Movie Review: Sam Raimi Lends Vision to DOCTOR STRANGE 2
The first Doctor Strange, directed by Scott Derrickson in 2016, was great.
At a time when people were screaming “superhero fatigue” and every superpowered cinematic showdown seemed to end with a giant beam of light in the sky, the first Strange did something different. Cumberbatch proved to be perfect casting, bringing the sorcerer to life in a way that he appeared to leap off the page. It felt fresh, was well-written, and exciting.
Flash forward to January 2020, with a sequel already announced and fans excited for more adventures with the would-be Sorcerer Supreme (a title that went to Wong on a technicality after the events of Endgame), and the film loses its director over creative differences.
That was the bad news. The good news? If anyone was going to replace him, how could you not get excited about it being Sam Raimi?
Raimi’s last Marvel film was Spider-Man 3 in 2007 – a film I might add, that still holds up and was undeservingly maligned back when it was released (the dance scene was supposed to be cringy, get over it). This was before plans for the MCU were set into motion, and with Sony owning the rights, the web-slinger was kept separate until a deal was worked out nearly a decade later.
So here we are in 2022, with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness finally released in theaters. The plot is more a continuation of the Marvel shows on Disney Plus than what we saw in the first film. It is a good idea to have seen WandaVision already, but the film does a decent job of catching the audience up in the beginning – it might just not have as big of an impact.
Doctor Strange (Cumberbatch) is having bad dreams that turn out to be visions from the multiverse, where an alternate version of himself has teamed up with America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) to defeat demons possessed by an evil form of magic. Meanwhile, Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) is struggling with an enormous loss (see WandaVision) when Strange approaches her for help defeating the evil forces at play. This leads our heroes on a journey through the multiverse to track down the Book of Vishanti, which holds the knowledge to give the sorcerer whatever he needs to defeat the threat to the entire multiverse.
I’m going to get this out of the way – there are no “bad” films in the MCU. The least interesting ones are forgettable at their worst, but better than so many attempts at telling superhero that came before them. What is also true, is that a lot of them blend together when it comes to their style. Thanks to Kevin Feige and his successful planning, the thing that makes the films so profitable is also what makes them predictable – and only a few truly stand out with a distinct artistic vision (I’d day the first Captain America, the Guardians films, Ragnarok, Iron Man 3, and now both Doctor Strange films).
Although it feels that his hands were a bit tied, there is no mistaking that Multiverse of Madness is a Sam Raimi film. Any fan of The Evil Dead or Army of Darkness could tell you he directed the movie without any prior knowledge. The director’s fingerprints are all over the film, from his trademark POV shots to the close-ups and tilted camera angles – and the way he films his jump scares. The best moments of the film were the times Raimi was allowed to do what he does best. There is no question, that this is a horror film – albeit a PG-13 one. However, it pushes the rating more than any other film before it in the MCU, and gives quite a few scary moments that are a lot of fun.
Now for the bad news: the film is a bit of a mess at times. Re-writes, reshoots, and a 2 hour and 40 min film cut down to barely over 2 hours (according to Raimi) cause it to feel like there is something missing. Don’t get me wrong, it is entertaining (I’ve seen it twice at this point, and will go back for a third time by the end of the weekend), but as the credits rolled, it had me wishing it was more. The beginning of the film feels rushed – although there is a fun fight early on with a tentacled demon monster that feels more like a comic book than most MCU showdowns. But once we get into the multiverse stuff – which is a big selling point of the film – there isn’t really much that happens there. They only really explore two alternate realities with any depth, and we barely get a flash of the others (they are fun, but more of a quick gag and then gone). It would have been nice to spend more time in the multiverse during a film that has it in the title.
There are also so many films tied together at this point, and a huge collection of superheroes, that it feels odd not to tie more of them into the story. I understand it is a balancing act, and you don’t want the film to be bloated (it certainly is not – and actually moves at such a quick pace that maybe it should slow down at times). However, it also feels like the stakes are kind of low compared to what came before it, and very little to no questions are answered. On the one hand, it is nice to have a self-contained story. But on the other, there are several other characters who already tie into Doctor Strange and Wanda that you might keep asking yourself – where are they?
The performances in the film are solid. Cumberbatch is as closely attached to Strange as RDJ was to Iron Man, and I can’t imagine anyone else in the role. Xochitl Gomez is great as America Chavez, a newcomer to the MCU. I can’t speak to how comics-accurate the character is, but her introduction and portrayal here are welcomed. Benedict Wong is terrific as always playing Wong, and gets more to do here than in other films – which is fun.
Elizabeth Olsen has the most heavy-lifting to do when it comes to the heart of the story, probably even more so than Cumberbatch. I’m a huge fan of the actor, and can’t give her enough praise for her performance in WandaVision. Although she is very good at times here (especially when she is going full-Terminator in one scene I won’t spoil the context of), at other times it veers too much into the melodrama. There are certainly explanations for the motivations of her character, but the line delivery – punched up with some real “dun, dun duuuun!” notes from the score, comes off a bit hoaky and out of place. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. It hurts me to say it, but as good as she is – this is not her best work. Although her action scenes are fantastic, especially one towards the end.
Chiwetel Ejiofor is also back as Mordo (he’s on the poster), and there are several cameos that I can’t reveal here – where the actors do a good job given what they have to work with. Part of me feels like they are unnecessary fan service, while the other part of me loves the way they are handled by Raimi – so they ultimately get a pass in my book.
Thanks to Raimi’s unique visual style, and paired with Danny Elfman’s score that goes quite hard more than a few times, there are some really fun action setpieces. There is also a ritual in the film that simultaneously takes place between two universes, and mashes up the visuals while paired with Elfman’s “A Cup of Tea” which is one of my favorite sequences of the year. There is also one of the most unique fights in all of Marvel movies during the third act, set to the composer’s “Lethal Symphonies” which is so cool. Watching Raimi and Elfman work together brings back all the memories of how good the original Spider-Man trilogy is, and I hope we get to see more of them in the MCU.
At the end of the day, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness offers an entertaining couple of hours at the theater. The film doesn’t feel all that consequential in the grand scheme of things, but there is enough action and uniqueness at play that it certainly is a worthwhile watch. I loved seeing Raimi’s trademark style at play, however, it only makes me wish Disney would have let him unleash his full potential. With that being said, I give them credit for letting him go as dark as they did. They push the PG-13 rating pretty far, and it is probably best to keep kids 10 and under at home. But it does make a great entry point to horror for teens.