This article contains major Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness spoilers.
Hail to the King, baby. That’s the final line of Sam Raimi’s grooviest Evil Dead movie, Army of Darkness, but for Marvel fans of a certain sensibility, the thought had to spring to mind while watching Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. One might even count Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige among those ranks.
Not since James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy films and Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok has a Marvel director seemed to be so liberated, acting with enough freedom to leave their own stylistic stamp on a Marvel movie. Indeed, Feige recently said at a press conference we attended that “I was a young producer who just felt lucky to be in the same room with [Raimi 20 years ago], and now I’m an old producer that just feels lucky to be in the same room with him again.”
Perhaps that’s why he let Raimi—a director who hasn’t helmed a superhero movie since his publicly fraught battles over Spider-Man 3 (2007)—have a little more latitude in telling Doctor Strange 2 in his own peculiar cadence. The second Doctor Strange is still most certainly a Marvel movie, filled with interconnective tissue to WandaVision, Fantastic Four, and X-Men. But it was also a Sam Raimi joint down to its bones, with more than a few easter eggs for his old school fans. So we’re here to unpack them for you!
Camerawork from Hell
When we chatted with Bruce Campbell last year for the 40th anniversary of The Evil Dead, the cult icon confessed that he and Raimi had been perpetuating a myth for years: In the final shot of that movie when “The Force” comes speeding like a bat out of Hell for the soul of poor, young Ashley J. Williams (Campbell), Raimi and company used to claim the director was riding in a motorcycle that sped all the way through that real cabin door and into Campbell’s ample chin.
“The great comedian W.C. Fields wrote all his own press releases, and he lied in all of ‘em,” Campbell boasted. “So we enjoyed doing that sort of stuff and adding to the myth.”
That might be true, but the reason it worked so well is because no one had seen filming techniques that were both that aggressively muscular and stylishly successful in a low-budget horror flick before. The truth seemed just as incredulous too—Raimi ran full-tilt, screaming, with a wide-angle camera lens nailed to a board above his head—but it created some of the most gonzo imagery ever put into drive-in cinema.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness leans into that style on a much grander scale. It’s there in the first shot that doesn’t require extensive amounts of blue screen. When Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) awakens in his bed, Raimi’s camera does a spinning zoom and pull-out, breathlessly rushing with the character as he nearly jumps out of his own skin. It’s a “howdy, there, folks!” salutation from the director!
From there, the number of canted Dutch angles, whip pans, and various other flashy tools of the trade are too numerous to list, but a few highlights for us include whenever Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda Maximoff goes full “Scarlet Witch” and starts approaching hapless heroes. For instance, both before Olsen appears onscreen during Scarlet Witch’s siege of Kamar-Taj, as well as later when they know she’s in the room with them but they cannot see her, the camera aggressively tilts at perpendicular angles as it travels right to left, making the viewer feel uneasy, a la the mounting dread Campbell’s Ash feels during the third act of The Evil Dead in 1981 that uses the same techniques.
But probably the best instance of Raimi gleefully imprinting his visual flair on the material is when Wanda in the prime timeline begins “dreamwalking” into the parallel universe where she is a happy suburban mom. Suddenly, we’re inside Scarlet Witch-Wanda’s gaze as she stares at Suburban Wanda. It’s how a demon or witch might watch its prey. This is the same visual trick Raimi used throughout all three Evil Dead movies to mark the power of “The Force,” an evil entity in the woods that would often spy on its victims before running at them (as a piece of plywood above Raimi’s head).
The Battle Building from Spider-Man 2
The early and only scenes of Stephen Strange living his everyday life in the MCU revolve around a wedding—where he isn’t the groom but wished he was. He’s there to attend the nuptials of Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), his former colleague in medicine and surgery who is now marrying some other dude. While, granted, it could just be due to the narrative here being similar to beats in Spider-Man 2 where Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker must watch the woman he loves also marry some other guy, the way Raimi pauses to soak in the emotional turmoil in Cumberbatch’s eyes via lingering close-ups feels a bit like a throwback since Marvel Studios movies rarely hover so earnestly on emotional beats without a subsequent punchline.
In retrospect, I suspect this is intentional, given that the following fight scene is an overt homage by Raimi, Feige, and the rest of the Marvel team for one of the great action sequences from Spider-Man 2 where Maguire’s Web-Head battles Doctor Octopus on the side of a building—or “battle building” as that production crew called it. In Doctor Strange 2, rather than Aunt May, it is America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) who is kidnapped by an eight-legged creature… now a giant monster created by some kind of sorcery.
