Spoilers below:

Of all the crowd-pleasing surprise cameos packed into Marvel Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, just one will cause a nostalgic and unintended “groovy” from some viewers. This would be the scene where Bruce Campbell, cult horror’s most gifted physical comedian, wanders off to play an obnoxious civilian who ends up fending off attacks with his own hand. It is the Master of the Mystical Arts who subjects him to this (self-)abuse, responding to Campbell’s petty player belligerence with the magical equivalent of “stop hitting yourself.” But the real culprit is the one behind the camera: the evil Dead maestro himself, Sam Raimi, marking his return to filmmaking by briefly subjecting Ash Williams to yet another wringer of slapstick torment.

It’s not the only identifying mark Raimi leaves on Multiversehis first film in nine years and his first superhero blockbuster since the 2007 trilogy Spiderman 3. The camera whips and zooms with characteristic zeal, at one point switching to the first-person (first monster?) point of view of a one-eyed, multi-tentacled Kaiju. There’s a book of dark spells and a haunted house and the possessed corpse of a dead superhero. The zombie’s weapon of choice? Swarms of howling apparitions. Sometimes it’s almost possible to pretend we’ve been kicked off, like the racing demonic entity of the evil Dead movies, back in the director’s original corner of the country.

Yet for all its macabre-inspired glimmers, for all the spray-painted phantasmagoria in the margins of its plot, Doctor Strange and The Multiverse of Madness can’t really be a Sam Raimi movie. It can barely be her clean film. It is, after all, the latest installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a franchise that has taken serialization to a new extreme on the big screen. It’s not just that these films forever feed off each other, always repaying old plot points and creating new ones, existing in a perpetual state of incompleteness. It is also that they appreciate continuity above all; they’re designed, like iPhones or Big Macs, to deliver more or less the same experience every time. And seeing a director insert real personality around their edges, as Raimi does here, only highlights how seamless they tend to be down the middle.

The question of authorship — how much creative control a director can wield over the helm of one of these movies — has hung over the MCU for years. Marvel, to its credit, has frequently hired filmmakers with distinctive styles, or at least those who have made interesting films. And it’s not like the studio totally flattens the voices of the directors it secures: You don’t have to squint to see Shane Black’s sarcastic sensibilities in iron man 3Taika Waititi’s silly Kiwi sense of humor in Thor: Ragnarokor the dramatic instincts and social conscience of Ryan Coogler in Black Panther.

Still, there were creative differences behind the scenes. They sent filmmakers, like Edgar Wright, running for the exit. (Raimi, in fact, only entered Multiverse after another director, Scott Derickson, exited prematurely.) Those who remained on board Marvel projects occasionally complained later, complaining about studio interference and attempting to “fix” their stylistic choices in post-production. . Even the most relatively author-focused entries in the MCU bear clear signs of compromise, their most idiosyncratic qualities at war with the franchise’s boilerplate.

In other words, Marvel is giving its filmmakers space to play – to shoot action scenes to ’70s pop songs, to launch Community the cast members in small chunks, even sometimes (gasp!) spinning on the spot – but always within the pretty tight parameters of their formula. The managerial directive seems to be: Go crazy… but actually please just color the lines. Yes, Ragnarok is funny. It also incorporates a crossover promo cameo from Doctor Strange and ends with a great CGI action sequence that could very well have been crafted by a preview team. In the end, everyone still has to make a Marvel movie.

Multiverse of Madness is one of the most wonderful of them all – a convoluted plot machine that runs on MacGuffins and fan service guest appearances, and requires familiarity with a whole program of past adventures. Coming in at nearly 30 entries at the heart of a series that is truly, in comics parlance, a never-ending crossover event, the film should work as a versatile sequel, continuing the events of the first strange doctorthe last Spider Manthe last two avengers, and an entire television season. The villain’s motivations are so tied to the backstory that the script, which Raimi was rewriting during production, doesn’t bother to expand on them or even sell them to us. And there’s a sequence that’s literally just a parade of introductions, with pauses for applause.

Raimi, for his part, behaves like an evil spirit, possessing the film whenever he can with macabre mayhem of cartoon horror. There’s a lot of that in this movie, at least in spurts; he really puts the body into the exquisite corpse storytelling model that Marvel has nurtured. At times, it even feels like he’s using the bonds of this blockbuster device as a backdoor to malevolent pleasure: the aforementioned array of perp cameos lead, devilishly, to one of the most gruesome sequences in the MCU history.

More than most filmmakers sucked into the cogs of the Marvel machine, Raimi finds ways to assert his quirky personality while handling the various franchise-progression tasks of the mission. But in a way, the relative singularity of the film — its relative Raimi-ness — might leave the director’s fans longing for a project that doesn’t treat his contributions as an accent or just a dollop of exotic flavor. The strange energetic camera moves aside, Multiverse mostly looks like any other episode in this series; it has the same drab digital palette, the same green-screen VFX aesthetic, the same undistinguished stretch of downtown Manhattan. Raimi’s dynamism Spider Man cinema is just a distant memory.

These films were, of course, products of compromise in their own right. Almost all big budget Hollywood productions will. But all three (yes, even the third, a famous creative victim of Sony’s heavy hand) were clearly the work of the monster lover and Three Stooges enthusiast who led them. At the time, it was still possible for Raimi to create his superhero films from scratch. Today it has reentered a genre (and a system) that has been quality controlled in a state of deliberate uniformity. And as heartening as it is to find him again, it’s hard not to feel the nostalgia for a Sam Raimi blockbuster that exudes his signature mania in every frame, not just those featuring a smiling ghoul or Bruce Campbell. Who could describe his latest as “Kevin Feige’s strange doctor” is proof that it’s hard, in the Marvel world, to make one for you rather than one for them.

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