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Sam Raimi’s Hallmark of Horror

While ‘Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’ features the usual elements of a Marvel movie, the sensibilities of its director distinguishes it from much—if not all—of the MCU

Disney/Marvel/Ringer illustration
Spoiler warning

It’s been said that high expectations can lead to resentment. Sam Raimi may have had that in mind ahead of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. In interviews, he’s stressed that Multiverse of Madness is less of a full-on Raimi film than a continuation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s long established—and largely formulaic—sensibilities. Throw in the fact that Doctor Strange director Scott Derrickson originally dropped out of the sequel over “creative differences,” and Raimi’s apparent deference to the MCU had sufficiently tempered the buzz among fans of the cult filmmaker.

But while Multiverse of Madness has the typical hallmarks of an MCU movie, Raimi’s personality still manages to shine through. Having already proved his superhero bona fides with Darkman and the Tobey Maguire–led Spider-Man trilogy, Raimi once again employs the techniques refined in the schlocky, high-energy horror flicks that first put him on the map. Within the MCU’s rigidity, Raimi forms a universe-hopping caper that is at times grotesquely scary and perversely funny—one that features the kind of dizzying zooms, leering POV shots, and cheeky jump scares that wouldn’t seem out of place in the Evil Dead trilogy or Drag Me to Hell. Yet Multiverse of Madness also works because Raimi was willing to adapt his style to fit the MCU’s sprawling narrative. In fact, it’s the yearslong groundwork laid out by the MCU across its movies and Disney+ shows that allows Raimi to unleash Multiverse of Madness’ fearsome X factor: the Scarlet Witch.

At the start of the film, Stephen Strange crosses paths with America Chavez, a teenager with the ability to travel between different universes—only she can’t control when she wants to. America is being pursued across the multiverse by an unknown adversary sending monsters after her using witchcraft, including a tentacled foe that wreaks havoc on the streets of New York. (Side note: I’m not sure why anyone would still choose to live in the city when it’s ground zero for superhero fights.) After defeating the monster, Strange seeks out Wanda Maximoff, who is living a life of solitude on an orchard. But as Strange describes his predicament, Wanda tips her hand, revealing she knows America by name before he ever says it. With that, Wanda pulls back the curtain: The orchard is an illusion, and she has fully embraced her powers as the Scarlet Witch using the Darkhold, an ancient book of black magic that might as well be the Necronomicon.

For Wanda, harnessing America’s powers would allow her to live in an alternate universe with her children, Tommy and Billy, who ceased to exist following the tragic events of WandaVision. But taking those powers would also mean killing America, something Strange could never be comfortable with. Nevertheless, Wanda offers Strange an ultimatum: hand the girl over so Wanda can be reunited with her kids, or face the full wrath of the Scarlet Witch. Of course, Multiverse of Madness wouldn’t have much of a plot if Strange acquiesced to Wanda’s demands, and so the movie kicks into high gear when she goes on a rampage across the multiverse to track down America. It’s the perfect setup for the Raimi-esque carnage that follows.

The extent to which Wanda sows chaos and racks up a body count is startling, if only because the MCU rarely commits to legitimately disturbing moments that would—or at least should—scare off younger audiences. But after possessing herself in another universe through an ability known as dreamwalking—a process that is delightfully creepy from the perspective of the possessed—Wanda brutally dispatches the alt-universe superheroes standing in her way. We’re talking dismemberment, neck-snapping, and essentially imploding the head of the ignominious star of the short-lived ABC series Inhumans. Seeing superheroes—including some played by big-name actors in cameos that could pay off in the MCU’s future—tossed in the proverbial meat grinder is a rare treat, the sort of move that can only happen because the multiverse conceit allows the studio to wave the damage away down the road. (Such is the low bar for Marvel, but at least the movie cleared it.) It’s some of the most delightfully explicit violence enacted in the MCU, and the PG-13 superhero massacre ends with Wanda’s white sweater drenched in blood, the Scarlet Witch ever determined to nab her terrified prey. In Raimi’s hands, Wanda’s crusade feels like something out of a slasher movie.

While being familiar with Wanda’s journey in the MCU isn’t required to enjoy Multiverse of Madness, having that knowledge adds some emotional depth to her gnarly heel turn. After suffering so much loss—her brother Pietro, Vision, her children—Wanda has reached a point where she’s so overwhelmed by grief that she doesn’t care how much damage she inflicts on others to overcome it. (The character’s violent escalation has some precedent for anyone who watched WandaVision, in which she effectively imprisoned an entire town and first got her hands on the Darkhold.) Wanda’s plight garners sympathy, but at the same time, she isn’t any less formidable because of it. It’s the mark of a great villain, which remains decidedly rare in the MCU, and Elizabeth Olsen relishes the opportunity to fully break bad.

For all the justifiable criticism that’s been levied against the MCU, a film like Multiverse of Madness highlights how Marvel’s approach can be engaging when the franchise isn’t cloyingly reliant on nostalgia to wow audiences. The movie is a blast because Raimi is very much in his bag—and Marvel Studios had the good sense to let a talented director cook. Given his blockbuster background, Raimi clearly has a soft spot for superheroes who accept that great power comes with great responsibility, but he’s just as drawn to characters who become seduced by it. Before Wanda, there was Norman Osborn (Spider-Man) and Otto Octavius (Spider-Man 2), the latter of whom transformed into the villainous Doc Ock in a memorably horrifying scene in which his robotic limbs tore through an entire room of doctors and nurses. Wanda’s arc in Multiverse of Madness follows in Norman and Otto’s footsteps: a journey steeped in pain, bloodshed, and ultimately, tragedy.

Whether the Scarlet Witch or Raimi return to the MCU in front of and behind the camera remains to be seen. (Raimi, for his part, has expressed interest in making another Marvel movie.) In any event, Multiverse of Madness was the best possible outcome of a talented filmmaker injecting his wacky sensibilities into the franchise, and the emergence of a powerful villain nearly a decade in the making. It’s easily the most thrilling Marvel movie of the post-Endgame landscape, and I’d go as far as to say it’s one of the best (the best?) entries in the MCU altogether. Going forward, Marvel should follow the lead of the movie’s director and breakout star—and just embrace the madness.