Scott Derrickson, the director of the first Doctor Strange movie, dropped out of its sequel over “creative differences” with Marvel. That’s what tends to happen when a director doesn’t see eye to eye with the studio’s executives. After all, Marvel isn’t going to fire itself. It’s their characters, their universe, and their house style.

So when Marvel brought in Sam Raimi to replace Derrickson as the director of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness it was exciting, but you also had to wonder: What movie was Raimi being brought in to make? Was he just a hired gun to shoot what Marvel wanted? Or would Marvel let Sam Raimi be Sam Raimi?

The answer, to my relief and delight, is yes they would. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a Marvel movie, with all the requisite action and special effects and surprise cameos that entails, but it is also a Sam Raimi movie through and through. It’s about tortured heroes who must battle the forces of unholy evil — along with dark versions of themselves. It’s got all-powerful books that might bring about the end of the world. It’s got a zombie or two. It has surprisingly intense horror and violence for a PG-13 rated movie. And, maybe most importantly, it feels like the work of a gifted director; a guy who knows how to tell a story through camera placement and movement, music, and point-of-view editing.

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Admittedly, a lot of that stuff comes in the film’s second half. The first part is much shakier — and visually messier — as Raimi rushes to introduce Multiverse of Madness’ most important new character: America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a young woman with the power to leap between universes. Chased by monsters who want to steal her abilities, America stumbles into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where she is saved by Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and fellow superhero sorcerer Wong (Benedict Wong). But America’s pursuers won’t stop, and so Strange seeks help from Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), another Avenger who was last seen (in her Disney+ show WandaVision) trying to locate her lost family somewhere in the multiverse.

The story from there hinges on twists and turns that the trailers for Multiverse of Madness don’t spoil, so neither will I. All you really need to know plot-wise is that a pinwheeling chase through various realities ensues, bringing Strange and Wanda face to face with alternate versions of themselves.

Seeing heroes go bad or villains turn to the light are hallmarks of Marvel Comics’ stories set in alternate realities (like the ones that inspired last summer’s What If...? TV series) and they’re always fun for some cheap thrills. Here though, Raimi and screenwriter Michael Waldron use that gimmick to dig into these characters’ hopes and frustrations. The question “Are you happy?” gets posed to characters throughout Multiverse of Madness, and that simple query gets refracted through the story in some very interesting ways. Each time Strange and Wanda meet their doppelgangers, they come face to face with a different path their lives could have taken — or still could in the future if they’re not careful.

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I may be making Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness sound like a treatise on the meaning of life, and I suppose on some level, in some moments, it is. But obviously it is more fundamentally a bombastic action spectacular. On that front, it serves as a reminder how much better these sorts of movies are when a legitimately talented director like Raimi is in charge. Some of the early sequences, like Strange and Wong fighting a giant alien octopus, could have come from anyone. But by the end of the movie, there are concepts and visuals that could only have sprung from the mind and camera of Sam Raimi. One moment in particular comes pretty close to summing up the man’s entire filmmaking career in one unsettling, hilarious, and even poignant image.

It’s also worth mentioning that Raimi has always been an underrated director of actors — think of all the great performances in Spider-Man 2 and A Simple Plan and Darkman and The Quick and the Dead and on and on and on — and his cast does really solid work here amidst a lot of green screens and deranged demons from dark dimensions. Even some of the performers with supporting roles make big impressions, like Michael Stuhlbarg as Strange’s old surgical colleague Dr. West or Rachel McAdams as Christine Palmer, Strange’s off-and-on romantic partner. Given a very difficult part (or technically parts) to play, Olsen makes Wanda into an interesting mix of warmth and fury. The way her arc here builds off her story in Avengers: Infinity War and WandaVision is one of the more striking examples of Marvel’s brand of longform multimedia storytelling.

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After a shaky start introducing some its characters and premise, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness settles into a very entertaining groove. It’s alternately funny, exciting, and by the end, more than a little bit scary. It also has more memorable images than the average Marvel movie, like an ominous staircase that seems to lead out of an ocean up into infinity. (The film was shot by Oscar-nominated cinematographer John Mathieson, whose previous work includes Ridley Scott’s Gladiator and James Mangold’s Logan.)

One of the hallmarks of Raimi’s movies, especially his Spider-Man films, is a fervent belief in heroes and their old-fashioned values about doing the right thing for no other reason than it must be done. That sort of earnest faith in goodness radiates from Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Doctor Strange himself delivers multiple monologues at the end of this movie, encouraging characters to rise to their full potential and confessing his own deepest secrets and darkest fears. To my surprise, those moments in this silly, busy blockbuster moved me. That’s what’s so great about Sam Raimi; it’s not just that he believes in these characters, he makes you believe in them too.

Additional Thoughts:

-Disney is hyping Doctor Strange as the only place, at least at first, to see the trailer for James Cameron’s long-awaited Avatar sequel. They showed the teaser to the press before the film and ... it’s not the sort of thing worth going out of your way for if you don’t already want to see Doctor Strange. It’s brief, quiet, and very much looks like Avatar — but the Avatar of 13 years ago. At least in this preview, there weren’t any shots that suggested Cameron had made some mind-blowing technological leap in the interim.

-A very small nitpick: I wish Benedict Cumberbatch’s superhero hair was as convincingly lifelike as his magical cloak. Why does his Dr. Strange wig, well, look so much like a wig?

-Some of the cameos in this movie have been teased in trailers, but others have not; if you want to go in completely unspoiled, I’d be very careful on social media starting on Thursday night. (Or maybe starting right now.)

-Another Raimi trademark are unforgettable musical scores, and Doctor Strange delivers yet another one, with Raimi reteaming with his old collaborator from Darkman and the Spider-Man movies, Danny Elfman. One scene in particular spotlights Elfman’s work in a way that is sure to go down in history as one of the most inventive action sequences in any Marvel movie to date.

RATING: 7/10

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