Saturday, June 22, 2024

‘Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’ Shows Raimi Still Has It

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Whatever phase of the MCU we’re in, I love it. The movies may not be as effortless or as well oiled, but they are, above all, engaging and visually exciting (for a Marvel film), each trying to shed the mantle of “studio as the author.” More importantly, they’re fun! 

Sam Raimi is at once a hired gun and a distinct cinematic voice. He can do movies of every genre while also leaving his own recognizable yet distinctive stamp. That he can do all of this while still making a movie of any genre and on any budget is only one of the reasons why he remains one of my favorite directors.

in the multiverse of madness
Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Steven Strange

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a movie that is both a Raimi throwback to the old-school pulp and adventure movies of his youth while also being a modern MCU movie, juggling universe set-ups, clever nods to other properties, and so forth. In the middle of all that is Raimi being Raimi, Bruce Campbell cameo included. The result is a mixed bag that had me howling, clapping, and whooping, even though I seemed to be the only one in my audience doing so. There’s no accounting for taste.

Michael Waldron’s script does the job for the most part. However, at times, it seems at a loss what to do with America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez). The script turns her into a “Johnny Quest” era sidekick. Chavez never utters the lines, “Gee Wilkers Dr. Strange! What’s that!” But if she had, I wouldn’t have batted an eye. 

Gomez is likable despite the short narrative stick she’s been given. I’m not a massive comic-book reader, but I know of America Chavez. As much as I’m loathed to give credence to fans’ complaints, often pedantic whinings of entitled unimaginative people without the guts to write fanfic, I have to say I’d understand this particular gripe. America has gone from a super-powered interdimensional snarky bad-ass with two lesbian moms to a sidekick role that at times feels more intended for Peter Parker.

However, Gomez is so damn likable and vulnerable; you could argue this is her growing into her snarkiness. After all, seeing someone develop an attitude after hanging around Doctor Strange is the least I’ve ever been asked in terms of suspending my disbelief. 

in the multiverse of madness
Doctor Strange, America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), and Christine (Rachel McAdams) hear something go bump in the dark

It didn’t kill the movie for me. But I’m from a generation who got The Super Mario Brothers Movie. So seeing movies with characters I love showing no resemblance to the characters I knew isn’t only par for the course but also practically the whole of the history of Hollywood.

Cumberbatch’s Steven Strange looks so much like he stepped off the comic book pages it’s delightful. It’s the most I’ve enjoyed Cumberbatch in any MCU film so far. He seems to be having fun playing the arrogant miserable bastard of a sorcerer. A fact the movie briefly explores to great effect.

Strange is haunted by dreams of him and America fighting demons. Of course, the monsters themselves look like something out of the MCU template CGI program, but that’s not the point. The point is, as we learn, dreams are us getting a glimpse of another us in another multiverse.

Cumberbatch has a lot on his shoulders. Doctor Strange 2 is both a Doctor Strange movie doubling as an introduction for America Chavez and wrapping up the Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) storyline. So he has to be the star of the film while also recognizing that his movie is not entirely his own.

On top of that, he has to also contend with his failed relationship with Christine (Rachel McAdams). McAdams, who was given so little to do in the last one it bordered on insulting, has much more to play within the newest installment. McAdams and Cumberbatch have a chance to play with their chemistry, and they have fun with what is essentially a tragic tale. But, for as much as Strange may love Christine, they never seem to be.

in the multiverse of madness
Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Strange (Cumberbatch)

I admired how Raimi and Waldron seem to be using the MCU as a way to ask the audience a straightforward but complex question. “Are you happy?” It is a question that is asked multiple times throughout Doctor Strange 2, with different characters answering with various forms of truthfulness. It adds a melancholy feel to all the popcorn action and eye-popping visuals.

Waldron and Raimi seem to be almost simpatico in terms of the feel and humor of the film. For example, one scene has America sitting down with Doctor Strange and Wong (Benedict Wong) to discuss the notion of multiverses. Waldron has the conversation written and paced like an old-school screwball comedy, with characters answering others’ questions at inopportune times.

It’s a scene worth noting if only because of the way it’s cut. Movies within the MCU often have almost no editing rhythm or style. But legendary cutter Bob Murawski, along with Tia Nolan, help give the film its own pacing and feel. In addition, the scene is edited to enhance the comedic effect; something big-budget movies have all but forgotten how to do.

In addition, Waldron and Raimi operate on a fundamentally different narrative level than most MCU films. Yes, this is a comic book movie, but it never feels the need to stop and wink at the camera. It’s not in on the joke because, to the filmmakers, it’s not a joke. It’s a popcorn flick, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Yet, despite all the goofiness and embracing of the cornball weirdness of comic books, Multiverse of Madness contains genuine moments of uneasiness. Raimi’s horror roots run deep in many scenes, both in the morbid humor and the shocking-for Marvel-violence. Heck, one character is sliced in half. You never see it, but the way Raimi and John Mathieson’s camera frame it, I felt it.

I’ve long said that Marvel movies have no excuse to cost as much as they do and look so ugly and cheap. Fortunately, Ramii, Mathieson, and the production and special effects team have labored to put another nail into the coffin of Marvel the Universe of Blandness. 

Doctor Strange 2 looks good, yes, but more importantly is how Raimi and Mathieson use the camera as a character. This befits a director who literally invented a camera, The Rami-cam.

in the multiverse of madness
Strange (Cumberbatch) and Wong (Benedict Wong)

It’s not just that the camera is a character, but that Raimi and Mathieson switch up which character the camera is. Sometimes the camera is subjective, switching between different characters’ points of view; sometimes, it’s objective, giving Raimi and Mathieson plenty of opportunities to play with scene compositions and angles. Sometimes, chillingly so, the camera is our point of view.

I could say the problem with Multiverse of Madness is that it’s less a Doctor Strange movie than a Scarlet Witch movie. I could say that, but A.) I don’t think that’s true, B.) If it is, I don’t care. As per usual, Olsen eats up every scene.

There’s a standoff, one of over a dozen throughout the movie, between her and Strange. Wanda and Strange are floating in the sky. Strange pleads with her to be reasonable. Olsen’s delivery of her line about being “reasonable” had me grinning throughout her delivery. It made me realize that Multiverse of Madness is one of the few MCU films that are as good when the characters talk as when they don’t.

To say nothing of a score by the great Danny Elfman. It’s the best score since Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. Elfman’s score is bombastic, somber, and all times playful. It fits Raimi’s vision like Strange’s cape, moving on its own but also in perfect sync.

Doctor Strange 2 isn’t a horror movie, but it has horror moments. It’s something else altogether; it’s a Marvel movie directed by Sam Raimi. But, like with Chloe Zhao, the clash makes for a more exciting offering. 

As a hired gun, Raimi is still Raimi when he needs to be, or more importantly when he wants to be. Heck, if you look closely, you can even see a familiar Oldsmobile in one scene. So what if Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness isn’t perfect? At least, for better and worse, it is a Sam Raimi Marvel movie-which is more than okay with me.

Images courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

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