Whether you’re a cult-horror great who revolutionized superhero movies or a quirky New Zealand comedy filmmaker, you must follow the MCU’s rules: Please stay inside the lines.
Only one of the unexpected crowd-pleasing appearances crammed throughout Marvel’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness will elicit a nostalgic, involuntary “groovy” from members of the audience. That’s the moment in which Bruce Campbell, cult horror’s most brilliant physical comic, appears as an annoying citizen who ends up fighting off assaults from his own hand. The Master of the Mystic Arts is the one who subjected him to this (self-)abuse, responding to Campbell’s bit-player antics with the magical equivalent of “stop striking yourself.” The actual villain is the guy behind the camera: Sam Raimi, the Evil Dead mastermind, who marks his return to filmmaking by momentarily putting the one-time Ash Williams through another wringer of comical misery.
This isn’t the only distinguishing feature of Multiverse, Raimi’s first film in nine years and his first superhero blockbuster since 2007’s trilogy-ending Spider-Man 3. [Spoilers follow.] With customary vigor, the camera whips and zooms, at one point transitioning to the first-person (first-monster?) POV of a one-eyed, multi-tentacled kaiju. There’s a book of dark spells, a haunting home, and a deceased superhero’s possessed corpse. The zombie’s preferred weapon? Swarms of screeching ghosts. It’s almost conceivable to imagine ourselves being hurled, like the speeding demon entity of the Evil Dead flicks, back into the director’s initial haunts.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, with all its macabre inspiration and spookiness spray painted in the margins of its story, can’t be a Sam Raimi film. It’s scarcely a movie in and of itself. After all, this is the newest edition in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a brand that has taken serialization to a whole new level on the big screen. It’s not simply that these films never end, continuously resolving previous narrative elements and setting up new ones, living in a condition of permanent incompletion. It’s also because they prioritize consistency above all else; they’re built, like iPhones or Big Macs, to provide roughly the same experience every time. And watching a filmmaker inject some true individuality around their edges, as Raimi does here, just emphasizes how homogeneous they are at their heart. For years, the issue of authorship — how much creative authority a filmmaker may have at the helm of one of these films — has hung over the MCU. To its credit, Marvel has regularly chosen directors with different approaches, or at the very least those who have done noteworthy films. And it’s not as if the studio completely mutes the voices of the directors it does hire: you don’t have to squint to see Shane Black’s snarky sensibilities in Iron Man 3, Taika Waititi’s daft Kiwi sense of humor in Thor: Ragnarok, or Ryan Coogler’s dramatic instincts and social conscience in Black Panther. Behind the scenes, though, there have been creative disputes. They’ve forced several directors, such as Edgar Wright, to flee. (In truth, Raimi only entered the Multiverse when another director, Scott Derickson, left early.) Those who have stayed on Marvel films have sometimes spoken out afterwards, complaining about company influence and efforts to “correct” their creative decisions in post-production. Even the MCU’s most auteur-driven films show unmistakable evidence of compromise, with its more distinctive characteristics at odds with franchise boilerplate.
In other words, Marvel allows its directors to experiment a little bit — to set action sequences to ’70s pop songs, to cast Community cast members in tiny roles, and even to sometimes (gasp!) shoot on location — but always within the pretty strict constraints of their formula. The director’s instruction seems to be: “Go berserk,” but please just color inside the lines. Ragnarok is, indeed, amusing. It also includes a cross-promotional appearance by Doctor Strange and concludes with a large CGI action scene that may have been created by a previz team. In the end, everyone has to produce a Marvel film.
One of the Marveliest of them all is Multiverse of Madness, a complicated narrative engine that relies on MacGuffins and fan-service guest appearances and requires knowledge with a full syllabus of previous adventures. The film must operate as an all-purpose sequel, continuing the events of the first Doctor Strange, the last Spider-Man, the last two Avengers, and a whole season of television. The villain’s motives are so intertwined with the past that the screenplay, which Raimi was reworking throughout shooting, makes little effort to establish or even sell us on them. There’s also a segment that’s essentially simply a parade of introductions with applause breaks. Raimi, for his part, acts like a demonic ghost, possessing the film with ghoulish cartoon-horror mayhem whenever he can. There’s a lot of him in this picture, at least in spurts; he truly puts the corpse into Marvel’s exquisite corpse narrative concept. Occasionally, one gets the impression that he’s exploiting the responsibilities of this blockbuster machine as a backdoor to evil fun: The previously described perp lineup of appearances leads to one of the most brutal events in MCU history. Raimi, more than most of the directors caught into the Marvel machine, finds methods to express his eccentric individuality while also catering to the numerous franchise-progressing obligations of the project. However, the film’s relative uniqueness — its relative Raimi-ness — may leave admirers of the filmmaker yearning for a movie that didn’t regard his talents as an afterthought or a mere dab of foreign flavor. Aside from the rare hyperactive camera shift, Multiverse appears like every previous edition in the series; it has the same drab digital palette, green-screen VFX style, and unremarkable stretch of downtown Manhattan. The vitality of Raimi’s Spider-Man films has faded. Those films were, of course, compromises in and of themselves. Almost every high-budget Hollywood production will be. But all three (including the third, a well-known creative victim of Sony’s hard hand) were clearly the product of the monster fan and Three Stooges fan who directed them. Raimi could still create his superhero films from the ground up at the time. He’s returned to a genre (and a system) that has been quality-controlled into purposeful consistency. And, as welcome as his return is, it’s difficult not to pine for a Sam Raimi movie that breathes his unique madness in every shot, not just the ones with a grinning ghoul or Bruce Campbell. That his newest may be described as “Kevin Feige’s Doctor Strange” demonstrates how tough it is in the Marvel universe to develop one for you rather than simply another for them.