In September 1961, DC Comics published “Flash of Two Worlds” (Fox, et al), a landmark story that brought together two generations of the Flash: the Golden Age Jay Garrick and the Silver Age Barry Allen thanks to the concept of the multiverse, an infinite number of parallel universes that allowed any and all stories and characters to co-exist and interact. Marvel Comics would also adopt this concept and, to celebrate the release of this very film, I’ve been both celebrating the Master of the Mystic Arts and exploring the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s (MCU) equivalent of the multiverse every Sunday of May.
Released: 6 May 2022 Director: Sam Raimi Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Budget: $200 million Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen, Xochitl Gomez, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, and Chiwetel Ejiofor,
The Plot: Following a number of reality-altered events, Doctor Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) is unexpectedly thrown into a fight not just for his life, but for the fate of the entire multiverse when a girl with the power to traverse alternate dimensions is threatened by a corrupted force seeking to take her power for her own.
The Review: Right off the bat I have to say that I’m not actually the biggest fan of comic book movies delving into the multiverse concept. It’s a strange opinion to have given I regularly celebrate the trope and have enjoyed a lot of multiversal stories in comics, but I’m having a lot of difficulty reconciling that audiences aren’t more confused by it all. I’m a lifetime comic book fan and even I struggle with it a bit and, as much as I enjoyed Spider-Man: No Way Home (Webb, 2021) and Alfred Molina’s portrayal of Doctor Otto Octavius/Doctor Octopus, I can’t help but wonder if bringing that version of that villain back cost us seeing a new actor’s take on the character. I give Marvel a lot of leeway, though; after ten-plus years of building up their cinematic universe, exploring science, the cosmos, time and space, I think they’re in a far better position to start exploring beyond the confines of their singular reality. It’s not like, say, the DC Extended Universe, which jumped into alternate versions, timelines, and multiverse shenanigans just a few years after their first movie, to the point where they’re already having to rejig their timeline to try and make sense of it all. I feel Marvel’s execution so far has been very respectful and very exciting for us die-hard fans of the comics and movies, and also suspect that this phase of bringing back popular actors in their iconic superhero roles may soon pass as we head towards whatever the culmination of Phase Four really is.
Still, if you’re going to explore the multiverse, what better character than the Master of the Mystic Arts himself? When the movie begins, Dr. Strange is still guarding the Sanctum Sanctorum in New York City but, thanks to being dusted during the Blip, is also still no longer the Sorcerer Supreme, with those duties now being fulfilled by Wong (Wong). Their relationship isn’t one of master and servant, but more one of bickering peers; there’s a recurring gag that Dr. Strange refuses to bow to Wong since he’s still a bit annoyed at having lost his lofty position but, despite this, he remains a dedicated and powerful spellcaster since Wong’s duties are more focused on training sorcerers at Kamar-Taj. Dr. Strange is, however, facing a bit of a personal crisis; his dedication to his newfound lifestyle, and having been gone for five years, means that he’s missed out on the girl. Doctor Christine Palmer (McAdams) has not only met someone else, but is getting married to him, and he’s plagued by doubts concerning his decision to surrender the Time Stone to the Mad Titan, Thanos (Josh Brolin), which saved the lives of billions but also disrupted the lives of countless others, including his former colleague, Doctor Nicodemus West (Michael Stuhlbarg), who questions Dr. Strange’s actions. Strange remains justified, however, as he acted out of the greater good, having viewed millions of potential timelines, but these doubts over his character and motivation continue to surface throughout the film when he learns from America Chavez (Gomez) that his alternative selves have been so focused on the big picture that they’ve been driven to unspeakable acts, such as attempting to take America’s power for his own and even being corrupted by the forbidden magical tome, the Darkhold. Since she’s being pursued by forces far beyond her power, and is unable to control her dimension-hopping abilities, America has little choice but to trust Dr. Strange to protect her, but both her and the alternate versions of Christine have reservations about Strange’s character after seeing the lengths his other selves have gone to to keep the vast multiverse safe.
America is quite the anomaly; in an infinite number of alternate realities, it appears as though there’s only one of her, since she hasn’t encountered a counterpart in all of her random travels throughout the multiverse and she doesn’t dream (the film posits that dreams are a window into the lives of our alternate selves, which is an intriguing concept). Desperate, afraid, and alone, America is carrying a great deal of guilt after her chaotic powers accidentally sucked her mothers to an unknown fate when she was a child. America’s ability to conjure a massive, star-shaped portal to anywhere in the multiverse is triggered by fear and panic, meaning she has little control over her abilities but they offer a wealth of possibilities to more powerful and experienced forces who could absorb her power for their own ends. Dr. Strange first meets America when she’s being pursued by an unspeakable eldritch abomination, which he and Wong recognise to be a creature of witchcraft rather than sorcery, so he seeks out console from Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch, hoping to recruit the former Avenger to help protect America. However, Wanda has been so consumed with grief after losing her magically-conjured sons, Billy (Julian Hilliard) and Tommy (Jett Klyne) from the conclusion of WandaVision that she’s turned to the Darkhold to find ways of being reunited with them in an alternate reality. The Darkhold’s dark magic, coupled with the destructive potential of the Scarlet Witch, have driven Wanda into a maniacal obsession with obtaining America’s powers and, when Dr. Strange refuses to hand the girl over peacefully and condemn her to death at the Scarlet Witch’s hands, Wanda launches a brutal all-out assault against Kamar-Taj and, after they’re stranded in the multiverse, to force Wong to take her to the forbidden land of Mount Wundagore, where the Darkhold was transcribed, to both locate them and find the power to “dream walk” into the body of her alternate self to relentlessly pursue them, slaughtering anyone and everyone who gets in her way.
