laser beams. It doesn’t help that Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange is among the iciest of the MCU residents, even if that’s by design. What’s left is basically just an action movie—a well-crafted action movie, sure, but just an action movie.

Except that in this case, you do actually get a Sam Raimi movie too, if not in the way that might have been expected from his Spider-man saga. Instead, this feels like Raimi the Evil Dead horror maestro, rubbing his hands gleefully when he gets to bring zombies and crazy deaths into the mix. From a visual standpoint, there are plenty of genuinely Raimi touches, like montages that employ layered images and funky editing rhythms—and, blessedly, an appearance by Raimi’s muse Bruce Campbell. This is also a movie that sometimes really gets creepy, wriggling free of a certain corporate sameness to deliver a Raimi-esque moment like shrieking spirits that Doctor Strange uses for … an unexpected purpose.

That’s not nothing, and maybe it’s as much as should realistically be hoped for. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness finds fun when you can see that auteur spirit, rather than the “fun” in air-quotes of a corporate product. If it’s not likely we’ll ever get freewheeling, heart-on-their-sleeve superhero movies like those original Spider-man features ever again, at least we can get a Marvel movie made by the Sam Raimi who made weird movies before Spider-man.

Benedict Cumberbatch
Elizabeth Olsen
Rachel McAdams
Rated PG-13
Available May 6 in theaters