Sam Raimi and the Maddening Marvel Machine

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Sam Raimi and the Maddening Marvel Machine

I used to keep up with every new Marvel film. This was for a few reasons. It was partly because my two close friends were both longtime comic book fans. We went to all the new releases together in high school and college, and it was a way to bond with them and share their interests. It was also partly because I genuinely enjoyed most Marvel films, and found them to be fun, exciting and, occasionally, even moving blockbuster fluff. Among a couple other personal standouts—such as Shane Black’s Iron Man 3—James Gunn’s Guardians movies are, in my opinion, earnestly great. I own physical copies of both, and I have revisited them on numerous occasions. (For what it’s worth, I think Gunn is the only Marvel hired hand who reads as having a true investment in the source material, and has been able to balance quippy humor that is actually funny with an affecting emotional core to true success.) Finally, it was partly because I used to like keeping up with the Marvel output as “important” cultural touchstones, quality aside; to be able to talk about them and stay in-tune with the zeitgeist, while also fortifying myself with the necessary context to sufficiently deride them if I felt they were worthy of derision (and they often are).

But as the two-parter Avengers films reared their dual hydra heads before the onset of 2020, I had grown weary. It began with Phase 3 and Captain America: Civil War, which I found to be a joyless, tedious, overlong slog. I didn’t care much for the Doctor Strange movie that followed. I thought Captain Marvel was a joke. I was left cold on almost everything else, or I received them warmly on release and found them to have since soured in my memory or upon a revisit.

I am now just about completely detached from the Marvel industrial complex. I didn’t bother with any of the streaming series that you now need to watch to know what’s going on in any of the Phase 4 films. A friend and I walked out of Black Widow last fall with only 20-30 minutes remaining, and after the film had already received two other walkouts during our screening. I didn’t watch Eternals or Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings because I thought I’d do myself a kindness. I got about halfway through Spider-Man: No Way Home when it hit VOD before I decided to do myself another kindness and—since I was in the comfort of my home and had the ability to do so—simply turn it off and go to bed.

But, as many others have been doing for similar reasons, I rolled out for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. This was because I was lured by the promise that (yes, you guessed it) Sam Raimi was directing. Despite how often distinctive directors are brought on to helm Marvel films—in order to drum up interest, excitement and the promise of something new, only for their signature marks to be completely watered down beneath the studio’s tried-and-true formula and innately conservative bent—some of my colleagues were still purporting the film to be surprisingly good. And not only that, but that the Evil Dead and Tobey Maguire Spider-Man director’s abilities shined through the whole affair. Much has already been retrospectively said with regards to nostalgia for Raimi’s commitment to treating source material with earnestness, and when it came to Spider-Man, Raimi—a comic book fan—fundamentally understood what makes a superhero film. Even if he might not have nailed his portrayal of the webbed hero, the director, complemented by his flair for heightened melodrama and cartoonish camerawork, invited us into Peter Parker’s world and demanded that we believe in it.

Fans of Raimi, like myself, have been desperately vying for new directed work from him following the lackluster Oz the Great and Powerful nearly a decade ago. Since then, the beloved genre director has largely favored the producer’s chair. Beyond helming one episode of his (great) Evil Dead spin-off series Ash vs Evil Dead, two episodes of a show called Rake and a three-part episode of a Quibi project called 50 States of Fright, Raimi has produced a slew of little horror films, including Don’t Breathe and Don’t Breathe 2, Crawl, Fede Álvarez’s suitable Evil Dead remake and, most recently, Umma.

But after original Doctor Strange director Scott Derrickson cut ties with the sequel production due to the usual reason directors part ways from a Marvel film—“creative differences”—Raimi was brought on to raucous, if nonetheless cautious, reception. On the one hand, we were suddenly about to receive the first Raimi-directed feature in far too long. On the other, it was for a Marvel film, where Raimi’s eccentric style was sure to be subdued. In the end, I did find that the director’s touch shines through the syrupy, convoluted mush here and there. His signature exaggerated camera movements, his wacky horror sensibilities, an Evil Dead reference, a truly fantastic cameo from Bruce Campbell. One particular sequence of humdrum exposition dump, which might have otherwise been delivered in a completely unremarkable dialogue exchange, became, instead, a montage of inspired edits and transitions between two characters in different locations. It’s not ingenious, but it’s a simple and effective way to convey mundane information while keeping the visuals engaging and the audience, in turn, engaged.