Since America can’t control or direct her powers, Dr. Strange immediately out his alternative self for help, only to find that he heroically died saving the universe from Thanos and that his former mentor, Baron Karl Mordo (Ejiofor), has taken his place as the Sorcerer Supreme. For those who were hoping for a resolution to Mordo’s vow to hunt down and eliminate sorcerers at the end of Doctor Strange (Derrickson, 2016), you’ll be disappointed to learn that “prime” Mordo (i.e. the one from what the MCU calls “Earth-616”) isn’t actually in this film and his counterpart is a far less antagonistic character…or so it seems. Initially, Mordo is welcoming and courteous but, all too soon, Dr. Strange and America find themselves drugged, fitted with power-dampening restraints, and placed in holding cells under the observation of the alternative Christine to determine whether 6161-Strange is as much of a threat as his counterpart. This leads to Mordo bringing Dr. Strange before the judgement of the “Illuminati”, a panel of superpowered beings who stood against Thanos and executed their version of Dr. Strange after he became corrupted by the Darkhold. Comprised of Mordo, Captain Peggy Carter/Captain Carter (Hayley Atwell), Captain Maria Rambeau/Captain Marvel (Lashana Lynch), Blackagar Boltagon/Black Bolt (Anson Mount), Professor Charles Xavier (Sir Patrick Stewart), and Doctor Reed Richards/Mister Fantastic (John Krasinski), the Illuminati underestimate Wanda’s devastating power in favour of focusing on Strange’s potential threat, which ultimately results in all of them being mercilessly slaughtered by the raging Scarlet Witch when she puppets her alternative self right into their chamber. Wanda easily negates Black Bolt’s destructive voice, turning it back on himself so he blows a hole in his head, slices Captain Carter in two with her own shield, crushes Captain Marvel to death, reduces Mr. Fantastic to spaghetti, and snaps Xavier’s neck in a harrowing sequence that’s just one of many allusions to director Sam Raimi’s past as a horror director. Thought assisted by Christine and led towards the Book of Vishanti, which promises the power to oppose Wanda’s black magic, this tome is destroyed, America is captured, and Dr. Strange is forced to turn to another corrupted version of himself, and ultimately the Darkhold, to find the means to keep Wanda from killing America, regardless of the toll such dark magic threatens to extract on his soul.
The Nitty-Gritty: Loneliness, grief, and desperation are core themes in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness; Dr. Strange maintains that he’s perfectly happy being the Master of the Mystic Arts and with his newfound purpose in life, but it’s clear that he still has feelings for Christine and regrets losing his chance to be with her. All throughout the film, he’s disturbed (but not surprised) to learn that his alternate selves all fumbled their chance at happiness, though the ramifications of this were far more destructive for his counterparts; similar to Strange Supreme from What If…?(Andrews, 2021), Strange’s corrupted doppelgänger was turned towards dark magic after losing Christine and his focus on trying to scour the multiverse for a world where they could be happy directly led to his universe being torn asunder by an “incursion” event, the very thing the Illuminati feared both their Dr. Strange and 616-Strange would cause if he wasn’t put down ahead of time. America’s fear of her powers and of trusting others is directly tied to that traumatic incident in her childhood where she literally swept her parents away in an accidental outburst, and her reluctance to trust Dr. Strange is based entirely on his alternative self turning on her to keep her powers out of Wanda’s hands, so her character arc isn’t just about learning that the ability to control her powers has been within her all along but also about finding a place to belong in the infinite worlds of the multiverse. Finally, Wanda is so desperate to be reunited with her children that she not only allows the Darkhold to corrupt her vast powers but also attacks friend and foe alike, embracing her destiny as the destructive Scarlet Witch and fully prepared to sacrifice America’s life (and the life of her doppelgänger) to be with her children once more.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness takes the rules of magic and the snippet of the multiverse we saw in Doctor Strange and Spider-Man: No Way Home and absolutely runs with it; in the years since his debut movie, Dr. Strange’s power and command over magic has vastly increased, meaning he’s able to do far more than just conjure protective shields or glowing whips. Now, he can summon magical buzz saws, demonic hands, animated musical notes and use them as projectiles, and perform all manner of miraculous and visually entertaining feats. Naturally, this makes him an incredibly over-powered character, but the film goes to great lengths to put him in jeopardy by placing even greater, often more monstrous, threats in his path; when Gargantos attacks America, it takes both Dr. Strange and Wong to put it down, which is a feat in and of itself, but even they and their magical cohorts of Kamar-Taj are no match for the full fury of the Scarlet Witch, who leaves an untold number of charred corpses and ashen remains in her wake as she pursues America. When America transports herself and Dr. Strange through the multiverse, the film really starts to come alive; they are blasted through an animated universe, the Quantum realm, the Dark Dimension, a