Director Sam Raimi proves he's still got it with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

click to enlarge Strange days, indeed.
Strange days, indeed.

A flawed film that makes up for its shortcomings with an abundance of flair, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is an experience elevated by the direction of Sam Raimi, who more than proves he still has the chops to bring a surprisingly creative vision to life. While not the director of the original Spider-Man trilogy's best work, which remains 1981's The Evil Dead, his sense of charm shines in a horror-infused kaleidoscope of chaos whose vibrancy is occasionally dulled when its story begins to drag.

Description of said story is best kept to a minimum, though it once again centers on Benedict Cumberbatch's Dr. Stephen Strange, a deeply flawed and often arrogant man whose command of magic is matched only by his propensity for snark. After a bit of a belabored setup, he discovers there is a crisis facing the world that will send him hurtling through the various multiverses. Key to this is the young America Chavez, played by the wonderfully witty Xochitl Gomez, who crashes into our world with a monster in tow. She's become a target as she is the only one who can make the leap between the various universes, an ability that could be used for nefarious purposes if controlled by a familiar face.

Whenever there is a new entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there is a lingering question of how much of a mark the filmmaker will be allowed to leave. In the case of Raimi, who hadn't made a film since 2013, his name alone brought an interest that was tempered with the expectation that inevitable compromises would be made to fit into the franchise filmmaking machine. So it's a pleasant surprise how much of Raimi's distinct vision and panache made it in. He still has to color within the lines, but count me impressed at how refreshing this film manages to be.

From the action scenes that make use of the director's love for slapstick to the gloriously absurd heights it reaches in its conclusion, this may be the most fun a filmmaker's had in working within the MCU. When the film bumps into the narrative guardrails, it is almost always able to bounce away and twist into something interesting. Even a series of cameo appearances that feel shoehorned in for fan service are turned on their head in the unexpected way Raimi (and screenwriter Michael Waldron) takes them, doing so with a wink and a smile.

Is this still a Marvel film through and through with all the baggage that comes with it? Yes. Does it throw said baggage out the window whenever it can? Also yes. This may catch some fans of the franchise off guard. It is about time a director wrongfooted us and our expectations for where this all is going. There is still plenty of connection to the broader story, with the WandaVision series being the clearest one, though there was something profoundly enjoyable about this film just being good on its own terms and not getting too bogged down in setup for other stories to come.

Even as the director correctly prepared us for how this wouldn't have the same freedom as his other works, it is still remarkable for what we did get. Whether it is in the moments where he moves the camera in a flowing manner reminiscent of his early works, to the more deadly and dark sense of humor he has in playing around with light horror, the film is a testament to the importance of letting directors really sink their teeth into MCU material. Even when it feels like he is being held back, Raimi still pulls Multiverse of Madness in intriguing directions through his sheer commitment to the craft. ♦

Three Stars DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS
Rated Rated PG-13
Directed by Sam Raimi
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen, Xochitl Gomez

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