3.5 out of 5 stars

Sam Raimi paved the way for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) with his influential Spider-Man trilogy, but hasn’t directed a film since Marvel came to dominate blockbuster cinema post-The Avengers (2012). Doctor Strange (2016) was a definite success at the time, but the MCU has so many balls to juggle it’s taken six years to finally get around to making a sequel, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, which Raimi is a perfect fit for as a comedy-horror director with extensive VFX experience working in the comic-book genre. The only worry is how much freedom Marvel would give Raimi to make something he’s proud to have his name attached to (given his well-documented issues making Spider-Man 3 with a meddling Sony), and not just have him usher the 28th entry in a saga into being.

The good news is Multiverse of Madness is billed as ‘a Sam Raimi film’ and there’s enough of his unmistakable flavour to please fans of The Evil Dead franchise, or even Darkman (1990) and Drag Me to Hell (2009). It certainly struggles with a middle act dominated by fan-pleasing cameos and comic-book references, but whenever the story needs to be creepy and unnerving it provides enough jolts for a blockbuster ostensibly aimed at kids. I can’t think of too many such movies with visual nods to Ringu (1998) and It (2017).

After the events of Avengers: Endgame (2019) and Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021), Dr Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is feeling wistful about his life as a somewhat controversial superhero who saved the universe by allowing half its population to vanish for five years. It doesn’t help that, while he himself was ‘blipped’ out of existence, his love interest Christine (Rachel McAdams) moved on and has just married someone else, making his personal life and future less certain. He’s not even the Sorcerer Supreme now, as mentor Wong (Benedict Wong) succeeded him while he was gone. But the chance for a new connection ironically comes from a young girl called America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), who has the ability to travel into other universes and is currently being chased across the multiverse by an unseen enemy who wants her power for mysterious reasons. Dr Strange goes to see powerful witch Wanda Maximoff (Elisabeth Olsen) for help after a giant octopus wrecks New York City looking for the dimension-hopping America, but matters are complicated once the true nature of what’s going on is revealed…

The title of this film promises plenty of weirdness and spectacle, but outside of that there’s a fairly simple story about Wanda as a grieving mother trying to reconnect with the two young boys she lost during WandaVision, and Strange coming to terms with his place in all the universes as someone who frequently turns bad and never gets the girl. The new character of America also feels intentionally named, in the sense she perhaps represents a modern-day USA (her power manifests itself as a large star, she wears a denim jacket with stars and stripes), and is someone whose ability as an immigrant is coveted by someone with misguided aims who’s blinded by a reverence for a past that never truly existed. One can definitely see parallels to what’s going on in the world today through that prism, as America’s in need of a “doctor” to heal everything and stop others from exploiting her…

Raimi’s return to the comic-book genre for a horror-themed adventure certainly plays to his strengths. There are some fantastically imaginative sequences here, but also relatively intimate moments being given a familiar twist of eeriness simply because of where Raimi puts the camera and how it moves through a scene. The iconic canted camera angles and crash zooms are present, but it’s the sense he sense of macabre fun that Raimi’s best movies have that helps Multiverse of Madness feel like the first MCU film was a clear artistic vision since Thor: Ragnarok (2017).

Unexpectedly, the real star of the movie proves to be Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda. She steals the movie from under Benedict Cumberbatch’s nose because her character’s emotional journey is more interesting and deeper if you also happened to see WandaVision (which isn’t essential viewing but certainly explains her obsession with motherhood better). Olsen is wonderful here and Raimi seems to know she’s a star, as he composes most of his best shots around her appearance in the Scarlet Witch costume and how her beauty can be given a sinister edge with a splash of blood to the face. If Raimi returns to full-blown adult comedy-horror at some point, he will surely be giving Olsen a call.

Multiverse of Madness isn’t as mind-blowing as one imagines it could have been with a better screenplay (this one comes from Michael Waldron, who worked on Loki), and some of its thunder has been stolen by events and ideas already explored in Spider-Man: No Way Home and What If…?, but what’s left is an entertaining romp with Raimi doing his utmost to keep things thrilling and fast-paced. There’s an energy to the action that doesn’t feel like it’s been designed by a VFX committee, perhaps months before Marvel even hire a director to shepherd everything through production.

Overall, Phase Four of the Marvel slate has been a mixed success, but with the next batch of movies returning to favourite characters, the future looks rosier. Especially if the studio is now going to be hiring established directors with a background and proven talent for the genres they’re asked to work on, rather than plucking filmmakers from relative obscurity to be the low-risk choice for enormous $150-200M movies they’re not quite ready for yet. This felt refreshingly old school in that respect; a slick comic-book movie from a director with the bonafides.

USA | 2022 | 126 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

Cast & Crew

director: Sam Raimi.
writer: Michael Waldron (based on Marvel Comics).
starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen, Benedict Wong, Xochitl Gomez, Michael Stuhlbarg & Rachel McAdams.