Before I proceed any further, this is a spoiler-free review. That means I won’t be discussing any specific plot points related to Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.
SAM RAIMI IS BACK — one of the two reasons that got me excited over Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. The long-awaited sequel to Scott Derrickson’s 2016 film, where the original helmer didn’t return for the second time around due to creative differences, marks Raimi’s comeback to the director’s chair since 2013’s Oz the Great and Powerful. He is, of course, no stranger to making superhero films, given his prior experience in the original Spider-Man trilogy back in the 2000s. Not only it’s nice to see him back in the game but he also gets to explore his other genre specialities including horror and fantasy.
The second reason is the continuous exploration of the multiverse concept, which was previously seen in Disney+’s MCU series WandaVision, Loki and What If…? and of course, last year’s Spider-Man: No Way Home. The latter certainly made good use of the aforementioned concept, which not only brought back some of Sony’s Spider-Man universe’s major villains but also Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield reprising their roles as Spider-Man.
But I’m still curious about how Raimi would balance between the obligatory Marvel’s house-style formula and his signature filmmaking style without making it feel like a half-baked MCU film (here’s looking at you, Eternals). As for the plot, I’ll just keep it brief over here, where we learn Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) along with the help of current Sorcerer Supreme, Wong (Benedict Wong) and Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) facing a bigger threat involving alternate realities.
The good news is, Marvel boss Kevin Feige wasn’t kidding about having Raimi on board for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness would be something “that will make fans of Evil Dead II very happy.” It contains most of the essential elements that you would come to expect from a Sam Raimi film. Well, at least to a certain extent for the horror parts of the film. Sure, there are a few effective jump scares and macabre moments, complete with several callbacks from the Evil Dead trilogy.
And yet, it’s hard to shake off the feeling that the horror elements prominently promoted in this sequel could have used some boundaries-pushing PG-13 moments. I actually expected Raimi to go all-out, Drag Me to Hell-kind of horror mode in terms of the execution since the aforementioned 2009 film also happened to be rated PG-13. But there are a few occasions where it seems Raimi (or is it the studio’s request?) chooses to hold back before they get too scary for kids and general audiences. I understand it shouldn’t come as a surprise since Marvel films tend to try their best to retain the commercially friendly approach regardless of the intended creative controls given to some of the directors. Still, at this point where MCU has already gone through several phases for over a decade and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is now in the middle of Phase 4, it should be the time for the studio not to get too dependent on the usual formula.
Elsewhere, Raimi’s wildly expressive camerawork is on full display here, where he incorporates the likes of whip pans, extreme close-ups and Dutch tilts to largely satisfying results. Earlier moments where Doctor Strange battles a giant squid monster in the streets of New York showcase Raimi’s impressive technical prowess, particularly in terms of the elaborate choreography. The special effects are both vibrant and inventive — easily among the best I’ve ever seen in a Marvel film. He certainly has good eyes for all things mind-bending visuals that are best experienced on the biggest screen possible (among them which involved Doctor Strange and America Chavez freefalling from one multiverse to another is worth mentioning here).
Speaking of America Chavez, I don’t really care whether her character is Marvel’s first Latin-American lesbian superhero or the fact she is raised by her two mums, where the latter has infamously caused a stir in certain countries. The superpower that enables her to enter different dimensions is actually a fascinating one. But I find Xochitl Gomez, the up-and-coming teenage actress who plays the role is more like a MacGuffin merely used for the sake of accommodating the multiverse-centric plot. In other words, it’s a pity her character doesn’t leave much of a lasting impression — emotionally speaking, that is — to the point where I hardly bother about what happens to her throughout the film.
The same also goes for Rachel McAdams, who reprised her role as Strange’s ex-lover, Christine Palmer. Her appearance feels more like a thankless role, where she clearly deserves better in this sequel. Benedict Cumberbatch delivers his usual charismatic turn as Doctor Strange while Elizabeth Olsen steals most of the show as the increasingly unstable Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch. Benedict Wong gives decent support as Wong, notably during the earlier part of the film but his character seems to be largely neglected later on. Chiwetel Ejiofor returns as Karl Mordo, who was previously seen in the first Doctor Strange but his antagonist role turns out to be a letdown.
Clocking at just two hours (not counting the end credits), Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is briskly paced in most parts with enough visual distractions to keep you occupied. But no matter how fast the pace is, it’s hard to ignore that Michael Waldron’s (of Rick and Morty and Loki fame) screenplay lacks both emotional core and dramatic heft. It’s more of a high-concept fun ride but doesn’t delve deeper into the story development or character arcs.
Likewise, don’t leave your seat just yet since Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness includes not only one but two movie stingers including mid-credits and post-credits scenes.