★★★★☆ Sam Raimi returns to the Marvel fold with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. It's fitting that the director who started the modern superhero cycle is back to banish superhero fatigue with one of the most exhilarating entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date.

★★★★☆

Fifteen years after he was unceremoniously dumped from Sony Pictures’ Spider-Man series, Sam Raimi returns to the Marvel fold with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. It’s fitting that the director who started the modern superhero cycle is back to banish superhero fatigue with one of the most exhilarating entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date.

After fixing the multiversal mess of Spider-Man: No Way Home, master of the mystic arts Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) faces his greatest challenge yet: getting through the wedding of his erstwhile girlfriend, Christine (Rachel McAdams). That is until a mysterious traveller from another universe, America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), arrives to crash the party, pursued by maxed-out Wanda Maximoff aka Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen, fully realised as a scenery-chewing wicked witch) who wants to use America’s powers to reclaim her lost children, last seen in WandaVision.

‘Spectacle’ is hardly the word one usually associates with Marvel Studio’s ubiquitous mega series. Almost all of its films fall within a visual house style whose colours have all the pop of a multi-storey car park, while its action sequences – ostensibly the draw for films like this – are drably utilitarian. Yet Raimi, returning to the genre for the first time since 2007, has marshalled easily the most spectacular MCU film to date. Crashing through endless versions of reality, from sleek futuristic cities to hellscapes to worlds made of brightly coloured paint, the film barrels on breathlessly, pausing only for a slightly baggy second act, treating us to a terrific collage of alternate reality what ifs.

Once in a while, the studio will bring on board a big name director with a distinctive style – Shane Black, James Gunn, Ryan Coogler, Chloé Zhao – in an apparent attempt to combat its own self-imposed homogeneity. Sometimes it works, though the last time Marvel pulled this was Zhao’s Eternals, a film so at odds with itself that its centre disintegrated between the competing priorities of artist and content factory. But where Zhao tried in vain to make a human character study from inside a factory that abhors nuance and messiness, Raimi manages to retain his own stylistic preoccupations while satisfying Marvel’s production-line formula.

The film has received fairly mixed reviews, with some suggesting that Multiverse of Madness is no more than another generic MCU entry with a Raimi-style filter applied over the top. Perhaps that’s true, but there’s no question that the director’s visual sensibilities, his fantastic, outrageous crash zooms, his tilted angles and inventive use of space, his sense of joyous camp and his use of colour (Colour! Thank god, finally, for colour!) are not only intact but that they elevate the whole endeavour.

The film is hardly the full blown horror picture that Marvel has touted, but its flirtations with creepiness, scares and splatter that push the 12A rating are a welcome reprieve from the studio’s more typical weightless flying and punching. Moreover, though the broad beats of the story are predictable and the script has its share of clangers, the underlying thesis that evil is not inherent but the consequences of desperate people making bad choices is Raimi’s most consistent thematic preoccupation from Darkman to Drag Me to Hell, grounding the kaleidoscopic fantasy in something recognisably human.

As usual, the fan service is plated high (some of which has been spoiled in trailers) and although not quite in service of the story, Raimi exploits the anything-goes-in-the-multiverse vibe to deliver some hilariously brutal moments to characters old and new. Is Raimi’s latest effort as rich as Spider-Man 2, as revolutionary as The Evil Dead or as fun as Drag Me to Hell? No. But within the self-imposed confines of the studio machine, Multiverse of Madness is about as entertaining as it’s possible to be.

The quality ceiling of the MCU has always been relatively low, just its floor is fairly high: never mind The Eternals, just consider Sony’s rival flick Morbius to see how low things can sink. Multiverse of Madness fills the narrow space of imagination with everything it has, pushed on by a director who has always known how to play the studio game.

Christopher Machell