Sam Raimi is no stranger to characters born out of the Marvel Universe.
Even if they’re not included in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that began with 2008’s Iron Man, Raimi’s trilogy of Spider-Man films showed the world exactly what comic book films could do in terms of quality and box office receipts. His second entry in the trilogy, Spider-Man 2, is widely seen as one of the best comic book films ever made. The series, along with subsequent films that followed, remains popular still today, adding to the nostalgic impact of the recent blockbuster smash Spider-Man: No Way Home which connected all three Spider-Man actors (Spider-Men? Spider-Mans?) in a Multiverse-heavy action extravaganza.
So, it’s entirely fitting that Raimi returns to the Marvel Universe and delivers his first official entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Debuting Thursday night, Madness features Benedict Cumberbatch returning to his iconic character after serving a crucial role in No Way Home. Emmy-nominated WandaVision star Elizabeth Olsen returns as Scarlet Witch in a film that leverages the myriad possibilities of the Multiverse to bring the Marvel Cinematic Universe into the horror realm.
And Sam Raimi was extremely anxious to take on the project.
“When Kevin [Feige] announced that this movie would be the first entry into Marvel putting their toe into the world of horror, I was thrilled that he called me to come in and talk to about the possibility of directing the picture,” Raimi enthuses. “I was able to take those horror films that I made in my youth and what I had learned from them to build suspense sequences, titilate the audience, and give them the scare.”
The opportunity to direct Madness also brought producer Kevin Feige back into a creative partnership with Raimi after working together on the earlier Spider-Man films.
“It’s full-circle with Mr. Raimi. I was a young producer who just felt lucky to be in the same room with him,” Feige explains, “and now, I’m an old producer that just feels lucky to be in the same room with him.”
So, what changed during the roughly 20 years since Raimi last stepped into the vast world of Marvel?
The biggest change, and perhaps most obvious change although not in the expected ways, emerged from technological advancements. Yes, CGI techniques improved vastly which of course allowed the shape-shifting, intense, horror-tinged visuals as evidenced in the trailer, but technology also allowed Raimi unprecedented and immediate access to the overall process.
“It’s just become a lot easier. Mostly the technological difference that really enabled me to work on this movie so effectively was Zoom, the modern telecommunications system,” Raimi laughs. “I could speak to tens of crew members at once. We could show a storyboard from an artist. The editor could bring up a piece of the cut. We really had great communication audio/visual, and you were able to speak to a hundred people at once. It was fantastic.”
Technology aside, Raimi fully acknowledges the magic at the core of the films comes from the extraordinarily talented actors throwing themselves into this Multiverse madness. Fresh from a recent Oscar nomination for The Power of the Dog, Cumberbatch embraces opportunities to explore his craft through characters like Dr. Strange. In fact, he loves when Marvel Cinematic Universe fans also praise his work in films like The Power of the Dog. Similarly, Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch gives her moments of poignancy and power within the confines of a Marvel film.
Raimi understands that actors diving into these characters with the same focus they would apply to small-scale independent films brings authenticity to otherworldly subject matter.
“These are great actors, and they know what it’s like to be a human being. They’ve got a vast set of experiences that they’re not afraid to pull into their performances, and they also know their characters very well. These three at least have played their characters for so many years now in so many important Marvel movies,” Raimi explains. “It’s great to see that knowledge of their characters that they had in this film because what they meet is the Multiverse. The Multiverse is basically a mirror, and they meet altered versions of themselves.”
Cumberbatch agrees that the Multiverse opens up unique ways to explore the character of Dr. Stephen Strange.
“This one is about examining that and finding [Strange’s] flaws, his faults, his humanity, as well as his strengths and renewing our understanding of him and deepening our understanding of him,” Cumberbatch says. “This is more of a self-examination in the way that Sam described, of holding up a mirror to him through this incredible narrative structure we have of a Multiverse of other selves, than it is examining what his potential is to lead.”
Olsen found that the experiences incurred during the Disney+ WandaVision series clarified the character of Scarlet Witch in new ways. Early test screening audiences have, so far, raved about Olsen’s performance, frequently calling her the MVP of the film.
And her cast tends to agree. Newcomer Xochitl Gomez (America Chavez, a LGBTQ+ addition to the MCU) frequently watched Olsen’s performance as a shining example of a powerful woman.
“In the previous films before WandaVision, I took up a lane of storytelling that was more grounded in sincerity, love, loss, and grief. With WandaVision, I got to become like anything and everything and really, really grow her into a woman,” Olsen explains. “I led her to accepting that she is this mythic woman, and that is her destiny. I hope that in this film people see that continuation of her acceptance of who she is, and the journey that she has taken to get to this moment. I feel like she has way more clarity now than ever in this film.”
And Sam Raimi fully embraces that sense of discovery and growth within the characters. He acknowledges that they know their characters better than most, and they would step in to object if anything felt untrue. Screenwriter Michael Waldron’s script would evolve to incorporate moments that organically evolved through the rehearsal and filming process.
Raimi understands that pulling from an entire team’s collection of their best impulses ultimately creates a better film in the end.
“When you’ve got great team members as a director,” Raimi admits, “you really want to pull the best of their ideas together and make something better than you could’ve made on your own.”
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness premieres Thursday night in theaters nationwide.