Before Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, director Sam Raimi hadn’t made a feature film in nearly a decade. But more distressingly, he hadn’t made a Sam Raimi Film™ since 2009, when he took a step back from big-budget blockbusters and returned to his roots with Drag Me to Hell.
Going into Doctor Strange 2, the 28th film in the increasingly depressing Marvel Cinematic Universe, I had assumed that this was purely a director-for-hire gig for him. He was, after all, quite literally a replacement (the first film’s Scott Derrickson was supposed to return, but he dropped out due to creative differences). And Raimi, a product of the 80s DIY generation of filmmakers, had largely been out of action in the decade immediately after his industry-altering Spider-Man trilogy. So, even though he had helped cultivate the cinema-going landscape that we’re now seeing in full bloom, he was no longer watering it with new films.
With tempered expectations—I’ve long become 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 first few scenes require you to have done a significant amount of homework before watching them, 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 right in the middle of a fantastical action scene so artificial that I began to wonder if the hair in Doctor Strange’s beard is computer-generated as well. Then, it squeezes in some convoluted backstory and chucks yet another CGI-heavy fight scene at you. Sigh.
About the decline in these films’ visual quality, a direct correlation can be made to the point when Marvel began filming its projects on Atlanta sound stages as opposed to real-world locations. For instance, portions of the first Doctor Strange movie were filmed in Nepal; I don’t think I could identify a single on-location sequence in the entirety of Doctor Strange 2. So, you can imagine just how strange it was for a filmmaker like Raimi—a man with a particular affinity for in-camera tricks—to step inside Marvel’s blandly-standardised sandbox.
But against all odds, after that rather disappointing first act, glimmers of Raimi’s style became visible through the Marvel muck. In addition to a plot that involves a book of spells, an actual witch, and dozens of undead soldiers—all elements that hark back to Raimi’s Evil Dead days—the earliest signs of his kinetic camerawork can be seen in the sequence where Wanda Maximoff lays siege on Kamar-Taj, as she attempts to capture the multiverse-hopping teenager America Chavez. It’s inventively staged, littered with quirky little horror moments, and shot with Raimi’s trademark zooms and off-kilter framing.
But the scene that truly felt like they’d let him loose comes much later, when Doctor Strange pays a visit to 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 with a good-old fight. But what unfolds next isn’t the typical Hollywood punch-up; you know, those frenetically edited combat scenes in which nobody can tell who’s who. The ones where random bystanders yell things like, “Look out! Behind you!” while a generic score adds to the confusion. Well, in this scene, the two Doctor Stranges fight each other not with their fists, but with music. More specifically, musical notes.
They literally hurl symphonies at each other—percussions, strings, brass, all visualised in bright colours on screen—as they hash things out. As the fight proceeds, the music crescendoes, until our Doctor Strange—the good Doctor Strange—emerges victorious thanks to a single harp note. Words cannot do justice to the pure insanity on display. It’s silly, subversive and serves no other purpose than to see how far things can be pushed, truly living up to the promise in the film’s title.
The scene doesn’t just cement Doctor Strange 2 as the most filmmaker-driven 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 film, but this scene—effectively Elfman’s cameo—is more memorable than both of them put together. The moment is made all the more special when you remember that Raimi and Elfman had an ugly falling out after Spider-Man 2, and watching a fight sequence in which music is literally weaponised feels like Raimi’s way of honouring their friendship.
It’s so refreshing to see Marvel allow directors to put their own stamp on the material. This was the foundation upon which the franchise had been built, but for some reason—a lack of faith in the audience, most likely—these films have become too cookie-cutter for my taste in recent years. Just look at the three MCU Spider-Man films; you get no idea of the kind of filmmaker Jon Watts is after watching them. But they made billions of dollars. Marvel would like to pretend like Eternals was some kind of experiment, but it really wasn’t. It was just new wine in an old bottle.
What’s stranger is that every time they’ve allowed filmmakers to run with it, the movies have worked. Taika Waititi literally saved the Thor franchise with Ragnarok. But that was five years ago. The last time Marvel gave this kind of freedom to a director, in my estimation, was when they allowed Shane Black to make a Shane Black movie set inside the MCU. It just happened 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 misfires than by-the-numbers hits. If Marvel is going to ruin culture, we might as well watch Sam Raimi fiddle as it all burns.