There’s plenty of CGI-dependent action to enjoy, but for a while the film doesn’t seem like essential viewing for anyone except devoted Marvel fans. Following on as it does from the events of WandaVision and the What If…? television series on Disney+, it’s difficult to see why it wasn’t just a television series on Disney Plus, too. Slowly but surely, though, the film becomes weirder, sillier, more emotional and more imaginative, with more ridiculous jokes and yet with more macabre shocks. In other words, it becomes apparent that it’s directed by Sam Raimi.
Credit should also go to the screenwriter, Michael Waldron, who has knitted together an immensely complicated yet largely comprehensible dimension-jumping plot. He has rightly given McAdams and Wong much more to do than they had in the previous Doctor Strange film, and he has incorporated lots of big surprises that the studio has managed to keep quiet about. But Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness feels like a Raimi project to the core. It could even be the Raimi project. When he made his Spider-Man trilogy starring Tobey Maguire, his adoration of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s superhero comics shone through, and that geeky love shines brighter than ever here. He was also the director of The Evil Dead trilogy and Drag Me to Hell, of course, and he doesn’t hold back on cartoonish horror-comedy scares. The film ends up as a surreal adventure featuring tender-hearted zombies, a green-furred minotaur, a cloak made of the souls of the damned, and a duel fought with musical notes. Raimi hasn’t had a new film out since Oz the Great and Powerful in 2013, so maybe he put all of the craziest ideas he’d had in the past decade into this one.
Yes, it’s still a Marvel blockbuster that fulfils the requirements of a Marvel blockbuster, and which expects its viewers to have a working knowledge of all of the Marvel blockbusters that went before it. But it’s also as gleefully outlandish as any independent cult movie – and there is no way Raimi could have made anything like it without Marvel’s footing the bill and laying the groundwork. Some people will dismiss the film as nonsense, and they could have a point. But Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a huge amount of fun.
Besides, its appeal isn’t wholly reliant on the director’s infectious enthusiasm for genre thrills. Beneath the giant walking statues and the alien squids you can find the prickly Strange and the doleful Wanda glimpsing different realities where they are happier, and wondering whether they will ever know such happiness in their own reality. The quieter scenes are acted so poignantly by Cumberbatch and Olsen that you care about the people in the middle of all those digital effects. Raimi and his team have woven a kind of sorcery themselves.
Doctor Strange in The Multiverse of Madness is released on 5 May in the UK and 6 May in the US.
Love film and TV? Join BBC Culture Film and TV Club on Facebook, a community for cinephiles all over the world.
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called The Essential List. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.