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By Andy Carr, Film Yap

Over the last several months, I’ve been watching through director Sam Raimi’s filmography for my podcast with fellow Yap writer Logan Sowash, and it’s been a joy to see how the beloved filmmaker molded his style in the raw, guerrilla Evil Dead films, and how he adapted it into other genres throughout the ‘90s with Darkman, The Quick and the Dead, and A Simple Plan, before going on to make his iconic Spider-Man trilogy.

I bring that up only because I was stunned at how fantastic a preamble it turned out to be for watching Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Raimi’s first feature directorial effort in 9 years, and a big, colorful, kooky Marvel blockbuster that is fully his own.

What I feared could end up a bit of a hack job — the combined result of original director Scott Derrickson leaving the project over creative differences, Raimi being brought on and subsequently tasked with countless rewrites and reshoots, and Marvel’s seemingly increased interest in the multiverse as a tool for fan-service showcasing of alternate or unseen-before characters — turned out to be very much Raimi’s return to form, and a gust of fresh air under the gargantuan wings of a franchise that has struggled to find its footing since 2019’s Avengers: Endgame.

That’s not to say Multiverse of Madness isn’t without its own clunky mechanics — it’s off to a shaky start with a stiff, haphazard first act that reminded me a lot of December’s Spider-Man: No Way Home. But also like NWH, MoM works out its kinks as it builds momentum, eventually becoming a snowball on a ski slope of Raimi-fed interdimensional Strangeness so fun, silly, and appropriately dark that I’m still working out the crick in my neck from all of the amused, smiling head-turns I made in response to this movie’s many bizarre, clever choices.

Continuing from the events of, well, Doctor Strange, Avengers: Endgame, and No Way Home (stay with me), MoM finds our titular surgeon-sorcerer (Benedict Cumberbatch) adrift in life. After setting in motion his 1-in-14 million plan to save the universe from Thanos — and in the process, taking a five-year hiatus from existence so that the rest of the Avengers could carry it out — Strange has returned to everyday heroing as a master of the mystic arts.

But something is off. There’s an emptiness in Stephen’s heart; something missing at the core — is it purpose? Love? Happiness? Amidst all the universe-saving (and being dead for five years), Strange’s relationships, like the complicated romantic one he had with his medical peer Christine (Rachel McAdams), have eroded to the point that he’s little else beyond a superhero. A brief, awkward conversation with Christine, at her wedding, is all it takes to show Stephen his own discontentment.

A bad dream brought to life interrupts Strange’s melancholy and introduces him to America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a girl from another reality with the ability to travel freely through the multiverse. She’s being hunted by a horde of fantastical monsters, sent by someone bent on stealing her powers.

The matter of who is after her is anybody’s guess, but Strange deduces one factor — witchcraft is involved. This takes him to the highest expert he knows on the subject: world-saving colleague Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen).

That was about 250 words describing the plot’s main setups, which is more than I generally like to indulge, and frankly, I stopped just shy of revealing the actual premise of the main adventure, for the sake of refraining from spoilers. But I think it shows how many pieces MoM has to get moving in its opening act, and it’s not an entirely graceful endeavor. Similarly to No Way Home, heaps of perfunctory exposition clash with underwritten attempts at humanity and emotionality, as we’re dropped into equally in-progress plots and character arcs.

This is an issue I worry will become increasingly prevalent in Marvel Studios’ feature films moving forward, as the universe continues to widen and each new chapter must build on more and more previous films and TV shows simultaneously. It used to be that Marvel struggled with ending their stories (and they haven’t totally outgrown that yet); now, they’re clumsier in starting them. I suppose it’s better this way; I’d rather they wobble on the opening and hit the final note than the other way around.

But as Strange and America, along with now-Sorcerer Supreme Wong (Benedict Wong), get their bearings and set off on their mission, Raimi himself really begins to show through in the filmmaking, and that’s where MoM shines.

