By Matthew Moorcroft
- Directed by Sam Raimi
- Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen, Xochitl Gomez, Rachel McAdams
As the Marvel Cinematic Universe grows larger and larger, there is a temptation to constantly get bigger and bigger in terms it’s stories. And why wouldn’t you? After the entire universe gets snapped away and brought back in a mega-huge, $4 billion total smash hit double-feature event, the sky is seemingly the limit. But as we’ve seen before with even the Marvel comics these are based on, if you get too big then there is the potential to get bloated to the point where it becomes too hard to follow and too dense to ultimately care.
With the rise of multiverses in cinema right now (hell, the best movie of the year is a multiverse movie, albeit not this one) and the MCU starting to branch into streaming with episodic storytelling, it’s a genuine fear that eventually it’s gonna come crashing down. And while there is always that fear, the Marvel machine is a smartly designed Jenga puzzle – move on piece and the entire structure (mostly) stays intact.
And this belief is why, and probably wisely so, that the highly anticipated Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness actually aims smaller and more contained then expected, and likely for the best. With schlock horror maestro Sam Raimi at the helm, Multiverse of Madness is a dizzying, wildly fun horror adventure romp that manages to keep things light and on it’s feet in the realm of darker then usual subject matter for the studio. It’s spooky haunted house and gothic influences manage to give this Strange it’s own identity separated from Derrickson’s more clinical and matter-of-fact approach to the material, one that takes it’s cues more openly from the Lovercraftian trenches of Strange’s more surreal, odd depths.
If you haven’t seen WandaVision, which considering this movie you likely should going into it, when we last off with Wanda Maximoff she was searching the multiverse for her children with the Darkhold – a deadly book of unthinakble evil and power. This film picks up in that aftermath pretty much right away and showcases the consequences of her meddling, and her arc is as compelling as it is a unique turn for such a character – it’s rare to see a hero turn villain in franchise material instead of the other way around but it makes Wanda a one of a kind antagonist within the realm of big budget filmmaking. Fitting for the horror tones that Raimi is clearly going for here, she’s an unstoppable force of nature and more similar to the witch powers of Drag Me to Hell then anything from prior MCU fare.
And that’s the saving grace and the key component to Multiverse of Madness’ ultimate success as a film. While other MCU projects can be good to even fantastic, Raimi fully commits to making the film his own and throughout his touches are everywhere. The camera spins around, the violence is shockingly gnarly, and it treats it’s characters with a sincere winking nod that doubles down on the cheese but in ways that feel like it was lifted off of the pages. Even if Raimi never comes back to do more this is a fine achievement and deserving of all of the love he will surely get for his big return to the director’s chair.
But the real MVP of the bunch might honestly be newcomer Xochitl Gomez as multiverse jumper America Chavez, whose emotional arc is the heart of the film and highlights how well that, at his core, Raimi knows basic story structure better then 95% of people in the business. His Stephen Strange in particular is a nicer, kinder version then seen in other movies but there is a sense that his actions have humbled him and Raimi plays into that to great effect. “Are you happy?” indeed – it’s telling the big final climax is a scaled down affair in favour of an emotional cartharsis, even if we do the standard big final setpiece that Marvel likes to do, and it’s fun! Raimi knows how to direct action and this is some of his best work in a while on that front, though it’s hard to beat the train sequence in Spider-Man 2 for obvious reasons.
And while it’s hard to say on whether or not the film as a whole is exactly perfect – it’s certainly messier then I think some fans would want and while it’s cameo appearances are certainly fun and used well it’s there strictly as fanservice, especially when compared to how effectively Spider-Man: No Way Home used them. But it’s also quintessentially Raimi in it’s messiness, and his directorial efforts have always felt like they were cobbled together with duct tape and some glue. If anything, Multiverse of Madness is his most polished big budget effort in nearly 20 years, zipping with ease from the next big setpiece to the next and not really caring what anybody else thinks. Raimi clearly sees the film as a playground to do whatever he so pleases and he uses that to his fullest advantage here.
Ultimately your mileage will vary on whether or not Multiverse of Madness was worth the long wait and year long setup, but for me personally I could not have had it another way. It’s the romp to end all romps, a refreshingly small scale blast of a time that is more focused on spooking you out then it is on delivering big teases of what is to come. And in a realm where the universe machine keeps on trucking, that’s a special thing we should cherish and demand more of, especially when it’s a director lovingly and painstakingly putting his name on something. Long live Sam Raimi.