Sam Raimi’s “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” is just barely a Raimi film, and it’s a big problem.
While the film’s producers and entertainment sites are heralding the giant box office and some of claiming this is The Best Marvel Movie Ever (until the next one), few are considering that Raimi, one of the most innovative filmmakers of the late 20th century whose films are consistently enjoyable and occasionally brilliant, is working here as a director for hire.
Far worse, there are traces of Raimi throughout the latest Doctor Strange entry, but this is an artist restrained, working for a giant money machine, akin to a five-star chef hired to work at Subway. If you’re fine with that, then you’ve never eaten at Subway.
The films begins in the midst of a giant spectacle, as Strange (still played by Benedict Cumberbatch, whose bad American accent is growing on me) and the mysterious America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) are bouncing around floating platforms, in a space between worlds, the first of many robotic action scenes that resemble antic video games.
The Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) is still at large, now a threat and can possess the body of her former self.
I’m not a fan of “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” to put it mildly. Memories of it consist mostly of whirling, swirling CGI, omnipresent in nearly every scene, actors giving glib, half-there performances and a smug helping of fan service in lieu of proper storytelling.
To put it mildly, the still-in-theaters “Everything Everywhere All At Once” is worlds better than this, equally staggering in its ideas and ability to visualize the impossible, but also able to emotionally engage and explore issues that can’t be resolved by walking through a magical portal.
Yes, I understood the plot of “Madness,” though I found it annoying that the movie (and Disney, in particular) demand that you not only have seen every single Marvel movie prior, but also Disney+’s “Wanda Vision” and be familiar with classic characters who are tossed onscreen for the first time with big name actors confirming years-long internet rumors.
It’s a lot to ask of a viewer. This isn’t a multiverse, it’s a Corporate-Verse.
You don’t need a Cloak of Levitation but you sure as hell need a Disney+ subscription and hours and hours of spare time to follow everything. This is why origin stories still work best, as its Once Upon a Time, not And Then THIS Happened!
Among the moments here that were especially baffling is how the corpse of a dead character from another universe has been lugged atop a New York skyrise, just to be buried moments later. Or how a single member of an army of sorcerers can be so easily spooked by Scarlet Witch. Or pondering how long it will take before Hot Topic makes a T-shirt with this oft-repeated keeper: “I’m not a Monster…I’m a Mother” (coincidentally, the movie opened on Mother’s Day weekend, a weird synergy).
There’s also the scene of an Illuminati meeting, which begins with the buzz of a half dozen surprise reveals but winds up feeling like weirdly overlong cameo appearance convention, which overstays its welcome.
I won’t spoil anything but want to note that the biggest name in this sequence (and the movie, it turns out) is giving a morose performance without any context, about as fun as meeting a rock star legend on a bad day.
One of the rare touches of wisdom on hand: there’s no reprise of Tilda Swinton’s absurd miscasting as The Ancient One. I enjoyed the tumble through a flurry of wild-looking Multiverses, though have to grouse that, instead of settling on the most interesting looking ones, much of the film is set in an alternate New York with lots more trees.
Big deal. New York with more trees is just Denver in the summertime.
Meanwhile, Rachel McAdams, Michael Stuhlbarg and Chiwetel Ejiofor, all terrific elsewhere, are still wasting their time in this franchise, literally standing around and spouting exposition. I like Marvel movies, but a common flaw is how they often waste the time of overqualified actors (such as Idris Elba or Annette Bening).
This brings us back to Raimi, whose prior film was also a Disney behemoth, the 2013 hit and miss “Oz the Great and Powerful.” Despite the director’s name appearing here and only once in the end credits, deeming this “a Sam Raimi movie,” that is, at best, a sign of optimism.
Would it be out of the question to just call it a Kevin Feige Enterprise or a Disney/Marvel Production?
There are moments here that visually and tonally reflect Raimi’s trademark innovations, but there’s not nearly enough of them (and no, Bruce Campbell’s embarrassing cameo appearance, the dumbest since Dan Aykroyd popped up as a cab driver in the 2016 “Ghostbusters,” is not a highpoint).
“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” is every bit as bombastic, corporation-driven and heartless as Raimi’s “Spider-Man 3,” which was also a giant box office hit but creatively unsteady.
It’s especially disappointing that the new film doesn’t work, when you consider it’s been 20 years since Raimi’s 2002 “Spider-Man” (along with the 2000 “X-Men”) helped kicked the comic book genre as an event movie into first gear.
Yet, Raimi has often stepped away from making his trademark films, notably returning only intermittently to “The Evil Dead” (in the form of directing the “Ash Versus the Evil Dead” pilot and producing the excellent 2013 Fede Alvarez remake).
He’s spent nearly a decade stretching himself, making (to name a few) a baseball drama (“For the Love of the Game”), a western (“The Quick and the Dead”) and a neo-noir (“A Simple Plan,” Raimi’s masterpiece). It’s fun to witness Raimi’s occasionally use of soaring camera moves, sound manipulations and nods at genre in the latest Doctor Strange entry.
Yet, there’s also moments of his trademark cinematic genius in “Crimewave” (1986), the post- original “Evil Dead” farce that was brutally altered by its studio and subsequently disowned by Raimi.
Marvel movies are reliably enjoyable but only a few of them offer the voice of their filmmakers, coming off as expensive projects that require fidelity to the Marvel mission over any expression of a directorial voice. A few managed to rise above this, particularly Ryan Coogler (“Black Panther”), James Gunn (the “Guardians of the Galaxy” films), Shane Black (“Iron Man 3”), Taika Waititi (“Thor Ragnarok”) and Destin Daniel Cretton (“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”) but most directors of these films have their voices, cinematic and otherwise, entirely muzzled in favor of franchise requirements.
Good luck finding, for example, anything more than a whiff of Kenneth Branagh’s distinctly theatrical touches to “Thor” (2011).
Now that the boffo box office has declared “Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness” a no-surprise blockbuster, all the previous mentions that this was formerly a Scott Derrickson film and that, according to several sources, “most of” the film was re-shot, have vanished like a bystander of a Thanos finger snap.
Who cares if this Raimi-lite, when you’ve got Phase Four of the MCU to worry about, right? Wrong.
“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” is an overcooked turkey (albeit a bursting at the seams, money-making turkey) and pulling Raimi into this mess doesn’t justify its many missteps, both on screen and preestablished in a Disney boardroom.
I’m giving “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” One and a Half Stars (out of five). On the other hand, lets end on a positive note:
Here are five essential Sam Raimi movies: “A Simple Plan” (1998), “Darkman” (1990), “Army of Darkness” (1993), “The Gift” (2000), “Evil Dead II” (1986) and “The Quick and the Dead” (1995).
Raimi is an artist in any universe, let’s hope he makes it out alive of the Marvel Multiverse soon.