The most surprising thing about Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is how often it almost (almost!) feels like a movie that was actually directed by Sam Raimi.
Raimi was the guiding force behind the trio of early-'00s Spider-Man films that helped launch Hollywood into its current superhero-induced manic phase. Raimi's Spider-Man movies were populist and accessible, condensing decades of comic book lore and mythos into empathetic, stand-alone stories. But they were also personal and distinctive, bearing all the hallmarks of the gonzo cartoon-horror director who'd made Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness, as well as the proto–comic book tribute to Marvel, Darkman. Raimi's Spider-Man films had an irresistible combination of pulpy wit, Looney Tunes–style action gags, and deep empathy for the operatic-yet-human travails of the series' comic book heroes and villains.
Raimi, in other words, helped bring superheroes to the masses in bespoke form years before the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) would do so at industrial scale. But with that scale has come standardization, in which, despite some variance in tone from film to film, the franchise's house style and fan-friendly determination to meet expectations have come to define the series more than any individual director. Marvel movies developed a reputation for being stylistically bland, obsessed with character overlap and crossover narratives tying installments together, and generally unwilling to tread into territory too gruesome or too tied to real tragedy. Directors, meanwhile, were given vast resources but also reportedly kept on short creative leashes so as not to upset the complex continuity or veer too far from established successes. Indeed, in the run-up to the delayed release of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, there were worrying signals about Raimi's level of control and involvement, with headlines suggesting the director of the movie was himself unsure whether the film was actually completed.
Now it's completed, and the final product feels like a Raimi film far more than one might have expected—yet far less than one might have hoped. Raimi's hallmarks are mostly visible—the penchant for witty grotesquerie, the blend of pathos and horror, the willingness to put heroes through hell, the rendering of the occult as both goofy and ghastly—but they are all checked by Marvel's apparent squeamishness, its overriding desire not to depart from its formulaic conventions or disturb the images of its superheroes too much.
And then there are the many MCU crossover events and cameos, which have become rote and dutiful, especially when previewed so heavily in advertisements. In the early days of Marvel, Hollywood was still reluctant to let characters from one franchise cross over into another; Raimi's Spider-Man films had taken place in a distinctly Spider-Man-centric movie universe, without all the rest of the super crowd milling about. So for comic book fans raised on character crossovers and team-ups, there was a genuine thrill in seeing so many heroes on screen together in a movie like The Avengers.
A decade later, the question with each MCU film isn't whether there will be surprise special appearances, but how many, who they'll be, and which previous or forthcoming MCU works they'll reference. Back when comic books were a shameful hobby for socially awkward nerds, it was often thought that this sort of complex lore-and-continuity gatekeeping, which required years of geeky study, was a knock on comic books. Only nerds could devote themselves to following such fantastical, semi-coherent intricacies. But with the MCU, Marvel has transformed that sort of fandom-first approach to storytelling into the closest thing Hollywood has to a mass cultural event. It's moviegoing as homework assignment.
It's also a deft marketing strategy. The MCU is simultaneously a system for the delivery of superhero-based nostalgia and an in-movie advertising service for future MCU films. The message is: Remember how much you enjoyed those earlier films? Well look what we've got coming next!
The virtue of Raimi's Spider-Man films, in contrast, was not only that they translated Spider-Man through his personal style and interests, but that they focused on ensuring that viewers enjoyed the movie itself—the one being watching in the moment. They were made to be enjoyed independently, on their own merits, rather than as connecting cogs in some vast machine.
The best parts about Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness come during the final hour, when Raimi transcends the weight of the MCU and its attendant expectations and complications. That he sometimes manages to do so is a sign of Raimi's power as a pop auteur after all these years; that the MCU manages to drag down such a distinctive visionary is a sign of the franchise's most glaring weakness. This is an occasionally stirring film that sadly isn't strange or mad enough.