*Warning: The following article contains spoilers for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness*
The camera moves. The two protagonists, Defender Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), jump with kinetic precision. Danny Elfman’s bombastic score blares out through the speakers as both Strange, and Chavez are on the lookout for The Book of Vishanti to destroy a demon. Strange tries to absorb Chavez’s power to kill the monster. Strange dies. Chavez gets scared and opens a portal while the camera spins to “our” Doctor Strange waking up from a nightmare, ready to attend Christine Palmer’s (Rachel McAdams) wedding. That’s how Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness opens–in media res, without time to think or breathe. Smack bang in the middle of the action, briskly moving from one setpiece to the next. It’s exciting and signals a new era for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where creatives have more control of their vision than the studio. And it’s about damn time.
With Chloé Zhao, Mohamed Diab, Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead, and now Sam Raimi, Marvel seems ready to trust their filmmakers to give them their ultimate take (or vision) on the iconic characters. Their style is different than being constantly at odds with the studio’s cut-and-paste (or “safe”) style of filmmaking that audiences have grown to love over the past fourteen years. Not that there’s anything wrong with “safe” filmmaking, especially when the traditional Marvel formula has been highly profitable for both Disney and Marvel Studios’ cross-media universe. However, after fourteen years of the same type of blockbuster film, it was a grand time to reinvent the wheel and do something out of the box, even if it meant challenging your audience.
The first three episodes of WandaVision signaled that change brilliantly, doing something entirely against Marvel’s traditional formula that gave me hope that Phase Four of the MCU would be its most creative one. But its last few episodes were so unimpressive and bogged down by the most standard second unit action filmmaking that all the hype built up from the first three episodes quickly fizzled out and left me puzzled as to why Marvel decided to halt their big creative swings when it was about to get bonkers. Were they too scared to lose their audience members? Too unconfident in their final product? Hey, if you’re going to do a cerebral TV show, à la Twilight Zone and Twin Peaks, mixed with sitcom parodies, you better go all in and not revert to traditional MCU halfway through!
But when Eternals came out, it was apparent that Marvel was ready to commit to doing films that were vastly different from anything else they’ve done, in both style and structure. It disregards a traditional “three-act” film and instead examines the Eternals’ introspective nature, whether it be their love for humans or their blind allegiance to Arishem. It was refreshing to see a director that wasn’t afraid to challenge the audience and give them a new outlook on superhero filmmaking. The same thing happened with Moon Knight in March; it broke traditional MCU conventions and delivered a mind-splitting first season. And even if it did conventionally go a bit during its climax, Layla (May Calamawy)’s transformation into the Scarlet Scarab was so electrifying that it didn’t much matter since everything that came before felt so fresh and new.
And now here we are, with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. A movie that refuses to play it safe and constantly builds up upon one enthralling action setpiece after the other, shot (and edited) in a way that only Sam Raimi could’ve achieved. Heck, once you’ve hired Sam Raimi to direct your movie, you better let him do what he wants because he will deliver, even within the limitations of studio filmmaking. Sure, the usual expository bits of dialogue are clunkily inserted in the film’s first act, but once the movie starts, it goes hard and never lets you go. You never have the time to process what you’ve just seen; it continues to assault your sights and senses (perfectly, mind you) through Sam Raimi’s traditional trademarks, as Doctor Strange and America Chavez travel alternate universes. It’s a constant BOOM. BOOM. BOOM. BOOM. This might be the only 2022 IP-driven film that will resemble anything close to the pure euphoria felt throughout S.S. Rajamouli’s RRR. Of course, if you don’t like minimal plot and nothing but pure spectacle, it may not do anything to you. Still, The Multiverse of Madness perfectly showcases why Sam Raimi remains an unmatched force at directing superhero cinema in a way that no other filmmaker could’ve ever done.
