DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS REVIEW: SAM RAIMI BRINGS HORROR TO THE MCU

Too many years have gone by since Stephen Strange has gotten his own movie. Six years have gone by since we met Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange in his first solo film, the longest for any MCU sequel. While Strange has been put to use it has been unfortunate to see him used as a mere plot device to bigger things (Infinity War, No Way Home). Thankfully his long awaited second outing has been given to one of the most exciting directors to ever touch the medium. Enter Sam Raimi, the frenetic and goofy filmmaker who gave us the original Spider-Man film franchise starring Tobey Maguire and added great life to the comic book movie genre that even allowed the MCU to exist in the first place. While the Marvel mega producers have taken in some great directors over the years they very rarely have given them such creative freedom to express their own unique style. Thankfully this isn’t the case for Raimi. Honestly it would be hard to tell the man that got Spider-Man to gross over 114 million on it’s opening weekend back in 2002 to stick to the formula. But what does this mean for Doctor Strange and that pesky multiverse that has rearranged the future of this whole franchise? It means things are about to get out of hand in the best way possible.

Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) has regrets. Sure he saved the world choosing what he claims was the one outcome that would help everyone, but when he attends the wedding of his lost love Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) he is reminded that his actions have consequences that no magic can heal. It also doesn’t help that a mysterious young girl named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez a delightful newcomer) is on the run from a powerful enemy that wants to harbor her powers. What are those powers, well the ability to open portals and jump across the multiverse. Strange never one to want to hang out with children seeks out Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) to help guide him and his fellow sorcerer (Sorcerer Supreme to be exact) Wong (Benedict Wong) get Chavez to safety. The story does a great job at reminding us that Strange now always wants to do the right thing even if it means acting all to quickly and for his benefit. This selfishness disguised as bravery allows him to be blind to the fact that Wanda has been playing with dark magic since her run on WandaVision and it appears that she is the one after Chavez. Thus begins the longest chase scene in MCU history, an entire film’s length actually. Multiverse of Madness is 2 hours of Strange and Chavez doing everything in their powers to outrun a monster. While a villain chasing heroes doesn’t sound all that original or even exciting the script (penned solely by Michael Waldron) reminds us that Wanda’s reasonings are hard to argue with. She knows her children Billy and Tommy (Julian Hilliard and Jett Klyne) are real and out in other universes. She so desperately wants to be connected with them again. It’s a universal feeling of a mother’s love for a child that many can get behind making it all the harder to see Wanda do some truly terrifying and horrific things to get there. Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda continues to be the best casting choice since Downey Jr, even when previous films underutilized her, Olsen always found a way to show off her unique ability to squeeze out every bit of empathy from the audience. Wanda has been through hell and back and Olsen has never let us forget it. Following her Emmy nominated performance in WandaVision where she got to be happy for a moment or two it’s just as exciting to see Olsen play full on horror film monster. Raimi has allowed this film to carry some of his stylistic choices from his classic film Evil Dead and one of those is Olsen’s portrayal of Wanda as if she was possessed by some book of the dead; and that’s because she is. Olsen is having a blast and even in some of the more violent scenes you still get to see an actress throw herself around and fully commit and as the audience we really feel the bond between actress and character.

Even when the script tends to veer off and become the Wanda show we are reminded that this a Doctor Strange movie first and foremost.  Strange regardless of universes has many things to come to terms with, but still his loss of Palmer shapes everything he does in every form he finds himself in. Cumberbatch has become so familiar in this role that it almost feels like whiplash when there’s new development. Gone is the snarky jerk using sarcasm to hide the pain. Instead it’s just a man with magic no longer able to hide any ounce of pain. He’s tired of running and even more so tired of bumping into different variations of people constantly telling him he’s to blame for worlds falling apart. Now I wouldn’t dare spoil who or what Strange comes across but one thing is for sure all of it works and for the first time in a long time very little of it feels forced. This isn’t a film full of “look at who they got” or “I get that reference” but instead a bigger world building that comes with any comic book. As we approach 30 movies of the MCU new characters and actors may be expected in each film but Multiverse of Madness is the first to let the story bring in new faces as opposed to letting new faces dictate the story.

It’s also a shame that this film is coming out for the summer as it would be an absolute blast come Halloween time being a true horror film for beginners. Many young viewers watching this may have no idea what the Evil Dead franchise is and most likely they’ve never seen the underrated Drag Me to Hell. Thankfully they will get an awesome introduction into the mind of Raimi here. The film holds many choices that are a first for MCU but one of them has to be some truly haunting images. Even if it doesn’t hold the watch through your fingertips elements it still has moments that include evil possessions, books of the dead, and tons of candlelit spell casting. It might not be 1981 anymore but Multiverse is Evil Dead’s superhero cousin for sure. It may know its mega studio limitations but it will still try at every angle and succeed at most. Credit to whoever (Kevin Feige most likely) allowed Raimi to take some bizarre choices resulting in some very tongue in cheek battle sequences that put Danny Elfman’s score to excellent use.

Multiverse of Madness attempts a lot and while it succeeds at giving a self contained story there are moments that get lost in the mix. Xochitl Gomez is a welcome addition and while she will have plenty of time to develop her character, America Chavez’s entirety gets reduced to one moment of backstory. It’s enough to to make us care and return for more but that shouldn’t be the case. There is plenty of time to create fully fleshed arcs in one movie. Wong gets more screen time but once again Benedict Wong still gets underutilized and deserves to show off his amazing talents that he gets to utilize in other films over the last serval years. Visually some early moments fall into the usual CGI eyesore but picks up as things get more peculiar. It’s great to see a monster attack a city and actually see streets full of people as opposed to the empty streets and upstate New York fields we have gotten lately. Maybe Raimi should have came on board a long time ago to give us that special old school feel. Or maybe this was the perfect moment. There’s no precise answer, but now that the MCU is one giant advertisement it’s nice to see some outings can still care to try and stand on their own. Even if they are just jumping off points for some stories and placeholders for others, Raimi reminds us that not only can these movies still have fun but also they can be unique. In a world of infinite possibilities Raimi has chosen the one outcome that unlike Strange might actually save us all.

A-

DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS WILL BE RELEASED IN THEATERS EVERYWHERE MAY 6

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