Director Richard Donner is credited with making the modern superhero movie a viable blockbuster with Superman back in 1978. But Sam Raimi was arguably the filmmaker most responsible for setting the current template, first with his wild, expressionist fantasy Darkman (1990) and then with his Spider-Man trilogy (2002, 2004, 2007), which artfully blended elaborate action with heartfelt emotion.

Director Richard Donner is credited with making the modern superhero movie a viable blockbuster with Superman back in 1978. But Sam Raimi was arguably the filmmaker most responsible for setting the current template, first with his wild, expressionist fantasy Darkman (1990) and then with his Spider-Man trilogy (2002, 2004, 2007), which artfully blended elaborate action with heartfelt emotion.

Raimi rejoins the Marvel Universe, taking up a character most in need of an infusion of human soul, the chilly, cerebral Dr. Stephen Strange, played by Benedict Cumberbatch in Doctor Strange (2016) and any number of subsequent Avengers movies/tie-ins.

The movie kicks off with a dream sequence wherein a weird, not entirely heroic Steven Strange variant attempts to save the life of a young woman (Xochitl Gomez) apparently being hunted by a hostile Lovecraftian entity.

Here in our world, it turns out Strange’s “dream” is a subconscious window into a different universe, which he discovers while attending the wedding of his former love interest Christine (Rachel McAdams). The nuptials are interrupted by the appearance of a tentacled kaiju, which Strange neutralizes with the help of his partner/mentor Wong (Benedict Wong). Along the way, he meets the girl from his dreams, and determines the spunky lass — named America — possesses the singular talent of being able to access any parallel universe, but only when she is in the grip of fear.

To aid in his mission, Strange attempts to enlist the assistance of his fellow supernatural mystic Wanda Maximoff, a.k.a. the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), who ends up provoking more problems than solutions.

In the post-Spider-Man films, Marvel has tended to rely on filmmakers who were willing to tamp down more their more unusual stylistic tendencies for the sake of serving a more homogeneous function, tying all the films together. This likely is one reason a filmmaker like Edgar Wright was cut loose from his Ant-Man duties.

Raimi evidently deserved a special dispensation, and he runs with it, layering the big superhero action with gonzo touches — hyperactive POV shots, camera swoops and visual distortions that serve as callbacks to the Raimi of those groundbreaking Evil Dead movies.

In fact, Raimi gleefully layers significant horror elements onto the film — how else to explain a zombie Dr. Strange? — in contrast to director Scott Derrickson’s first Strange movie from 2016, which properly emphasized trippy, hallucinogenic visuals, in keeping with the acid-infused heyday of the comic book back in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

Raimi takes some of the starch out of the franchise with his trademark sardonic/zany humour (yes, there is a Bruce Campbell cameo), and Cumberbatch leans into the comedy opportunities, placing the dramatic burden mostly on Elizabeth Olsen, who adds a darker shade of Scarlet to a character already explored in the Disney+ series WandaVision.

The most problematic issue of the film is the Multiverse thing, which Marvel has bought into in a big way with the Loki series and especially Spider-Man: No Way Home, which posited that all three Spider-Man franchises simply took place in different planes of existence within the multiverse.

It’s fun and allows for nifty variations on a Marvel theme, but it’s also a bit self-defeating. When there are three or four Dr. Stranges in a single movie, it inevitably lowers the stakes when it comes to investing your interest in one hero, knowing there’s an infinite number of other doctors out there to take his place.

Perhaps the No. 1 adversary in the Marvel Universe right now is the deus ex machina plot device attending the multiverse. It’s time to retreat to one world. Excelsior.

randall.king.arts@gmail.com

Twitter: @FreepKing

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Randall King

Randall King
Reporter

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.