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The Stew Review: Doctor Strange sequel a superb return to form for director Sam Raimi

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Published: May. 11, 2022 at 2:00 PM CDT|Updated: May. 11, 2022 at 7:28 PM CDT
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TYLER, Texas (KLTV) - With Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, director Sam Raimi has delivered a movie the likes of which I wasn’t sure I’d ever see within the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

There have been peaks and valleys, film-wise, ever since Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark defiantly proclaimed to be Iron Man, but by and large an MCU flick is the closest the industry has to a sure thing these days. That consistency often comes at a cost, however. Save for exceptions such as Thor Ragnarok’s Taika Waititi and Black Panther’s Ryan Coogler, MCU films typically are helmed by directors who are solid, journeyman filmmakers. They do largely perfectly fine work but little in the way of a creative or authorial voice shines through for one reason or another.

So when a filmmaker with such an overwhelmingly distinct voice as Sam Raimi comes along and is a last minute replacement for a Marvel movie, my elation was subdued by a mountain of caution. When he’s firing on all cylinders, there is no mistaking the work of Sam Raimi for anyone else’s, and the cosmically weird world of Dr. Stephen Strange feels tailor-made for the spook-a-blast sensibilities of the man who brought us the likes of Evil Dead II and Darkman. The only question would be how much of that madcap energy would or even could capably shine through?

Suffice to say: All of it. This is a Sam Raimi movie through and through. It’s his first directed film in nearly 10 years but he’s back firing on all cylinders.

Nearly every hallmark of his work is present and in full effect. Energetic camerawork? Check. Perfectly timed jump scares? Check. Horror elements that perfectly balance moments of genuine fright with a gonzo sense of humor? Check. An impeccable sense of how to make the proceedings feel like a comic book come to life? Check. This movie moves and looks and feels like no other of its kind.

Raimi has excelled at making comic book movies (his Spider-Man 2 from 2004 remains in many ways the apex of the sub-genre). He’s excelled at horror films. But never before has he been able (allowed?) to concoct such a compelling and exquisite synthesis of the two. He came closest with Darkman, the movie that asks “What if a classic movie monster became a superhero?”, but that felt like a toe being dipped into this particular pool. With Multiverse of Madness, Raimi jumps in doing a cannonball.

In some ways, this is my ideal comic book movie. It takes well-established characters, puts them through the ringer and delivers a fun, impactful story that draws from the interconnected universe it occupies while still largely telling a self-contained story. As impressive as it’s been to watch dozens of MCU movies bob and weave plot threads and characters together, it’s nice to watch a movie that simply wants to plunge its characters through wild escapades rather than spend too much time setting up future events. It feels like a standalone issue of a Marvel comic.

In it, Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) discovers that dreams aren’t just fabrications of the subconscious. They’re visions of what’s happening to you in an alternate, concurrent reality. So when he finds out that he didn’t dream of dying while helping American Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) a girl who can freely hop from one reality to the next, his alternate self actually did die, it’s off to the races as he desperately tries to find out how to help this scared girl who barely understands her own abilities and is pursued by a nigh-unbeatable adversary. What ensues is a non-stop ride of dimension-hopping, wild wizardry and cameo appearances that are a veritable rollercoaster in and of themselves.

It must be said that this is probably the best Benedict Cumberbatch has ever been in the role. I’ve really grown to enjoy him as Strange but Multiverse of Madness adds some much needed layers to him beyond “Smartest guy in the room who knows some sick magic spells.” Xochitl Gomez isn’t given much to do but she makes the most with what she has as America Chavez forces some unexpected growth from Strange. It’s Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda/Scarlet Witch, however, who’s the MVP. I’ll refrain from giving too many details on how she fits into the film at large, but suffice to say it’s her mental and emotional journey that is at the very heart of the film. Wanda very easily could have been a despicable character (though understandably so, depending on your perspective) yet Olson manages to find just the right balance here.

Oh and I’d be remiss if I didn’t sing the praises of composer Danny Elfman bringing his A-game. Elfman has composed some of the greatest film scores in the history of the medium. And while he doesn’t deliver anything near as iconic as, say, his score for the Tim Burton Batman movies, it’s the best work he’s done in years as he weaves motifs in and through, augmenting moments in a way only he can.

If it wasn’t clear by now, I loved this to death. It warms my heart that Sam Raimi is back and clearly energized as a filmmaker, delivering what feels like a perfect synthesis of so many elements throughout his career thus far.

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