Jon Watts tried (and failed) to imitate Raimi’s camera moves in No Way Home. He failed because he used them in scenes that didn’t need them. Oh, here’s Peter washing his suit from green paint–let’s do a smash zoom. That’s not how the smash zooms work: they need to be used for maximum effect. Using a smash zoom during a non-eventful sequence will have virtually no impact on the viewer. It would help if you used dynamic camera moves whenever the scene you’re filming warrants it. The camera spins a lot during the film’s first scene, with cinematographer John Mathieson giving the audience a glimpse of what’s to come. Raimi does his classic MCU superhero battle as Strange, Wong (Benedict Wong) and Chavez fight a squid-like creature that’s [totally not] Shuma-Gorath, and then the movie goes hard.
As soon as Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) enters Kamar-Taj and attacks it, with her quickly controlling the minds of multiple sorcerers to weaken their shields, I knew that I would love everything coming afterward. Because that’s where Raimi’s smash zooms, whip pans, fade cuts, and spinning camera tricks come into play, to the eleventh power, completely overdelivering on his maximalist entertainment style we’ve grown to know and love. Even the more expository sequences were enthralling to watch. For example, Raimi utilized a slew of fade cuts to explain the multiversal concept of “Dreamwalking,” which will be essential for us to appreciate the final act truly. So it’s when Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness becomes a full-fledged supernatural thriller with brilliant atmospheric flourishes and effective jumpscares. Only James Wan and Sam Raimi had made me jump multiple times in a theater through small changes in the atmosphere or made me as giddy as possible when Wanda Maximoff went straight up and walked like a creature of the damned during the Kamar-Taj setpiece. This type of exciting superhero filmmaking will bring me back to the MCU every single time, and I unabashedly love what they’re doing, even if it’s not always perfect.
When Wanda “dreamwalks” inside her alternate self from Earth-838 and kills off the members of the Illuminati, it was hard for me to suppress the smile on my face. Way to introduce fan-favorite characters only to kill them five minutes after they appear. But the way Raimi shoots and stages the sequence is so damn creative and daring that only a director like him could’ve pulled it off. It’s particularly apparent when she brutally snaps Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart)’s neck inside a dream-like moment where you’d think the Professor will be able to help her…only for him to die a third time. Damn, he can’t seem to catch a break. Or how about when she sows Black Bolt’s (Anson Mount) mouth shut, and he doesn’t have a choice but to yell at that sight? Absolutely brilliant. If Raimi wasn’t at the helm, and the film would’ve been much more conventional, Doctor Strange would’ve likely teamed up with The Illuminati to fight Wanda, and they would’ve all survived, setting up a potential spinoff in the process.
Raimi said “no” to all of that and decided to showcase how corrupted Wanda’s mind from the Darkhold is, even if it means alienating part of the fanbase who were expecting cameos. Granted, the cameos are enormous. John Krasinski as Reed Richards? Come on! But when he dies minutes after he is introduced, I couldn’t help but laugh and enjoy the ride Raimi, and screenwriter Michael Waldron gave. It was a signal that the cameos didn’t do much and were only secondary to Wanda’s path in reuniting with her kids, with the central conflict of the picture being between Strange and Wanda. Strange is one second from studying the Darkhold and corrupting his mind while trying to save the multiverse from collapsing on itself, which Raimi’s camera will always showcase. In the film’s most creative sequence, Strange fights a corrupted version of himself and uses the Darkhold after defeating him. Christine Palmer is thwarted in the middle of an altercation with the Souls of the Damned. In typical Sam Raimi fashion, McAdams grabs the camera and starts to shake it, and that’s where I went HELL YEAH (!) and knew that the “old” Marvel Cinematic Universe might never be coming back. We’re to get more visually creative and enthralling stories to keep drawing us in.
It’s that simple: you’ll get incredible stuff if you let directors go to work and fully trust them on their artistic vision. There have been many times when I was excited at the announcement of certain directors (Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck for Captain Marvel as an example), only for me to never find the filmmaker’s imprints in the movie. Most Marvel filmmakers are well-known in the indie scene and breakout by making an MCU film but end up becoming directors for hire instead of having a legitimate input on how the creative process of that movie (or show) should be. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness aims to break that mold and deliver an uncompromising authorial vision while being set inside an ever-expanding cross-media universe we know and love. And if Kevin Feige listens to the filmmakers he hires to make their movies and shows, giving them total control over their titles, then the future of Phase Four (and the MCU as a whole) will be incredible.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is now playing in theatres.