Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong, Xochitl Gomez. Directed by Sam Raimi.
It has been nine years since Sam Raimi last made a film, thirteen since his last horror, and fifteen since the uneven but still enjoyable Spider-Man 3, his last comic book film. After returning to his horror roots with Drag Me to Hell and then Disney produced prequel Oz the Great and Powerful, Raimi spent his time producing, always teasing what his next movie might be. Now we have it, combining his last three outputs to make a Disney-produced, horror superhero film in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.
Following on from the events of Spider-Man: No Way Home, Dr. Stephen Strange is haunted by nightmares, especially one of a monster killing him and chasing after a young girl. When the girl from his dreams appears, pursued by monsters and talking up the multiverse, Strange and this kid battle with a foe who might be too powerful for the both of them.
It must be said: to begin with, the latest Marvel outing requires lots of homework beforehand. Not only do you need to be up-to-date on all your MCU movies, but having seen WandaVision and a couple of episodes of What If? would also help; not to spoil surprises but even that won’t really help. Needless to say, those who enjoyed that cameo in No Way Home or that guest star in Hawkeye will be thrilled by a few revelations in this movie.
There is a criticism that the Marvel machine chews up creative directors so much that their stamp cannot be seen. Aside from the dutch angle madness of Kenneth Branagh’s first Thor film, it was true that while genre mash-ups were popular, directorial stamps were discouraged. Save for a Ryan Coogler here or a Taika Waititi there, it wasn’t like they had the personality of the director. Fear not, this is no Sam Raimi on manners which arguably his original Spider-Man film was, this is full of circles swipes, whip pans, zooms; everything you’d expect from the man. People are constantly hitting their heads on things. Raimi’s love of a POV shot is used about six times over the course of the film and always to enhance a moment.
It’s not just camera ticks that show Raimi is here, however. A chase through the sewers by a certain character is filled with jump scares, and the climax sees a zombie do battle with monsters and the spirits of the deceased in a manner that looks like it could have been from Evil Dead 2.
Into this mix comes a very game Benedict Cumberbatch. Having been a supporting player for his past four appearances, he’s back in the leading man role and manages to show that hard-ass with a heart of gold that has made him such a valued member of this universe. Both he and fellow Benedict — Wong — have such great chemistry that you could watch the two trade barbs for hours, but when the plot kicks in, almost immediately it does so very well.
Without going into detail, the film has three core women all playing on different elements of Strange’s heart. Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda is corrupted by grief and longing, haunted by dreams of her sons, and hellbent on getting what she wants. The grief, encapsulated by a mysterious spellbook, is one of the emotional cores of the film. She is a slave to her pain and has allowed it to corrupt her.
Meanwhile, Rachel McAdams gets a bigger role this time around than as a love interest as in the first film. This idea of “what if” is what permeates the film. Not just as a means for some fun cameos and some weird visuals but as an emotional core about what a life could have been if emotion ruled instead of ambition or ego. McAdams is still one of the best actresses working and deserves more stuff to do and here shows the depth she can bring to Christine Palmer.
The real standout is franchise newcomer Xochitl Gomez as universe hopping America Chavez. Like many of the newcomers to the universe, she sets herself apart by having strong confidence in her personification. The learning curve and friendship with Strange is one of the highlights of the film. Gomez offers what might be the film’s best performance which is saying something because it’s filled with them.
The film is a little bit “for the fans”, but considering that the fans are pretty much everyone these days, that shouldn’t be a surprise. There’s enough here to intrigue viewers and give rise to a billion theory videos about what will happen next, but as a solo outing this carries the torch of previous films well while exploring both grief and fear in its various forms. Moreover, the score by Danny Elfman mixes classic themes from the first film with new ones to create a soundtrack that is well worth a listen.
The film is much less crowd-pleasing than, say, No Way Home, but it’s brimming with its director’s personality and passion and it’s a rip-roaring adventure.