Marvel has hired a big name director with a very distinct and idiosyncratic visual style. Do not be alarmed, they have done this before and have a good track record of getting innovative filmmakers to conform to the house style. With The Evil Dead and Darkman director Sam Raimi, however, they may have met their match. What’s surprising however, is the revelation that the two styles are not as incompatible as you may expect.
After playing a major role in defeating Thanos the Mad Titan through controversial means, and after tangling with the multiverse whilst trying to help (god help newcomers to all of this), Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) finds himself dissatisfied. He is no longer the Sorcerer Supreme of the Masters of the Mystic Arts (seriously, god help them), and his life long love (Rachel McAdams) is marrying someone else. Into this malaise falls America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) who has the ability to travel between alternate realities, a power greatly coveted by Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen). Strange must protect Chavez from Maximoff before she causes an incursion which could end multiple realities.
There is a fair amount of traditional Marvel fair, especially in the action, comic relief and intertextual references/cameos. But a fair amount of Sam Raimi’s idiosyncrasies are present as well. Beyond superficial references like the iconic Oldsmobile, an evil book and cackling demons, Raimi is able to inject his own wicked sense of humour (particularly in some of the death scenes) and the his spooky funfair sense of horror is surprisingly present complete with jump scares. Raimi is able to pull back on some of Marvel’s worse tendencies, for example limited the obnoxious cameos to one sequence which he then turns into one of the most memorable of the film. The Marvel villain problem has been greatly improved upon in recent years, and the Scarlet Witch is no exception. Finally Elizabeth Olsen is given some challenging material in this role (on the big screen that is). Raimi is unable to solve the franchises biggest problem though which is Strange himself, who is once again significantly less interesting than the world he inhabits, a world that grows much larger in this film.
The introduction of the Multiverse is intriguing but slightly frustrating. One can’t help but look at it like a business decision. A tool to further facilitate the weird little offshoots to the central canon that have occurred as a result of Disney’s ruthless expansion. Yet having a catchall cure for death and a convenient method of quickly canonising or de-canonising storylines as it becomes convenient to do so, there is the potential to take greater risks, to make bolder decisions safe in the knowledge that any unwanted results can be undone if necessary. The only jeopardy is the audience no longer caring about anything that happens, which recalls another recent multiverse film.
A battle is forming between lovers of independent cinema and mainstream movie-goers over the best multiverse film. Within two weeks of Doctor Strange 2, Everything Everywhere All At Once has been released. Made with significantly less money, EEAAO is doing very well for itself and is dominating online discussions around the latest Marvel film. Undoubtedly the superior film, EEAAO sees it’s character grappling with the real, terrifying, existential nightmare of a multiverse: if there are infinite alternate dimensions then nothing matters. Doctor Strange and friends instead settle on a more conventional drama around being grateful for what you have and learning acceptance. It’s poignantly delivered, but comparatively mild in terms of insight. Though the Daniels film is superior in terms of ambition and success, it would be unfair to overlook one of Marvels best films in years.
Doctor Strange and the Multi-verse of Madness continues the trend of Phase 4 consisting of stranger, more personal stories and does see Marvel taking some risks by giving Raimi greater control over the style and tone of the film. But if Marvel wants to truly innovate and appeal to those who are beginning to turn on the multi-media giant, they are going to have to award even greater autonomy to their creative teams. Fingers crossed for Nia DaCosta.