What Sam Raimi Can Bring to 'Doctor Strange 2'

Doctor Strange 2016 Benedict Cumberbatch, and a still of Spider-Man 2002 - Split-Photofest-H 2020
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Photofest; Zade Rosenthal/ Columbia Pictures / Sony Pictures
The veteran 'Spider-Man' director is known for a sincerity that explores life's simple triumphs and losses.

By the Hoary Host of Hoggoth, Sam Raimi is headed back into the world of Marvel Comics. In what is the most shocking production development to come out of Marvel Studios in some time, the acclaimed filmmaker behind the Evil Dead series and the original Spider-Man trilogy, is in talks to direct Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the titular sorcerer. If Raimi signs the deal, he would replace former director Scott Derrickson, who helmed the first film, Doctor Strange (2016), and exited the second over creative differences.

If we’re talking filmmakers who can blend superhero elements alongside horror, then there’s no better pick than Raimi to replace Derrickson. Although Spider-Man (2002) was preceded by Blade (1998) and X-Men (2000), it was Raimi’s film that made Marvel into a blockbuster filmmaking entity and laid the groundwork for the eventual rise of Marvel Studios. But Raimi’s filmmaking sensibilities seem quite different from the Marvel Studios of today, leading to questions about how much creative control the director will have.

While a number of Marvel Studios directors have declined to return for sequels, Derrickson's exit marks the first time since Edgar Wright departed Ant-Man during preproduction that a filmmaker with a seeming plan and fan-level investment in a property has left over creative differences. Derrickson remained enthusiastic about a sequel for years, frequently sharing Doctor Strange co-creator Steve Ditko’s art on Twitter, and talking about his love for the villain Nightmare, expected to play a major role in the sequel.

Speculation over Derrickson’s exit was rampant, with many theorizing the dispute arose over the sequel’s ties to the upcoming Disney+ series WandaVision. Others guessed that Marvel Studios' post-San Diego Comic-Con correction that the Strange sequel wouldn’t be a full-on horror movie was the proximate cause of the split. While the specifics behind Derrickson’s departure remain unknown, the filmmaker tweeted out “WandaVision is gonna be great” along with the hashtag “#insideinformation” on Sunday, which could undercut the first theory. 

There’s often a desire to find a bad guy in these big studio vs. creative disputes, but sometimes ideas just don’t come together. Just because Derrickson and Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige couldn’t find a way forward with the former in the director’s chair (he still remains attached as an executive producer) doesn’t mean that Raimi is set to follow the same trajectory.

It’s been seven years since Sam Raimi’s last feature, Oz the Great and Powerful (2013), and in the interim he’s kept busy producing horror movies like Don’t Breathe (2016), Crawl (2019) and this year’s The Grudge. He’s been attached and unattached to several other projects, including the film adaptation of fantasy series The Kingkiller Chronicle, and is rumored to have been approached by Warners to direct The Flash in 2017. The fact that Raimi is in this stage of discussions about helming the Doctor Strange sequel must mean that there’s something significant drawing him to the project, along with the promise of creative freedom.

Raimi famously was disappointed by Spider-Man 3 (2007) and studio interference from Avi Arad, and the production on Oz was not without its share of difficulties, including production cuts. One would have to imagine that for Raimi to be enticed back into the world of big-budget studio filmmaking that he’ll have some level of autonomy, something that doesn’t seem afforded to every Marvel Studios filmmaker.

Raimi has a history with Feige, going back to the days of Columbia’s Spider-Man trilogy. And unlike the majority of Marvel Studios directors, Raimi has an extensive filmography behind him and a history of working with big budgets, and across genres, something that many of Marvel’s indie sensations turned blockbuster filmmakers don’t. A lot has been said about Marvel Studios’ “house style,” something that gained increased traction late last year after Martin Scorsese’s qualifying of the term cinema. Some of the criticisms about all Marvel films looking and feeling alike are accurate, while others are not, and some are just the burden of a cinematic universe built on audience expectations. But what’s important is that Marvel Studios has a chance to add a greater amount of variety to the Marvel Cinematic Universe going forward, something Feige has openly discussed.

Footage from Black Widow points toward a film that looks very much like a Cate Shortland film. And Chloe Zhao’s Eternals, which wrapped production earlier this week, was reported to have utilized practical sets as much as possible in a film that seeks to break away from the superhero format. Adding Raimi to the mix of Marvel Studios’ post-Infinity Saga films could help push the MCU in a more director-driven direction. After all, there’s no point in hiring a maverick like Raimi only to have him make a Doctor Strange film that looks like it could have been directed by Derrickson or the Russo brothers.

So what does a Sam Raimi Doctor Strange film look like? The filmmaker is a big fan of Ditko, who also co-created Spider-Man, and I expect that to play heavily into the visuals of the film. Raimi is also far more enchanted with the Marvel Comics of the '60s and '70s than he is with the modern era. I expect Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, even if it does take cues from House of M with the inclusion of Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), to employ a kind of Marvel classicism that relies on earnestness. While the multiverse, alternate versions of familiar characters, and Bruce Campbell cameos are likely to rule the conversation should Raimi officially sign on, the humanism of his characters is far more interesting.

The thing that Raimi brought to his Spider-Man films, and his prior superhero-horror mashup Darkman (1990), is an emotional sincerity that explores life’s simple triumphs and losses. If there’s one standout element that contributes to Marvel's “house style” it’s a certain glib sense of humor that too often deflates the emotional stakes. Raimi is a master at balancing humor and pathos, and finding ways for them to both stand on their own. Even his horror films have done this, most recently in Drag Me to Hell (2009), which is just as funny as it is genuinely sad.

For all the elements of horror and superheroism we can look forward to in a Raimi-directed Doctor Strange film, the thing we should look forward to the most is his genuine interest in these lead heroes and villains, their supporting cast, and the city they dwell in as fully developed characters that we are given a chance to experience at their best and worst. If Raimi does decided to commit to the MCU, then we could be looking at a Doctor Strange sequel that isn’t just good, but supreme.