The last time Sam Raimi made a comic-book movie, nobody had ever heard of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That film was Spider-Man 3, in 2007, the final entry in his trilogy of adventures starring Tobey Maguire as the hero. It seemed like a story at war with itself; the director’s earnest zaniness was bumping up against studio demands for more villains, more plot twists, and more money on the screen. It was a box-office success but underwhelmed critics. A year later, Iron Man and The Dark Knight came along, and the superhero flick truly began its journey to monocultural supremacy.
Raimi has made only two films in the intervening 15 years, so I was both surprised and worried to see him hired to direct Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, the 28th entry in the ever-expanding MCU. Nominally a sequel to 2016’s Doctor Strange, its story has to address plot threads from various other Marvel films and TV shows. How could Raimi, long one of genre cinema’s most individualistic voices, have any hope of cutting loose from the corporate strictures entangling such a project? I shouldn’t have worried. Multiverse of Madness is overstuffed with the usual fan bait, but it’s also undeniably a Sam Raimi movie, and a remarkably good one at that.
How to even begin describing the plot of this film? It picks up after the last Marvel entry, Spider-Man: No Way Home, in which the prickly super-magician Doctor Strange (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) appears, waving his arms around with staccato fury to open portals and alter people’s memories en masse. No Way Home dug into the notion of the “multiverse”—alternate universes where things can feel a little different from our own, where Tobey Maguire or Andrew Garfield could still be the handsome fellow behind the Spider-Man mask instead of Tom Holland.
Somewhat unsettled at the thought of a parallel Earth where, say, people might prefer Velcro on their sneakers over shoelaces, or where doughnuts could exist as a form of fiat currency, Strange bumps into a dimension-hopping teen named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez). She’s unable to control her powers, and she becomes the plucky plot mechanism through which the following wild two hours unfold; Strange and company zap between various universes in search of a way to help America and dodge the uncanny forces chasing her across reality.
If you’re acquainted with the MCU’s deep lore, the many plot contortions required to stretch this movie around No Way Home, the TV show WandaVision, and the rest of the universe will make enough sense. If you have not brushed up on those eldritch texts, it may be harder to understand what the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) is doing here, or just how to explain some of the shocking cameos that arise later in the action. A casual fan of Marvel movies might have even forgotten that great actors such as Rachel McAdams, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Michael Stuhlbarg are all part of the Doctor Strange–verse. They all show up to collect their paychecks and try to fit into the chaos.
During the first half hour of Multiverse of Madness, I squirmed in my seat, urging the film to yada-yada the static, requisite scenes in which a bunch of characters sit down to explain exactly what is happening, and who is where, and which magic doohickey will undo various evil spells, and so forth. But once the dimension-hopping kicked off, Raimi’s goofy, morbid sense of humor started to assert itself on-screen, and Multiverse of Madness settled into a far more satisfying rhythm.
Since emerging as one of the original kings of indie horror with The Evil Dead in 1981, Raimi’s been known for visual innovation onscreen. His camera is a character of its own, with shots that lurch, zoom across rooms, and crash into actors’ faces with anarchic impunity. He’s never been afraid of mixing genuine frights with Looney Tunes silliness, pitting his heroes against vicious zombies and then having them fight cackling miniature versions of themselves. His Spider-Man films triumphed because they embraced the kooky poppiness of ’60s Stan Lee comics; earnest maxims about heroic responsibility transitioned to action scenes that were lit and shot like classic MGM musicals.
Those Spider-Man movies (2 remains the apex) felt bold on release, but they’re even more of a delightful throwback now because most recent comic-book films are suffused with canned CGI action that feels depressingly homogenous no matter the property. Raimi conjures all kinds of bizarre things to throw at Strange and company—hallucinations of a literal storm in a teacup; a battle waged in which two characters throw musical notes at each other, which explode with symphonic bangs; and a cloud of snarling demon puppets that look to be summoned right out of the DIY spirit of Raimi’s Army of Darkness from decades past.
Across his many Marvel appearances, Cumberbatch has alternated between playing the know-it-all Strange as a stuffy prig and a more mischievous wisecracker, but Raimi helps him strike the right chord—befuddled, brusque but caring, and struggling to stay just one step ahead of anyone around him. Raimi and the film’s screenwriter, Michael Waldron, make a Herculean effort to convince audiences that Strange and his ex-girlfriend Christine Palmer (McAdams) have a romance that transcends universes, despite the fact that she was quite a nonentity in the last movie, and it just about works, thanks to the strength of the casting.
Describing Multiverse of Madness involves writing around so much—even revealing the film’s central villain would be a spoiler, though far more intriguing plot twists are buried in the final act. But I didn’t go into the movie worried that the MCU would fail to set up the necessary beats for further sequels and spin-offs; that’s old hat for the producer/honcho Kevin Feige. What surprised me about Multiverse of Madness was how much fun Raimi was allowed to have in the middle of it, turning every action sequence into something quite inventive and even delivering some cheeky scares throughout. This many years into the Marvel experiment, I’m heartened to see space for a real genre auteur amid all the multiversal machinations.