A battle of mystical music notes. Cumberbatch making hissy snake faces while hydras shoot from his hands. Whispy, charred souls of the damned that feel almost like practical effects, though there’s no way they could be. These are the type of wacky magic shit I want to see in Doctor Strange stories. And Raimi, lifelong comic book nerd that he is, delivers them in droves. He also infuses the magical, multidimensional spectacle with his trademark flair for horror visuals and sound that many will recognize from Evil Dead and Darkman.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call MoM “Marvel’s take on horror,” as some have been foolishly expecting from it, but it contains a surprising amount of grisly imagery, brutal death, and spooky scene-setting for an entry in a franchise aimed largely at children and families. I don’t think it’s anything most kids in grade-school couldn’t handle, but I can certainly see it being startling or overwhelming to some.

Raimi diehards will note the very Evil Dead II-esque moments when characters engage in “dreamwalking,” a forbidden mystical practice of multiversal bodysnatching. Having just come off those movies for the podcast, I absolutely ate it up. But I think anyone, even those unfamiliar with Raimi’s other work, will appreciate his campy, creepy camera work and editing choices, which stand out as unconventional for the MCU, but perfectly at home in a Doctor Strange story.

Raimi’s visceral presence in the film might be the most obvious since (and even including) James Gunn’s stamp on the Guardians of the Galaxy. I’m not generally one to decry the “Marvel style,” or lack thereof, as many do, but it’s undeniably a blast to see Raimi back in peak form, having the silliest time making a movie about a magic man romping through the multiverse and fending off bizarre supernatural and cosmic dangers. It’s the kind of distinct directorial stamp I’d love to see more of from other Marvel films, even (and especially) those made by less widely-known directors.

The multiverse itself functions as the spectacle successor for the the first Doctor Strange film’s world of mysticism. Where the first film featured psychedelic sequences of tessellating textures and kaleidoscopic perspectives as Strange learned about the mystic arts, Multiverse of Madness gives us colorful, physics-defying parallel universes with wildly varying degrees of difference from our own. These are gorgeously rendered and make for fun canvases for the action.

I’m happy (and incredibly relieved) to report that the multiverse featured here is less a mechanism for blatantly displaying all the intellectual-property potential to plant seeds for future characters and plot threads, and more a device for allowing the central characters to explore who they are and what, both good and evil, they are capable of.

What I almost expected this film to lack was a real character arc for Stephen. It almost seemed lofty to hope that MoM would be an actual sequel to 2016’s Doctor Strange in any significant capacity. But Raimi and screenwriter Michael Waldron (under the guiding hand of our lord and savior Kevin Feige, I’m sure) ensure that Stephen’s arc picks up from groundwork laid in the first film, and that what he experiences during his time in the worlds beyond genuinely change him, and prove him to be a uniquely good Strange among the infinite host of Stranges out there.

Wanda undergoes similar treatment, building off her story told in prior chapters (namely the Disney+ series WandaVision) and paralleling Stephen’s arc with her own in a resonant way. Like Stephen, Wanda is lost in life, reaching for something to make her happy. What she finds in the multiverse changes her, and she too must make decisions which will distinguish her from Wandas of other worlds and chart her new course in life.

I find myself coming back to No Way Home in investigating this film’s strengths and weaknesses. Both hobble their way through a choppy opening act, but manage to find and maximize their identity through the second and third. Both employ the multiverse concept as a plot device, threatening to weaponize it for franchisability, but restraining themselves just enough to skirt the edge and maintain a handle on the present story and the character arcs within. And both feel shockingly, refreshingly self-contained, for films that practically beg to bleed out into every other dangling plot thread in the MCU and beyond.

I don’t think Multiverse of Madness is quite as strong as No Way Home, as its early-chapter clunk takes a bit longer to resolve itself, and its emotional climax isn’t nearly as resounding. But it’s an impressive sequel nonetheless, and an easy-to-love return to the genre for Raimi, full to the brim with visual creativity and comic-book silliness, and firm grasp on the earnestness needed to keep this story grounded.

Raimi has said that, while there are no plans in the works, he’d gladly return for more projects with Marvel. I’d love to see that happen. Even more than that, however, I’d love for MoM to further encourage Marvel’s slowly-growing trust in individual filmmakers and the unique sensibilities they can bring to these rich characters and worlds.

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