Whoever suggested that Marvel revive the Sam Raimi Spider-Man characters is perfecting their backstroke through hundred-dollar bills right now, so it’s only natural that the studio would bring Raimi himself back to the fold. The hope is that the director of arguably the best superhero movies of all time (those would be Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2, and by “arguably” I mean “inarguably”) can spice up Marvel’s house style, seeing as Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness dabbles in the genre on which Raimi made his name: horror. Indeed, this MCU entry aims to unsettle, and it feels like its own thing for it.

Granted, even tiny deviations stand out in a franchise engineered for sameness, but baby steps are still steps. Multiverse of Madness expands the MCU’s potential with two characters: America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a teenager who can open portals to other universes, and the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olson), Wanda Maximoff’s tortured, dark magic-practicing alter ego. Between witchcraft and the multiverse, there’s just enough weird, sinister energy for Raimi to settle in. The reality bending unleashes his formal flair: instead of confining the extraordinary to ordinary aesthetics, as the MCU tends to do, Madness employs fade cuts, whip pans, jump scares, Dutch angles, and even a crash zoom or two. Raimi’s playful signature—something like, you know, a comic book come to life—appears in flashes, loosening the Marvel grip for some good-faith, bad-taste camp.

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It’s no Army of Darkness, though, and it doesn’t have a fraction of Spider-Man’s ingenuity. Whether by mandate or by instinct, Raimi’s style is palpably toned down. This is still the studio that tried to cut all of Thor’s Dutch angles out of fear they’d disorient the audience. You can feel that hesitation when the movie dips its toes outside its comfort zone: for every gory surprise and jolt of energy, there’s a period of laurel-resting familiarity. In one very Raimi scene, screaming demons try dragging Strange to hell; in one very Marvel scene, Doctor Strange and company stroll through a universe that, despite having been annihilated by an apocalyptic event, merely looks like New York with a dusty gray filter applied. Madness gets one stellar visual effects sequence, some flashes of Raimi flair, and a whole lot of walking, talking, and casting spells in front of barely varying green screens. The movie needs to commit harder to its distinctive elements—swap each cameo for an additional weird idea and there’s a whole new beast here.

Not that this would’ve saved the script. The story’s problems are ingrained in its bedrock. Strange, for one, has no room for meaningful growth. Characters pay lip service to the notion that he must be his literal best self: there are countless Stranges throughout the multiverse, but each one is hubristic and self-serving, and our Doctor Strange must overcome these temptations. It’s a good idea that thematizes the multiverse angle, but it’s horribly mismanaged in practice—at no point is Strange in danger of giving in to his worst instincts. We see other Stranges fail, leaving open the meager possibility that ours could too, but at every juncture, he’s a stalwart, dutiful hero who does the right thing at first suggestion. There’s no character arc—just a meek, repeated reminder that Strange could use his power irresponsibly if he so desired (not that he’d ever desire such a thing!)

America is spunky and spirited but just as dramatically one-note. Ostensibly, her arc involves learning to control her powers, but the movie glosses over her journey with platitudes and shortcuts. Her watershed moment is yet another variation of “the power’s been inside you all along”—good to know, arc complete. Wanda is the only character that begs an emotional response, largely because Olson wears inner conflict so well. Otherwise, Multiverse of Madness hangs loose where it should grab tight: static characters wandering a rule-free multiverse that doesn’t constrain them enough to build tension or momentum. It’s a boring, horror-tinged curiosity.

It’s even more embarrassing in the wake of Everything Everywhere All at Once, the multiversal masterpiece released a few weeks prior. Its laser focus and breathless originality blow Marvel’s production-line output out of the water. Strange’s stingers betray its two minds: the mid-credits scene unmasks another big-name actor suckered into the MCU; the post-credits scene is a winking in-joke for fans of Raimi. If Marvel worked in the latter key more exclusively, at least its weaker stories would be more fun.

★★½   (2.5/5)