How Sam Raimi made Marvel's trippiest, goriest film with the new Doctor Strange
At times, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness feels a lot like your standard Marvel movie, filled with the kind of zippy one-liners, smash-'em-up action scenes, and winking Avengers references that audiences have come to expect from the MCU. But to watch the new Benedict Cumberbatch-starring sequel is to realize that you're not just watching a Marvel movie; you're watching a Sam Raimi movie. And a Sam Raimi movie is always a special — and strange — thing.
Multiverse of Madness marks Raimi's return to the superhero universe 15 years after Spider-Man 3, and what a return it is. Over the course of the film's two-hour-and-six-minute runtime, the director packs every frame with the kind of gonzo stylistic flourishes that made his Spider-Man trilogy and earlier Evil Dead series such a delight. Eyeballs are skewered. Zombies are resurrected. And the whole thing is soundtracked by a killer Danny Elfman score, pairing extreme moments of violence with playful bells and electric guitars.
In some ways, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (in theaters May 6) might be the perfect project for Raimi — a genre-hopping adventure that blends heroics and horror. When EW spoke to the director a few days before the premiere, he explained that it was that combo that first interested him, going all the way back to the first conversations he had with Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige.
"When Marvel first announced Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, they said this would be their first horror entry in the Marvel universe, so that mandate was passed on to me," Raimi explains. "I said, 'Great, Kevin, let's make it spooky!' Because the comics of Doctor Strange are spooky! He fights spirits and demons and all sorts of frightening monsters. So, I used a lot of what I had learned in making horror films — building suspense, delivering scares, keeping the audience on the edge of their seat — and was able to apply it in the making of this film."
Marvel has recruited auteur directors before: Filmmakers like Taika Waititi, Ryan Coogler, and James Gunn have all put their own stamp on the ever-growing MCU. But there's something particularly delightful about Raimi joining the game. After all, it was Raimi who helped usher in the 21st-century superhero boom with his influential Spider-Man trilogy. A Doctor Strange sequel might seem like an unexpected follow-up, but Raimi says he's long been a fan of the good doctor. (There's even a Strange reference in Spider-Man 2, courtesy of J.K. Simmons' J. Jonah Jameson.)
"I had always been a Doctor Strange fan and a fan of the comics books as a kid," Raimi explains. "I think because he was a magician who was also a superhero, and he didn't just fight bad guys. He had a cosmic aspect to him, where he would protect the Earth and the universe from magical threats."
For Raimi, what interested him most about Multiverse of Madness was how it explores Strange's flaws, and that was something he and Cumberbatch zeroed in on. The film follows the doctor as he's reckoning with the fallout from past choices, romantic and otherwise, and when he crosses paths with other powerful figures like Elizabeth Olsen's Scarlet Witch or Xochitl Gomez's America Chavez, he must decide whether to swallow his pride or stand alone.
"In this movie, he makes a tiny little journey from being a very proud superhero to being someone who learns a modicum of modesty and learns that other people can be trusted, too," Raimi says. "He's not the only one that can do the job. It's about coming to understand that others have worth and he's not better than everyone."
"I find when the characters are anchored emotionally, you really can go to great extremes on the canvas of fantasy or horror or adventure," he adds.
Raimi's forays into the Marvel Cinematic Universe also come at an interesting time: In December, Spider-Man: No Way Home shattered pandemic box office records, and that film pays tribute to Raimi's previous Spider-Man films starring Tobey Maguire, as well as the later Andrew Garfield ones.
Production on No Way Home was so top secret that Raimi says he didn't get a chance to speak with returning alums like Maguire, Willem Dafoe, or Alfred Molina, but he was "thrilled" at every new detail he learned. Doctor Strange appears in No Way Home, and Raimi says both creative teams met and worked closely together to keep Cumberbatch's performance consistent. "Our movies were shot in a parallel way, and we had to keep abreast of their story information," Raimi says. "What did Doctor Strange know after the last Spider-Man movie of the multiverse? Did he remember anything? We really needed to pick up right where they left off. So, there was a lot of trading of information, and there was a lot of rewriting on our set because they would make a change."
That kind of flexibility isn't typical for a blockbuster of this size, especially one with such complicated visual effects (and so many different universes to hop through). But Raimi says he relished the nimbler approach, comparing it to his earlier, smaller-budget films.
"It's probably the director's and writer's equivalent of improv because it's happening in the moment," he says. "As you're directing and shooting and writing, they're making changes, and you've got to suddenly change the scene and roll with it. And if you have the right attitude, it can make it better. Every opportunity for change is an opportunity to make it better."
So, if Raimi and Marvel are a multiversal match, is there a chance that he might collaborate with the studio again, either for another Doctor Strange movie or for a new Spider-Man story? For now, the director is remaining coy about what the future might hold. After all, if there's one thing both Strange and Spidey know, it's that the multiverse is a big place — and anything can happen.
"I'm open to anything," Raimi says with a smile. "As long as there's a team that really cares about the characters as much as Marvel does, it's a pleasure to work there."