Sam Raimi’s triumphant return to Marvel movies

Illustration by Jaida Noble | Ash from the “Evil Dead” series, Spider-Man, and Dr. Strange.

20 years ago, Sam Raimi changed superhero movies forever and finally returned to the genre in “Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.”

It has been a long, illustrious career for Sam Raimi, bringing franchises like “The Evil Dead” and “Spider-Man” to life, and producing many of the biggest horror movies from the past few decades. All of this experience has led to his improbable but excellent return to Marvel in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.” The film follows Strange and a mysterious multiverse-traveling teenager who is being hunted for her power.

Marvel famously has a playbook that they follow, which has led some in the film industry to criticize them for it. Bringing in the director who practically wrote that playbook with the release of “Spider-Man,” which just had its 20th anniversary, might seem like an odd move, but Raimi is far from a one-dimensional director. For one thing, he was behind two of the greatest villains in any Marvel movie: the Green Goblin and Doc Ock. After years of building up Thanos as the biggest of bads, having him create a new villain is pretty genius.

Sam Raimi’s roots are also firmly in horror movies, starting with “The Evil Dead,” which  celebrated its 40th anniversary this past April. That has not bled into all of his films but it certainly bleeds into “Doctor Strange” as eerie piano music, jump scares, and even some gore. At times, this pushes the PG-13 rating to its limit, but Raimi was careful not to go too overboard.

Adding to the horror is the villain, who at times moves like a classic horror creature with slow, distorted body movements followed by the quick and lethal attacks. The villain is extremely fluid in “Doctor Strange,” shifting in between horror tropes seamlessly and convincingly.

Of course, with a character like Stephen Strange, he will always be the center of attention, and likely the cause of his problems. Sam Raimi has been making characters like this for decades in a variety of film genres. Ash from “The Evil Dead” series’ woeful incompetence frequently gets him in and out of trouble, all while shamelessly hyping himself up. Characters like Billy from “For the Love of the Game” and Christine from “Drag Me to Hell” are so focused on their problems that everyone around them gets hurt. Even the title of “Oz the Great and Powerful” tells you all you need to know about that character. All of this is to say that Raimi is a perfect fit to handle a narcissistic character like Stephen Strange.

Coupled with Benedict Cumberbatch’s excellent portrayal of the character, it is certainly a recipe for success. Cumberbatch keeps his emotions close to the vest but it is easy to tell that internally he is struggling. The love of his life, Christine, gets married in the opening scenes and he forces a smile every time he is reminded of it, which happens a lot during his jaunt through the infinite universes.

Meanwhile, with Robert Downey Jr. out of the mix, Marvel needs a new dad type to guide its new crop of young heroes and they appear to have found it with Strange. He delivers corny lines with aplomb, complete with winks to Xochitl Gomez, who plays the mystery teenager, and then gives several uplifting and fatherly speeches to her. Combined with his guidance in the previous Spider-Man movie, the role appears to be in good hands.

Another smart move was bringing in Danny Elfman for the soundtrack. I mentioned the eerie piano music earlier but that is far from the only thing he brings to this film. The transition from creepy to grand could be jarring but Elfman makes it sound easy. At one point, a  brilliant magical music notes fight occurs in the film and the use of crescendo and decrescendo in it was masterful.

There are some negatives in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.” Elizabeth Olsen reprises her role as Wanda/The Scarlet Witch and mostly does a great job but she plays everyone’s favorite game of “where did her accent go?” Xochitl Gomez is a little green at times, mostly trying to look intense while she stands completely still for some reason. That is the one area where the horror roots actually harm the overall product; everybody moves so slow and deliberate in the movie. “There’s a homicidal demonic creature chasing us, let’s all tip toe towards our salvation,” occurs all too often.

 “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” changes the Marvel playbook by bringing in the person who originally wrote it. Sam Raimi brings his vast experience in the horror genre and with narcissistic characters to a complex character like Stephen Strange and made a movie that is as good as the sum of its parts; a compliment considering the vast resources that Disney and Marvel have at play. Cumberbatch excels at showing how a character who casts magic and travels across universes can still be relevant to our everyday lives. The movie is dark and violent but it is certainly enjoyable.

4.5\5 Stars

“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” is available only in theaters.

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