Otherwise, the Raimi trademarks only serve as a reminder of what could have been. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is like a movie that is trying to be a movie; like a Frankensteined creation struggling to mimic the truth of its forebears. Nothing is particularly coherent. To understand what’s going on with Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), you have to have watched WandaVision. But even with that context in mind, Wanda’s motivations for her calamitously villainous uprising are weak, while that plot clumsily duels with the America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) multiverse-hopping storyline. Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) has always been far better as a side character in other Marvel films, and his chemistry with the Rachel McAdams love interest (gun to my head I don’t remember her name) is null. The reshot John Krasinski cameo is the worst thing I’ve ever seen in my life. The movie finally gets better somewhere within the more interesting final hour, when it becomes a bloodless horror film with a few kills that are admittedly jarring to see in the MCU. And then it’s over. And then Charlize Theron gets a cameo in the mid-credits scene. Spoiler, sorry. Whatever.

Increasingly, it has felt less and less obligatory to stay conscious of the MCU output in the wake of Endgame. I am fully cognizant of the fact that my own perspective is partially to blame. I’m biased, I will outright admit it. I am very cynical towards Marvel now, and have written on this topic exhaustively. I am also so far removed from the plots and characters at this point that I am entirely emotionally disconnected from what I’m watching. I have no investment in what’s going on, and can’t bring myself to have any either.

Still, the films have been undoubtedly floundering, and I don’t think it’s controversial to claim that. Once the MCU found its footing after a handful of shaky sequels and origin stories, they were reliable for producing films that pleased both the critical and commercial masses. It wasn’t until Black Widow that Marvel noticeably dipped below its typical critical reception. Then, of course, came Eternals. And though all fairly well-received, WandaVision is the only streaming series out of the six that have been released during Phase 4 that seems to have made any real widespread cultural ripple. Did you know that there was a Hawkeye series last year???

No, you’re right, Marvel isn’t on the decline. They aren’t going away anytime soon. Yet despite No Way Home’s record-shattering box office take, I don’t think that the MCU is the same anymore. I am not about to be the one sitting here yearning for the “Marvel movie glory days,” but their installments used to be, well…is it wrong to say “better?” This can be attributed at least a bit to the studio attempting to regain its footing after the global phenomenon that was Endgame. And it’s understandably a little difficult; it’s like country rock icon Dewey Cox when he had to follow Elvis Presley. It’s even harder to fault the company for wanting to try new avenues and shake things up a little in their own reinvention of themselves. Shang Chi marked Marvel’s first Asian-led superhero film, and was very heavily a martial arts film. Eternals brought on Oscar-winning Nomadland director Chloé Zhao to add something stylistically unique to their palette. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is, at times, more creative and violent than any Marvel film I’ve seen before.

But, if you ask me, it’s the success of No Way Home—and the reshoots that were forced upon Doctor Strange—the portends the future of the MCU. It’s a future full of character cameos and A-list actors and Easter eggs that its audience believes that it wants because it’s been trained to want to want them. Did you see how much money No Way Home made, a movie that is literally about cameos? How Doctor Strange was then, in turn, made to add cameos due to No Way Home’s success? Will the studio ever try taking a chance on doing something new with a director like Zhao, who gave them their second-worst box office performance in company history? Even then, Zhao’s name was—as it usually is, as it was in Sam Raimi’s case—a prestige moniker hiding the same old shit underneath it. There is no Marvel reinventing itself. A line that I think about frequently when it comes to the MCU, is a line from the criminally underrated 2018 film Under the Silver Lake, when the lead character learns that all his favorite music was penned by the same money-hungry hack: “There is no rebellion, there’s only me earning a paycheck.”

The MCU is becoming more insular. In their quest to be well-received by everyone, by fans and critics and even the Academy (which they failed to do), it’s now harder for people like me—who are, again, albeit, now extremely hostile towards the MCU—to want to care. I rolled out for my boy Sam Raimi, and I was only reminded of why I stopped bothering with these movies in the first place. Why should I waste my time watching 500 streaming series to understand what’s going on in one scattershot film? What am I supposed to get out of seeing John Krasinski as Reed Richards, or poor Patrick Stewart yanked away from time spent with his dog to once again take on the role of Professor X (and only to be promptly MURDERED!!!!). Why should I sit through to the end of Black Widow, a movie about a character who is dead, full of supporting characters who are boring and literally don’t matter? The two other groups of people who got up and left my Black Widow screening must have considered the same question.

Marvel may be trying to reinvent itself, but in the process they are revealing that they don’t want to change at all. My comic book friend from high school still goes to see the new Marvel films; he still enjoys them when I don’t. But even he has become more cynical, more tired, often bemoaning the overwrought cameos and fan service. There has been a “vibe shift” in the culture, and I think that extends to the MCU. Instead of sitting through numerous false attempts at reinvention, where one may feel their intelligence being insulted, they could simply watch something else that’s better. Because if I want to see Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man, I can throw on Spider-Man, directed by Sam Raimi, instead of watching No Way Home.

Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.