de facto film reviews 3 stars

There are few things that can tickle the anticipation of both film buffs and general moviegoers than the announcement of renowned filmmaker/Detroit native Sam Raimi returning to the superhero genre, now joining the MCU. Seeing the visionary filmmaker, who helped changed the Hollywood landscape with his massively successful Spider-Man trilogy, return to the genre he helped fine tune for the gargantuan success it is today, is something to celebrate, not only for how distinct his style is, but how that style comes through in a genre that feels more increasingly devoid of personality, apart from some exceptions. Stepping in after the departure of original filmmaker Scott Derrickson, Sam Raimi proves his genre sensibilities are, indeed, a blessing in disguise as the Evil Dead filmmaker crafts what is really the first ever horror film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

In a surprising turn of events, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, amusingly named after the classic HP Lovecraft story, which was later used as the inspiration for the John Carpenter film, In the Mouth of Madness, is more in line with the Evil Dead 2/Army of Darkness Raimi than the Spider-Man Raimi. Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, coming off a career defining performance in Jane Campion’s Oscar-winning The Power of the Dog) is plagued by nightmares of an alternative universe since the events of Spider-Man: No Way Home. Strange, along with Wong (Benedict Wong), crosses paths with America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a teenager with the ability to jump throughout the multiverse. Chavez is being hunted for her abilities, only to discover that Wanda Maximoff/Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), still mourning the death of Vision and haunted by her mounting grief, is the one hunting her. This leads to a battle across the multiverse to protect the young girl and to prevent Wanda from using her ever-growing dark magic to destroy the very fabric of reality.

This is the most a director in the MCU has been allowed to infuse their sense of personality save for maybe James Gunn. Written by Michael Waldron (Rick and Morty, Loki), the film is aggressively fast paced, almost thankfully so as the film moves so quick, leaving the audience very little time to question the logic within the narrative. This is the kind of narrative that works as you’re watching it, but upon sitting and parsing through it, doesn’t entirely hold up. Much of the first hour is relegated to MCU housekeeping, fit with surprise cameos and hitting the typical Marvel beats, albeit with that Sam Raimi spin. There’s a disjointed sense to the plot that feels like chunks were heavily reshot and re-tooled; if you’re expecting this to act like a true sequel to the first Doctor Strange, you’ll be surprised as to how many plot threads and arcs this film leaves behind.

Whatever the script lacks in creativity — which is quite often, using many opportunities to explore the different words in the multiverse to little things like traffic stopping on a green light and going on the red light — Raimi makes up for in his idiosyncratic shot compositions and distinct visuals. While the inevitable comparisons to the recent indie smash hit Everything Everywhere all at Once don’t do this film any favors, it does go to show just how more original and unique that films ideas on multiverse shenanigans are.

It’s a little over the halfway point where it feels like Kevin Feige and the heads of Marvel give Raimi full reign to open up his bag of tricks, and his uses them with gleeful joy. This is also where the film fully comes alive. Yes, the hearts of die-hard Raimi fans will flutter with his usage of dutch angles, snap zooms and intricate camerawork. While there aren’t as many trippy, psychedelic visuals compared to Derrickson’s first film, Raimi, instead, emphasizes the more overt horror elements. There are numerous endlessly creative, highly intense and atmospheric sequences punctuated by surprisingly grisly spurts of violence. The final act almost literally becomes a haunted house spookshow, full of gothic imagery of ghouls and demons, and actually feels like the big budget spiritual successor to Army of Darkness. There is an elaborate battle using music in a unique fashion, allowing composer Danny Elfman is give some of his best work in over a decade.

If you haven’t seen Wandavision, I highly recommend watching or reading a recap, which does beg the question as to whether audiences who come to these films for escapism are going to become increasingly fed up with having to do homework in regards to understanding these films on a narrative level. Are we really going to force audiences to watch every single Marvel show out there to simply understand what is happening in these films?

Elizabeth Olsen, who gave perhaps her best body of work in Wandavision, begins this film as a compelling, layered character that makes the pivot into becoming a full-fledged villain, who is not only heartbreaking, but genuinely menacing when the film calls for it. Which is why it’s such a disappointment the character eventually turns into a routine Marvel villain by the end, leaving her character arc feeling unfulfilled.

Benedict Cumberbatch clearly revels in the opportunity to go full-Bruce Campbell in playing multiple versions of Doctor Strange, ranging from good, evil, to even possibility undead. Rachel McAdams returns with far more to do here than in the first film. Her character’s relationship with Strange is further explored and does add some welcoming depth to the film, even if it is brief. The character of America Chavez is disappointingly thin, despite the solid performance from Xochitl Gomez. The role is written in a way that emphasizes exposition and dictating the plot as opposed to feeling like a real, layered character.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness has for more personality and visual grandeur than most MCU films. Hardcore fans will likely take issue with some inconsistencies with several characters and there is an abundance of missed opportunities. Still, whatever the film lacks on a narrative level, is made up for by Sam Raimi’s limitless creativity and unparalleled craft. This feels like a Sam Raimi movie more so than a traditional Marvel movie, and we’re all better off for it.