In front of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, director Sam Raimi had not made a feature film in almost a decade. But more alarmingly, he had not made a Sam Raimi Film sûnt since 2009, when he took a step back from big-budget blockbusters and returned to his roots with Drag Me to Hell.
Go into Doctor Strange 2, the 28th movie in the increasingly depressing Marvel Cinematic Universe, I had assumed this was purely a director-to-hire gig for him. After all, he was quite literally a replacement (the first film Scott Derrickson would return, but he dropped out due to creative differences). And Raimi, a product of the ’80s DIY generation of filmmakers, had been largely out of action for decades following his industry-changing Spider-Man trilogy. So, even though he had helped cultivate the cinematic landscape that we now see in full bloom, he was no longer watering it with new films.
With tempered expectations – I’ve long been wary of Marvel’s assembly line approach to filmmaking – I sat down to watch Doctor Strange 2, which in its opening act confirmed my worst fears. Not only do the first few scenes require you to have done quite a bit of homework before watching them, they are visually ugly and extremely mechanical in their writing. The cold opening of Doctor Strange 2 does not bode well for the rest of the film. It puts you right in the middle of a fantastic action scene so artificial that I began to wonder if the hair in Dr. Strange’s beard is also computer-generated. Then squeeze in some complicated backstory and throw another CGI heavy fighting scene at you. Addiction.
About the decline in the visual quality of these films, a direct correlation can be made at the point when Marvel started filming its projects on Atlanta sound stages as opposed to real-world locations. For example, parts of the first Doctor Strange movie were filmed in Nepal; I do not think I could identify one on-location sequence in the whole of Doctor Strange 2. So, you can imagine how strange it was for a filmmaker like Raimi – a man with a certain affinity for in-camera tricks – to step into Marvel’s boring standardized sandbox.
But against all odds, after that rather disappointing first action, glimmers of Raimi’s style became visible through the Marvel muck. In addition to a plot that includes a book of spells, a real witch, and dozens of undead soldiers – all elements that go back to Raimi’s Evil Dead days – the first signs of his kinetic camera work can be seen in the order in which ‘Wanda Maximoff’s siege on Kamar-Taj as she tries to capture multiverse-jumping teenager America Chavez. It’s inventively staged, studded with quirky little horror moments, and made with Raimi’s trademark zooms and off-kilter framing.
But the scene that really felt like letting him go comes much later, when Dr. Strange pays a visit to his other self in an alternate universe. There, the two Stranges find themselves inevitable at an ideological crossroads, and decide that the only way to resolve their differences is with a good-old fight. But what unfolds next isnt the typical Hollywood punch-up; know, those frantically edited fight scenes in which no one can tell who is who. Those where random people shout things like, “Watch out! Behind you!” while a generic score adds to the confusion. Well, in this scene, the two Doctor Stranges fight each other not with the fists, but with music. More specifically, musical notes.
They literally swing symphonies at each other – percussion, strings, brass, all visible in bright colors on the screen – while hashing things. As the fight continues, the music arrives, until our Doctor Strange – the good Doctor Strange – emerges victorious by one harp note. Words can do no justice to the pure madness that is seen. It’s stupid, subversive and serves no other purpose than to see how far things can be pushed, really living up to the promise in the film’s title.
Not only does the scene cement Doctor Strange 2 as the most filmmaker-driven Marvel feature in many years, it also gives composer Danny Elfman a chance to really flex his muscles. People will talk about John Krasinski and Charlize Theron’s appearances in this film, but this scene – effectively Elfman’s cameo – is more memorable than the two of them together. The moment is made all the more special when you remember that Raimi and Elfman had an ugly outburst after Spider-Man 2, and watching a fight sequence in which music is literally armed feels like Raimi’s way of honoring their friendship.
It’s so surprising to see that Marvel executives are allowed to put their own stamp on the material. This was the foundation on which the franchise was built, but for some reason – a lack of trust in the public, probably – these films have become too cookie-cutter in recent years for my taste. Just look at the three MCUs spider-man movies, you have no idea what kind of filmmaker Jon Watts is after seeing them. But they made billions of dollars. Marvel would love to do that Eternals was some sort of experiment, but it really was not. It was just new wine in an old bottle.
What’s weirder is that every time they let filmmakers run with it, the films worked. Taika Waititi literally saved the Thor franchise with Ragnarok. But that was five years ago. The last time Marvel gave this kind of freedom to a director, in my estimation, was when they allowed Shane Black to make a Shane Black movie in the MCU. It was just called Iron Man 3.
Doctor Strange 2 is definitely not a perfect movie, but at this point it’s much more interesting to see ambitious misfires than hits by the numbers. However, if Marvel is going to destroy the culture, we can see Sam Raimi how it all burns.