Before Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, director Sam Raimi hadn’t directed a feature film in nearly a decade. But more distressingly, he hadn’t done a Sam Raimi Film™ since 2009, when he stepped back from big-budget blockbusters and returned to his roots with Drag Me to Hell.
Entering Doctor Strange 2, the 28th film in the increasingly depressing Marvel Cinematic Universe, I had assumed it was just a director’s gig for hire for him. After all, he was literally a stand-in (the first movie’s Scott Derrickson was supposed to return, but he dropped out due to creative differences). And Raimi, a product of the ’80s generation of DIY filmmakers, had been largely out of action in the decade immediately following his industry-shattering Spider-Man trilogy. So, even if he had contributed to cultivating the cinematographic landscape that we see flourishing today, he no longer sprinkled 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 early scenes require you to do a lot of homework before watching them, but they’re visually ugly and extremely mechanical in their writing. Doctor Strange 2’s cold open doesn’t bode well for the rest of the film. It puts you in the middle of a fantasy action scene so contrived that I started to wonder if the hairs in Doctor Strange’s beard were also computer generated. Then it slips into a convoluted backstory and throws you another CGI-heavy fight scene. Sigh.
About the decline in visual quality of these movies, a direct correlation can be drawn to when Marvel began filming their 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 don’t think I can identify a single on-location footage in the entirety of Doctor Strange 2. So you can imagine how odd that was for a filmmaker like Raimi – a man with a particular affinity for in-camera stuff – to enter the standardized Marvel sandbox.
But unexpectedly, after that rather disappointing first act, glimmers of Raimi’s style became visible through the Marvel muck. As well as a plot that involves a spellbook, a real witch, and dozens of undead soldiers – all elements reminiscent of Raimi’s Evil Dead days – early signs of his kinetic camera work can be seen in the sequence where Wanda Maximoff poses besiege Kamar-Taj, as she attempts to capture multiverse-jumping teenager America Chavez. It’s inventively staged, littered with quirky little horror moments, and shot with Raimi’s offbeat zooms and framing.
But the scene that really made it feel like they let him down happens much later, when Doctor Strange visits his other self in an alternate universe. There, the two Stranges inevitably find themselves at an ideological crossroads and decide that the only way to resolve their differences is through a good old fashioned fight. But what unfolds next isn’t the typical Hollywood punch; you know, those frenetically edited fight scenes where no one can tell who’s who. The ones where random passers-by shout things like, “Watch out! Get behind you!” while a generic score adds to the confusion. Well, in this scene, the two Doctor Stranges are fighting not with their fists, but with music. Specifically, musical notes.
They literally throw symphonies at each other – percussion, strings, brass, all visualized in vivid color on screen – as they chop things up. As the fight progresses, the music builds crescendo, until our Doctor Strange – the good Doctor Strange – emerges victorious with a single harp note. Words cannot do justice to the sheer madness on display. It’s silly, subversive, and serves no purpose other than to see how far things can be taken, truly delivering on the promise of the film’s title.
The scene doesn’t just cement Doctor Strange 2 as the most filmmaker-focused 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 movie, but this scene – actually Elfman’s cameo – is more memorable than the two put together. The moment is all the more special when you remember Raimi and Elfman having a fight after Spider-Man 2, and watching a fight sequence in which the music is literally gunned down feels like Raimi honoring their friendship.
It’s so refreshing to see Marvel allow directors to put their own stamp on the hardware. It was the foundation on which the franchise was built, but for some reason – a lack of trust in the audience, most likely – these films have become too simple for my tastes in recent years. Just look at all three MCUs The Spider-Man movies; you have no idea what kind of filmmaker Jon Watts is after watching them. But they made billions of dollars. Marvel would like to pretend Eternals was kind of an experiment, but it really wasn’t. It was just new wine in an old bottle.
What’s weirder is that every time they allowed the filmmakers to run with it, the movies worked. Taika Waititi literally saved the Thor franchise with Ragnarok. But that was five years ago. The last time Marvel gave a director that kind of freedom, in my opinion, was when they allowed Shane Black to make a Shane Black movie inside the MCU. It happens to be called Iron Man 3.
Doctor Strange 2 is by no means a perfect film, but at this point it’s far more interesting to see ambitious misses than successes in numbers. If Marvel is going to ruin the culture, might as well watch Sam Raimi play the violin because everything burns.