Of all the surprise crowd-pleasing cameos packed into Marvel’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, only one will provoke a nostalgic, involuntary “groovy” from certain members of the audience. That would be the scene where Bruce Campbell, cult horror’s most gifted physical comedian, wanders in to play an obnoxious civilian who winds up fending off attacks from his own hand. It’s the Master of the Mystic Arts who subjects him to this (self-) abuse, answering Campbell’s bit-player belligerence with the magical equivalent of “stop hitting yourself.” But the real man responsible is the one behind the camera: the Evil Dead maestro himself, Sam Raimi, marking his return to filmmaking by briefly putting the one-time Ash Williams through another wringer of slapstick torment.
This isn’t the only identifying mark Raimi leaves on Multiverse, his first movie in nine years and his first superhero blockbuster since 2007’s trilogy-capping Spider-Man 3. [Spoilers ahead.] The camera whips and zooms with characteristic zeal, at one point shifting to the first-person (first-monster?) POV of a one-eyed, multi-tentacled kaiju. There’s a book of dark spells and a haunted house and the possessed cadaver of a dead superhero. The zombie’s weapon of choice? Swarms of shrieking apparitions. Sometimes, it’s almost possible to pretend that we’ve been launched, like the racing demon entity of the Evil Dead films, back into the director’s original neck of the woods.
Yet for all its glimmers of macabre inspiration, for all the spookiness spray painted in the margins of its plot, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness can’t really be a Sam Raimi movie. It can barely be its own movie. This is, after all, the latest installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a franchise that’s taken serialization to a new big-screen extreme. It’s not just that these movies feed forever into each other, always paying off old plot points and setting up new ones, existing in a state of perpetual incompletion. It’s also that they prize continuity above all else; they’re designed, like iPhones or Big Macs, to offer more or less the same experience every time. And seeing a director insert some genuine personality around their edges, as Raimi does here, only underscores how homogenous they tend to be at their center.
The question of authorship — of how much creative control a director can exercise at the helm of one of these films — has loomed over the MCU for years. Marvel, to its credit, has frequently hired filmmakers with distinctive styles, or at least ones who have made interesting movies. And it’s not as though the studio completely flattens the voice of the directors it does secure: You don’t have to squint hard 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.
Still, there have been creative differences behind the scenes. They’ve sent some filmmakers, like Edgar Wright, racing for the exit. (Raimi, in fact, only stepped into Multiverse after another director, Scott Derickson, prematurely stepped out.) Those who have remained aboard Marvel projects have sometimes dished later, complaining of studio interference and attempts to “fix” their stylistic choices in post-production. Even the most relatively auteur-driven entries in the MCU bear clear signs of compromise, their more idiosyncratic qualities at war with franchise boilerplate.
In other words, Marvel gives its filmmakers some space to play — to set action scenes to ’70s pop songs, to cast Community cast members in bit parts, even to sometimes (gasp!) shoot on location — but always within the fairly tight parameters of their formula. The directorial directive seems to be: Go nuts… but, actually, please just color within the lines. Yes, Ragnarok is funny. It also wedges in a cross-promotional cameo by Doctor Strange and ends with a big CGI action sequence that may very well have been conceived by a previz team. In the end, everyone still has to make a Marvel movie.
Multiverse of Madness is one of the Marveliest of them all — a convoluted plot machine that runs on MacGuffins and fan-service guest appearances, and which requires familiarity with a whole syllabus of past adventures. Arriving nearly 30 entries deep into a series that’s really, in comic-book parlance, an endless crossover event, the film has to function as an all-purpose sequel, continuing the events of the first Doctor Strange, the last Spider-Man, the last two Avengers, and an entire season of television. The villain’s motivations are so linked to backstory that the script, which Raimi was rewriting during production, doesn’t much bother to develop or even sell us on them. And there’s a sequence that’s quite literally just a parade of introductions, with pauses for applause.
Raimi, for his part, behaves like a diabolical spirit, possessing the movie whenever he can with ghoulish cartoon-horror mayhem. There’s plenty of him in this film, at least in spurts; he really puts the corpse into the exquisite corpse storytelling model Marvel has nourished. Occasionally, one even gets the sense that he’s using the obligations of this blockbuster apparatus as a backdoor to malevolent fun: The aforementioned perp lineup of cameos leads, fiendishly, to one of the more gruesome sequences in MCU history.
More than most of the filmmakers sucked into the grinding gears of the Marvel machine, Raimi finds ways to assert his oddball personality while still tending to the various franchise-progressing duties of the assignment. But in a way, the film’s relative singularity — its relative Raimi-ness — could leave fans of the director longing for a project that didn’t treat his contributions like an accent or a mere dollop of exotic flavor. The odd energetic camera move aside, Multiverse mostly looks like any other installment in this series; it has the same drab digital palette, the same green-screen VFX aesthetic, the same undistinguished stretch of downtown Manhattan. The vibrancy of Raimi’s Spider-Man movies is a distant memory.
Those films were, of course, products of compromise in their own right. Almost any big-budget Hollywood production is going to be. But all three (yes, even the third one, a famous creative casualty of Sony’s heavy hand) were plainly the work of the monster lover and Three Stooges enthusiast who directed them. Back then, it was still possible for Raimi to build his superhero movies from the ground up. Today, he’s reentered a genre (and a system) that’s been quality-controlled into a state of deliberate uniformity. And as heartening as it is to have him back, it’s hard not to feel nostalgic for a Sam Raimi blockbuster that exudes his signature mania in every frame, not just the ones featuring a grinning ghoul or Bruce Campbell. That one could describe his latest as “Kevin Feige’s Doctor Strange” is proof of how difficult it is, in Marvel world, to make one for you instead of just another for them.