My hopes were high-ish. Barely fifteen minutes of screen time in last year's Spider-Man: No Way Home achieved what 2016's original Doctor Strange singularly failed to do: position Benedict Cumberbatch's grumpy wizard Stephen Strange as someone with whom one might want to spend an extended period of time. That cameo appearance seemed to reveal Cumberbatch's own amusement (maybe bemusement) at being called back into the middle of all this childish nonsense; the character was still a grump, but he suddenly had a little life under his cape. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, flagship title of the first real blockbuster season in three years, charts the fallout from that early Christmas present; it works up the line that opening the door to alternative realities - and even more shortcuts and easy outs than the wider MCU narrative has thus far traded in - also opens the door to spectacular chaos. Our doorman for the occasion is Sam Raimi, who has excellent form in the superhero genre (the Noughties Spider-Men, yet to be improved upon) but has been absent from our screens since 2013's Oz the Great and Powerful, and - if we're going on quality - since 2009's Drag Me to Hell. In that time, the megabudget American cinema has got demonstrably sloppier in almost every field of craft, and I wish I could say Raimi's latest halts or reverses that slide. In actual reality, we end up watching this filmmaker (barely) fighting against one of the worst screenplays Kevin Feige has ever signed off on - and it's not as if these things were Chinatown to begin with. Somehow, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness succeeds in being even more disappointing than Doctor Strange, because it underlines how little of distinction even a truly talented filmmaker can achieve within the cogs and pistons of the Marvel Studios machine.
The new film is a protect-the-kid movie: Strange leaves his ex's wedding - leaping off a balcony, flaccid cape in hand - to rescue a moon-faced orphan (Xochitl Gomez) from the tentacles of some giant eyeball monster-thing. (Early indication of writing quality: the kid everybody's warring over is called... America.) In happier times for American film, this would have made for a taut 90- or 100-minute B-picture, something on an enjoyable par with, say, Jason Statham's Safe. Here, it's been padded out beyond two hours via relentless exposition and jargon (the Book of Somesuch, "the dark hold", "the Gap Junction") and wearyingly nerdy reference to the events of Infinity War, WandaVision and a half-dozen other MCU timewasters. Raimi must have heard all this dull, 12A-rated buzz in his head when he read the script, so he can't say he didn't know what he was signing up for. He contents himself by energising those connecting (and - blessed relief - mostly wordless) sequences exploring the multiverse's back corridors. The film's conception of alternative realities begins altogether hokily, with a couple of visions key characters have in their sleep. But it gets going after an interlude in which Strange and America crash through the fragile boundaries separating one reality from another: suddenly we're presented with an animated realm closer to the story's roots, a blank space that has obvious visual appeal amid the CG clutter piled up elsewhere, and one striking set-up - genuine pop surrealism - involving a staircase spiralling up from a seashore. Briefly, in these in-between bits, Multiverse of Madness becomes as playful, zippy and inventive as its title leads you to hope it might be.
The trouble is that the realities we bog down in for any substantial amount of time are fundamentally all the same, full of pricey trivia, the detritus of other MCU franchises or franchises-to-come, and overqualified actors mouthing page after page of truly dreadful dialogue. That title is pure spin: once more Marvel floats the illusion of multiverse choice, while setting its creatives to hammering out moderate-to-mild fantasy business as usual. (If you are headed to see the film this weekend, ask yourself this: where's the madness, really?) I'm aware we have Gaspar Noe's Vortex to come, but I doubt we'll see a more depressing scene in 2022 than the council meeting the movie convenes at its halfway point - the grey, corporate heart of Raimi's film - with the apparent aim of introducing a second wave of Avengers. What's more dispiriting here? The fact establishing shots and close-ups don't match, meaning it's impossible to tell where the woeful lines are coming from? Hayley Atwell, in what is by some distance the century's naffest superhero get-up, looking like she's been dragged backwards through a Leicester Square tourist shop? The general air of thespwaste and thespwaste-to-come, that these (very capable) featured artists will have signed a decade of their career away to this kind of profitable mediocrity? Or the wider dramatic sense that none of this matters and none of it has to matter, that it's all just passing set-up for some other director to grapple with several years down the line?
If the action figures are a dud, Raimi at least has a measure of fun around his scary monsters. This will almost certainly be the only one of this summer's studio blockbusters to feature a Lucio Fulci-inspired spike-through-eyeball moment, and you sense Raimi summoning some of the old magic for his zombie uprising finale, although if you can discern exactly why and to what end Strange casts this spell from the screenwriting, you're a better geek than I. (One issue these films are going to have to navigate in the future: the multiverse conceit relies upon your audience not only knowing the rules of this world, but of the five or six worlds that tessellate with it. There will be some viewers who know not WandaVision, and many who don't have access to WandaVision.) Yet the fact even this director, a proven storyboard whizz, succumbs time and again to the flatly undynamic staging and blocking so derided by Film Twitter's Marvel-sceptic wing - giving even exteriors the look of having been shot indoors in front of green screens - indicates this isn't a glitch but a feature: a series of conscious artistic choices that collectively represent a predetermined house style. (It's just a house style with less style than critics detected in the zero-budget work of Republic and Monogram Pictures, that's all.) I get why some cinephiles are clinging to those linking scenes as a triumph of auteurism: it is good to see Raimi back behind a camera, being entrusted with vast resources, keeping his hand in. But adherence to that line depends on you persuading yourself that doodling in the margins of a non-plot is a worthy way for a sixtysomething filmmaker to be spending his days. Wouldn't we rather Raimi took the $200m budget he's been accorded for this humdrum busywork to make ten pictures that were original, imaginative, memorable?
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is now playing in cinemas nationwide.