Before we kick off, let's get one thing straight out of the way: if you're not at the very least either a) a devoted MCU follower or b) a Sam Raimi acolyte, you're probably not going to take a lot from this movie (full disclaimer: this writer is absolutely both of those things). After original Doctor Strange director Scott Derrickson exited the sequel following creative differences, the arrival of Raimi on the scene raised questions over whether Marvel's house style and dependence on Big Picture storytelling could meld with such a unique and recognisable filmmaker.
The answer is most definitely yes, even if Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness only just about manages to stay on the rails during a relentless two-hour romp that attempts to tie together the fallouts of Doctor Strange 1, Wandavision and Avengers: Endgame, introduce at least one potentially crucial new MCU player in America Chavez, open up the concept of the multiverse and shovel in a big dollop of the kind of fan service that has made MCU screenings less like film showings and more like WWE events.
If Raimi fans were concerned that Scott Derrickson jumping ship would bode badly for the Evil Dead and Spider-Man director being able to flex his creative muscles, worry not: while this is very recognisably an MCU production, it's still comfortably the most bonkers MCU flick so far. Leaning surprisingly far in on the kind of horror-driven mischief that we haven't seen Raimi let loose on since a possessed goat popped up in Drag Me To Hell, ....Multiverse Of Madness boasts visuals that you couldn't previously fathom being anywhere near the same universe that gave us Iron Man and Captain America.
Screeching souls of the undead forming a super-cloak? Sure. Possessed, friendly corpses? Why not! A giant, tentacled monster getting its eye yanked out? Go on, then. It's not exactly unchartered territory for Raimi, but there are also plenty other creative flourishes that embed ...Multiverse Of Madness with a fresh sense of wonder - a bizarre, music-driven battle between two Stranges near the film's climax is an unexpected delight.
Raimi's fingerprints are all over the cinematography, too - his trademark use of fade-outs, zoom-ins, tilting camera shots and menacing POVs are deployed effectively, even gratuitously on a couple of occasions.
As for the cast, they're pretty much all great - Benedict Cumberbatch's arrogant but vulnerable Strange installs the necessary gravitas to anchor everything; Rachel McAdams gets the opportunity to bring a welcome soft reboot-of-sorts to Christine Palmer; franchise newcomer Xochitl Gomez packs enough charisma to make sure America Chavez isn't drowned out by all the chaos around her. Oh, and can we just make Wong Lord Of The Universe, never mind the Sorcerer Supreme? We can never get tired of Benedict Wong's worldweary but warmhearted presence.
Not everything lands. While Elizabeth Olsen does a marvellous job in imbuing Wanda with the kind of emotional drive expected of a character who has had, quite frankly, a shitty time of it in the MCU, her role here feels like a cursory continuation of the brilliantly rendered, layered themes of Wandavision, leaving her plot line feeling a little two-dimensional as a result.
There's also a lot of rushing around going on, enabled by some convenient hand waves and leaps of logic (dreams must be alternate universes! You just need to believe in your power to use it!). Oh, and speaking of alternate universes - the ones we actually spend any real time in are far less visually interesting than the variants Strange and Chavez breeze through in one, breathless minute-long segment (could Animated Strange bump into one of the Spider-heroes from Spider-Man: Into The Spiderverse?! We'd love to see it!).
Luckily, most of this is easily forgivable when you have so much great action, a killer cast and just enough sprinklings of Raimi madness to carry you through. ...Multiverse Of Madness isn't the convention-destroying, MCU-redefining masterpiece some may have hoped for, but it's an absolute blast.