Still, Strange gets the type of old-fashioned superhero moment rarely seen in the MCU where, in front of a bunch of civilians, he dons his superhero attire and enters battle to save someone to the sound of cheers. The vertical fight even includes the perspective of screaming young women from inside the building, who react when a monstrous arm comes smashing through the wall.
Bruce Campbell Is… Pizza Poppa
Of course no Sam Raimi movie is complete without at least a cameo from the man, the myth, and the chin: Mr. Bruce Campbell. The childhood friend and star of the Evil Dead trilogy has long been a good luck charm for Raimi, appearing in sometimes the most fleeting of roles. But what makes Doctor Strange 2 especially fun is he gets his comeuppance for being such an asshole in at least two of the three Raimi-directed Spider-Man movies.
In those pictures, Campbell played a character who always looked down on Maguire’s guileless Peter. He was the wrestling announcer in 2002 who scoffed at the name the Human Spider, saying “that sucks” before re-christening him “Spider-Man.” In Spider-Man 2, he was the snooty theater usher who did what no villain could: thwarted the Web-Head by refusing to let him into a theater late. And during Spider-Man 3, he’s a slightly more helpful maître d’ who still cannot say Peter’s name correctly and undermines Parker’s (admittedly terrible) marriage proposal.
So when Campbell shows up as an alternate universe’s Pizza Poppa to threaten America for stealing his pizza balls, and then mocks Doctor Strange for being a poser, well it’s time a Marvel superhero gets him back. And unlike Peter, Stephen is no pushover. He casts a spell on Pizza Poppa right before he is about to squirt mustard (cheese?) on the hero. This causes Poppa to douse himself instead. His hands then proceed to beat the ever loving shit out of Campbell’s chin.
This is hilarious for a few reasons. Firstly, it calls back to Evil Dead II in which one of Ash’s hands becomes possessed and starts trying to kill him—to the point where Ash needs to cut it off with a chainsaw. Secondly, it recalls the basic physical comedy of The Three Stooges that was always such an influence on Raimi and Campbell. Also, just to let audiences know Strange isn’t a complete monster, he says it’ll wear off… in three weeks.
That’s the type of mean-spirited sense of humor that runs through all of Raimi’s movies, even Spider-Man. And sure enough, the final post-credits scene is a bruised and beaten Campbell literally shouting happily to the audience, “It’s over!”
The Brutal Deaths of the Illuminati
Speaking of mean-spiritedness, it was a night and day difference between the loving fan service of Spider-Man: No Way Home, where three generations of Spider-Man actors hugged it out, and the tongue-in-cheek dismissal of favorites like John Krasinski as Reed Richards, Patrick Stewart as Charles Xavier, and Hayley Atwell as Captain Carter in Doctor Strange 2. They, along with Anson Mount’s less-loved Black Bolt and the surprise appearance of Lashana Lynch as Captain Marvel, died gruesomely at the hands of a possessed Wanda who’s gone full “Dead By Dawn” at this point.
Like a bunch of dim Evil Dead college buds who try to reason with Cheryl before getting wrecked, the Illuminati attempt to humor the Scarlet Witch. “I’m a father of several children too,” Reed implores her. Wanda responds by first confirming they still have a mother and then adding, “Good. There’ll be someone left to raise them.”
That’s some cold shit, reminiscent of “like all the others before you, one by one, we will take you.” And she does! First she takes away Black Bolt’s mouth, which may have more to do with The Matrix than a direct Raimi nod, and then she slaughters every one of them with extreme prejudice.
The ones that feel the most apropos of Raimi’s sense of twisted pleasure in killing off characters are Black Bolt’s head caving in like a grape and dear, fan favorite Peggy being bisected by her own shield. We don’t actually see the body severed in two (although one can speculate Raimi argued for some type of shadow effect), but we do have a brutal insert shot of her facial reaction, in extreme close-up, as she realizes what is happening as the shield cuts her in half. This is reminiscent of Willem Dafoe’s meme-ified “oh” before being impaled in Spider-Man.
But perhaps the most Raimi like murder in the movie belongs to the death of beloved Charles Xavier, who enters possessed Suburban Wanda’s mind in an attempt to free her. He finds her trapped beneath a cave not unlike the imagery of Cheryl trapped in the fruit cellar in The Evil Dead. But before he can pull her out, a telegraphed jump scare occurs with Scarlet Witch-Wanda emerging in a genuinely witchy, possessed form (also a la Cheryl) to snap Xavier’s neck. The possessed crone in Army of Darkness couldn’t have done it better.
