Every 20 years or so, Sam Raimi makes a huge splash in franchise filmmaking. In 1981 the American writer-director burst on to the scene with The Evil Dead, a low-budget supernatural horror film that dazzled audiences with its wild camera movements, bonkers sound effects and grisly blood splattering. Two sequels followed.

Jump ahead to 2002 and Raimi was making Spider-Man for Sony. A huge commercial hit raking in $825 million off a hefty $139 million budget, Raimi’s take on Marvel Comics’ famed web-slinger also led to two sequels. More crucially, it’s often credited with kickstarting the modern superhero movie era. Although Blade (1998) predates it as a Marvel property, and what became known as the MCU began in earnest with Iron Man (2008), it was Raimi’s films that set the template for Marvel’s comic-book blockbusters. His Peter Parker trilogy hit the sweet spot with its blend of light humour, believable character beats and exciting, well-executed action sequences – a recipe Marvel has been following ever since.

Spider-Man (2002)

Now Raimi returns with his first film in nine years, and his first in the official MCU, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. It follows sorcerer and former surgeon Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) just after the events of Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) as he jumps between different universes trying to stop Wanda Maximoff/the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) possess teenager America Chavez (Xochiti Gomez) using a mysterious book and the demons within it. 

If that sounds very Evil Dead, it is. The best bits of the Strange sequel involve zombies, ghoulish spirits and bloody fights, with head-severing, monster eye-gouging and one character impaled on rusty railings. It’s not a full-on horror film, but it may be as far as Marvel are willing to go. But how does a director like Raimi, once celebrated for idiosyncratic genre pieces like The Quick and the Dead (1995) and A Simple Plan (1998), marry his distinctive tone and style to a big blockbuster MCU film?

“I don’t look at them as two separate things,” Raimi explains via Zoom. “I felt that on this picture, my job was to take the 27 Marvel movies that had come before me and tell episode 28. Even though I haven’t seen all 27, I’ve seen the important pieces I needed to make this story. I wanted to meet fans’ expectations in this continuing series and character expectations for those people who’ve seen WandaVision.” Alongside the thrilling scenes of carnage, many hefty scenes of exposition pepper proceedings, and viewers without a comprehensive prior knowledge of both the MCU films and the interlinked WandaVision TV series may struggle to make sense of the plot. 

Benedict Cumberbatch in Doctor Strange in The Multiverse of Madness (2022)
Benedict Cumberbatch in Doctor Strange in The Multiverse of Madness (2022)
© Marvel Studios, Walt Disney Pictures and Framestore

The sheer number and frequency of MCU films – and the way stories are augmented by related TV shows – have proven divisive within the wider film community. Like it or not, Marvel films have come to dominate the cinematic landscape, often at the expense of other stories. As with much of what he says during our interview, Raimi addresses this issue but gives a guarded, neutral response. “I think that everything in the world of movies rises and falls, and what comes, goes. Currently, that [MCU domination] is the case, and I don’t think it’s either good or bad.”

Raimi thinks that as long as Marvel cares “as deeply about the characters as they do, fans will continue to come to those films”. Perhaps contentiously, he tells us he hopes there’ll be other filmmakers and organisations that care as deeply about their characters, their books, novels and short stories. “When that happens, I think the other types of movies will rise again.”

Given his own history with Spider-Man and superheroes, maybe Raimi is partly to blame for where we are now. Does he feel any responsibility for the way things have gone? He says: “Blade was successful as a Marvel film, the X-Men movies were successful, and Spider-Man was the next one in line. I do feel like I was part of a trend that’s kicked off the popularity of superheroes in the modern cinematic world.” 

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)
© Marvel Studios

Raimi thinks the sources of the films and their original readership have more to do with driving the craze. For him, it’s to do with “a generation of readers of those comic books from the 60s, 70s and 80s coming into positions of power, where they were the filmmakers, where they were the studio executives, where they realised, ‘Yes, that’s the stuff that would make great movies.’” He suggests a way the breadth of films on offer to cinemagoers might change: “Comic books were rising in popularity. I don’t know if they fell off in the 90s and 2000s, but when we talk about the trend of superhero movies, that readership is probably not as strong as it once was, and maybe once that generation of readers moves on we’ll see a different trend in motion pictures.”

In 2019 Martin Scorsese famously told Empire magazine that Marvel films were closer to theme parks than movies, before expanding on his theory in detail in the New York Times. Controversy ensued, but one way in which you might say Marvel films compare to theme park rides is that they offer the thrills and danger of a ride yet ultimately lack real jeopardy. Viewers will see a Marvel film and know before they’re seated that most characters will inevitably live on to sustain the ongoing series of films.

“I think to have a great movie, you do need characters that you care about and feel the jeopardy for them,” Raimi says. “Marvel movies work to the extent that the directors and the producers make you feel invested in those characters and feel their vulnerabilities. That was always the brilliance of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s work [on the original comic books], that they found the human being within the hero, the flawed character that you could identify with. As long as the movies continue to bring out that identifiable person, that vulnerability within the main character, I think they’ll continue to be successful.”

Raimi went from making punky small-scale horror films to $100 million blockbusters. Does he ever turn around and think, ‘Maybe I sold out’? 

“When I don’t believe in the characters, yeah, that thought occurs to me. When I make decisions that I find myself trying not to make, which is, ‘I think the audience will like this,’ I know I’ve sold out at that moment. I always have to remind myself, ‘What do I think, though? Do I think it’s really cool?’ Because if not, I’m not going to do it. When I’m on my best game I’m thinking, ‘I don’t care what anyone else is going to think. I think this is really scary, and so I’m going to put it in the picture.’ Those are the moments when you don’t sell out, and I actually think those are the moments when you connect with the audience most, when you listen to yourself.” Raimi refuses to accept that money comes into it. “But it doesn’t really have to do with the budget, as far as I’m concerned. It’s about thinking the audience is less smart than you, and that you have to dumb something down. That’s when you’ve sold out.”

Although thoughtful and animated, Raimi almost always stays quite tightly on message during our interview, repeatedly returning to Marvel’s brilliance or the roles of behind-the-camera colleagues. He doesn’t give much away. This was frustrating when discussing potential visual influences on the film. There is, necessarily, a lot of CGI and green-screen work, but it would have been interesting to hear what inspired the psychedelic multiverses or the grisly, supernatural horror elements, which hark back to Raimi’s own back catalogue and seemingly beyond it into film history.

The Hudsucker Proxy, co-scripted by Raimi in 1994

There is one tiny non-Marvel influence, however. The film’s comedic parts, often screwball and slapstick in nature, seem to echo the style of The Hudsucker Proxy, which Raimi scripted with the Coen brothers in 1994, and even the 1930s and 40s comedies by Preston Sturges and Frank Capra which inspired that film. “I think there is that in the picture, and it’s very small. I think it’s mostly attributable to our writer, Michael Waldron, and his very heightened comic sense.”

There’s just enough time to ask what Raimi himself is watching before the interview ends. He loosens up a bit and talks freely about a show that has nothing to do with anything else we’ve discussed. “The 1960s Star Trek. My son, Oliver, was curious about it, so we’re watching it all. We’re at season two, and it’s got some of the greatest science-fiction writers and directors of all time doing them, along with William Shatner, who I really love, and Leonard Nimoy. The whole cast is great.” 

Before he made Drag Me to Hell (2009), Raimi turned down the offer of directing Star Trek (J.J Abrams took it on). Multiverse or no multiverse, perhaps his current affection for the classic show will lead him back somewhere just as outlandish – to boldly go where no man has gone before.