Saturday 14 May 2022

Doctor Strange's House of Horrors

20 years ago, director Sam Raimi's Spider-Man reinvigorated superhero movies and foreshadowed the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) beginning with Iron Man (2008).

Nick Smith, our resident US-based comic book guru, reviews Raimi's return.

Guest post by Nick Smith

One thing is constant across the multiverse: Doctor Stephen Strange and Doctor Christine Palmer love each other but they never seem to be able to make their relationship work. Kind of like Sam Raimi and Hollywood.

Raimi’s first horror movie, The Evil Dead, is revered as a genre classic despite – or because of - its low budget limitations. It has inspired many filmmakers, including myself. Raimi went on to direct several memorable films, including two Evil Dead sequels, a western (The Quick and the Dead), a slapstick comedy (Crimewave), a noir drama (A Simple Plan), a sports romance (For Love of the Game) and his own variation on a pulp superhero (Darkman).

His production company Renaissance Pictures gave us cult favourite TV shows such as Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess, who in turn paved the way for the heroines of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Alias and Kill Bill. But Raimi’s best known for his horror flicks and his Marvel movies, which include 2002’s phenomenally popular Spider-Man.

Unfortunately, Spider-Man 3 was deemed a disappointment when it arrived in 2007. Raimi went back to his evil roots with Drag Me to Hell. Imagine a cross between the two and you’ll have a mental taste of Raimi’s comeback epic, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness – the first film he’s directed in 9 years.

Marvel has been rolling out its movies and streaming shows at a conveyor belt pace, using the same basic parts to create products that are well made, good looking and heavily branded with the same formula – heroes face a monstrous menace, havoc is wreaked, heroes make a great sacrifice in the hopes of defeating the said menace.

Director Raimi plays it safe plotwise but the tone is dark and sometimes scary for little kiddies.

This movie’s real hook, though, is its promise to show us parallel worlds and some old favourite characters. While DC’s TV shows have been playing with the ‘infinite earth’ concept for several years with entertaining results, Marvel has had more recent success with the animated feature Into the Spiderverse. Since it earned over $375 million worldwide, a live-action trip across dimensions was inevitable.

Unfortunately, we’ve already seen spectacular cameos in Spiderverse and Spider-Man: No Way Home and some of the latter’s best moments were due to the nostalgia element of seeing characters from Raimi’s trilogy. So in a way, the director is overshadowed by the ghosts of his own previous work. How can he compete with his past self?

One way is to up the scariness. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness brings us darker versions of beloved heroes, demonic monsters and undead creatures.

Another way is to pack in a lot of fights, magical environments and eye-bending spectacle to keep us entertained through its 126 minutes running time. The action set pieces are drawn out, leaving little room for the actors to show their chops – although kudos is due to them for holding their own amongst all the visual chaos and brutally destructive injustice that seems like it’s ripped from a Zack Snyder DC film.

As Doctor Stephen Strange, Benedict Cumberbatch does get one chance to stretch his thespianism in a touching scene about Strange’s dead sister. But it’s gone in an Agamotto blink. Thankfully, the movie does have time to include some delicious references to Alan Moore’s universe numbering system (first mentioned in the comic book adventures of Captain Britain!); the kind of monsters that were prevalent in classic Marvel Comics like Strange Tales; and the What If? animated series on Disney+.

Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) loses the nuances she gained in her own Disney+ show, seemingly taking a step backwards from her character development to make her more formidable. We’re presented with a younger, more naïve version of America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) than we’re used to in the comics.

Here she’s protected by Strange, who is obsessed with being in control and doing good deeds. He is willing to help one girl he’s never met before at all costs. However, he uses means that might not justify the ends – a risk Wanda takes as well. These challenges and Raimi’s dark side make the film gripping enough to make it more than just another Fin Fang Foom factory grind-out.

So come to the Multiverse to see the Steve Ditko-inspired alter planes, the themes of misused power and parenting, the star cameos and the indelible Raimi touch. Stay for the bittersweet love story between Doctor Strange and Christine (Rachel McAdams), the endearing performances by Benedict Wong and Xochitl Gomez and a magical, crotchety music-note battle that would make Walt Disney proud.

One cameo we do get is from Bruce Campbell, who has been a Raimi mainstay throughout his career.

At the time of writing the film has grossed half a billion dollars in its first weekend and it’s great to see the Evil Dead duo back on top. Now can we have Campbell playing Mysterio in a Raimi-directed Spider-Man 4?

Have you seen Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness? Let me know in the comments below.

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