Demons, Evil Doppelgängers, and the Damned
As with the camera shots, there may be too many little flourishes of the depraved to mention in detail, but Raimi is able to dabble into a lot of the Gothic imagery he helped turn into a hardy chuckle back in his Evil Dead days, as well as from more recent vintages like 2009’s Drag Me to Hell.
In fact, the most transgressive imagery in the whole film revolves around turning “the Souls of the Damned” into antagonists in this movie. That plot twist emerges after Strange decides he must “dreamwalk” inside one of his variants’ corpses, which was left to rot in the Marvel prime timeline. First of all, it is one of the most iconic images from The Evil Dead when a hand bursts out of its grave—which Raimi previously homaged when the Green Goblin did the same schtick in Spider-Man—but after Zombie Strange emerges from the grave, both he and our Strange’s spirit self are beset by flying Souls of the Damned, which seek to drag Stephen to Hell!
The image of Strange being dragged into a black oily pit by the hands of the damned is spooky stuff that I’m sure will give some younger kids nightmares. It’s also a relatively kid-friendly variation on the startling final imagery in Drag Me to Hell where poor, semi-innocent Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) is dragged screaming to eternal damnation by the hands of demons and other damned, only they’re pulling her into a fiery pit beneath the earth where her skin is already beginning to melt off as she goes under.
Also similar to that movie, Doctor Strange’s Christine must fight off the same Souls of the Damned as Stephen is likewise being dragged to perdition. This also echoes the seance scene in its set design and setup from Drag Me to Hell.
That macabre sequence occurs because our Stephen and Christine tried to enlist the help of a third multiverse Strange, who reveals himself to be an Evil Strange with a third eye on his forehead (it also feels very Raimi that he’d refer to the Sanctum Sanctorum as “a goddamn haunted house”). This intentionally leans into the imagery of “Good Ash” and “Bad Ash” from Army of Darkness. And while Evil Strange is never turned into a moldering undead corpse, the aforementioned corpse that Good Strange possesses is, indeed, deep into the early stages of decomposition. And the half-missing lip above the gum line? It’s a similar little touch to Bad Ash’s complexion after taking a boomstick blast to the face!
Doctor Strange 2 is filled with such amusingly depraved imagery and world-building: mentions of demons, the Darkhold looking a lot like the Necronomicon in Army of Darkness, and even eyes popping out of water puddles. (Bad Ash also has a habit of jumping through watery mirrors in Evil Dead II.)
Although not all of Raimi’s flourishes are twisted. Indeed, the flip side is he likes wearing his heart on his sleeve with emotions as over the top as the horror. That can include the comedy, as with the aforementioned Three Stooges routine via Campbell, as well as in moments of sincere sentimentality, such as how Wanda’s children are depicted in the Suburban Universe. The scene of them singing how much they love ice cream to their mom is so wholesome it gives the Aunt May scenes a run for their money in Spider-Man 3.
The Doomed Schmuck
Unlike even Raimi’s Spidey flicks, however, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a superhero movie with the conviction to end (at least before the end credits) on a note which reminds audiences that things don’t always go as planned. And also, you’re following a bit of a schmuck.
In all three Evil Dead movies that meant Campbell discovering he’s not out of the woods (at least in the original bleak Army of the Dead finale); in Drag Me to Hell, the filmmakers make good on the title; and in the case of Doctor Strange 2, it’s discovering that Evil Strange wasn’t lying when he said using the Darkhold exerts a heavy price on the individual.
Walking down the streets of Bleecker Street on a sunny spring morning, Stephen Strange thinks he’s won when a third eye grows out of his forehead, and Raimi’s slick rapid zoom-in on his screaming mouth takes us to black.
Now, of course, this is a Marvel movie and the mid-credits scene walks it all back as we learn that Strange is totally cool with having a third eye (and that he can hide when he wishes). But for one brief moment, a Marvel movie ended in humorous, but nevertheless mean-spirited, despair.
Oh yeah, it wouldn’t be a Sam Raimi movie without his trusty Oldsmobile Delta 88. This baby got the lad through high school and has since appeared as the vehicle that took Ash Williams to his destiny in The Evil Dead, as his horseless carriage when Ash time traveled to the Middle Ages in Army of Darkness, as the car Uncle Ben died to protect in Spider-Man, and even as an old buggy (hidden under wood) in the Western The Quick and the Dead.
You can see the legendary turtle taxi doing wheelies while floating in the air in the darkest timeline Strange visits during Multiverse of Madness.