universe where they’re turned into paint, and one where they’re literally pulled apart into tiny pieces. Eventually dumped in the M. C. Escher-esque void between universes and a desolate universe where a devastating incursion has caused reality and physics to fold in on itself, Dr. Strange’s brief and violent tour of the multiverse sees him travelling to strange worlds where society and history are slightly different, characters are noticeably changed, and even possessing the lifeless body of one of his counterparts in order to oppose Wanda. I can certainly see why Wanda’s turn to the dark side probably rattled a few people; I definitely didn’t expect that to happen (or, at least, I thought maybe the reveal that she was behind it all would happen mid-way through or near the end) and I was doubled surprised by just how many references were made to WandaVision since the MCU has notoriously ignored its TV projects in the past. WandaVision was a startling examination of the destructive power of grief, and I think the idea that someone can just get past the sort of trauma Wanda has been through without lasting repercussions is a bit unlikely, and the film definitely paints her as someone in a great deal of pain and corrupted by the Darkhold’s influence. While seeing her match Dr. Strange blow for blow was a great way to showcase her power, having her tear through the Illuminati was an even greater example of her potential threat to the multiverse.
While it’s clear that many of the Illuminati’s actors weren’t all on set at the same time, it was fun seeing Patrick Stewart back in his iconic role (and accompanied by the nineties cartoon theme, no less) one last time, and to see long-time fan casting John Krasinski portray Mr. Fantastic, but it was Anson Mount returning as Black Bolt which really surprised me as I never thought we’d see the Inhumans referenced or included after their disastrous show. Again, you could argue that these characters were “wasted” but I saw them as fun little bits of fan service for long-time fans; I said up top that I get annoyed at other actors not having a crack in these roles, though, so I am still holding out hope that we see a new actor portray Xavier if and when the X-Men are properly introduced to the MCU. Dr. Strange doesn’t come to this decision lightly; all throughout the film, his goal has been to claim the Book of Vishanti to acquire the power to stop the Scarlet Witch but, when it’s destroyed, he’s left with no choice but to turn to the Darkhold possessed by his corrupt alternate self. Transformed into a three-eyed, monstrous version of himself, this alternate Strange has become as consumed by the Darkhold as Wanda and, after his defeat, the lingering question of how the book will affect 616-Strange hangs in the air for the finale. Thankfully, the alternate Christine is on hand to act as his moral compass, encouraging him to utilise the power of the dark spirits seeking to punish him for desecrating his other self’s body, which is enough for him to save Wong from Wanda’s rock monsters and free America before her power (and life) can be consumed. Finally harnessing her incredible powers, America first lashes out at Wanda and then, when she realises she’s no match for the Scarlet Witch, grants the corrupted Avenger her wish and transports her to her boys, who are naturally terrified of this malevolent version of their loving mother. Devastated at seeing them cower in fear of her, Wanda abandons her crusade and, to atone for her heinous actions, willingly brings Mount Wundagore down around her, presumably killing herself in the process (but we never see a body, so I wouldn’t be surprised if she doesn’t pop up again in some way, shape, or form). in the aftermath, Wong beings repairing Kamar-Taj and training his students (with America among their number, the implications of which could make her one of the MCU’s most powerful characters ever) and Dr. Strange finds a peace with himself after finally admitting to the alternate Christine that he loves her. However, his jovial mood is immediately shattered when he’s crippled by whispering voices and the emergence of a third eye on his forehead like his corrupted counterpart as a result of the Darkhold’s influence, but even this is instantly swept under the rug when, in a mid-credits sequence, a mysterious woman (apparently Clea (Charlize Theron)) demand she help her repair an incursion in the Dark Dimension…
The Summary: After seeing Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, I have to commend Marvel for their marketing strategy; while the trailers hinted at Wanda’s turn to the dark side, nothing was made explicit and even the official blurb was little more than a vague statement about the film, so I was very surprised to see her transform into this malevolent, vindictive witch of incredible power. Wanda’s pain and grief are very real and believable, and I was also surprised that the film didn’t shy away from assuming the audience was familiar with WandaVision as a part of her character arc, and seeing her become this malicious force of darkness definitely raises the stakes for the MCU and means that anything can happen to these characters, no matter how heroic they may be. Dr. Strange also had an intriguing arc in the film; torn between his regrets and his duties, he fully commits to protecting America at all costs, no matter the sacrifice and the lingering question over whether he will also succumb to the darkness helps add a fascinating edge to the character as his concerns must be on a far wider scale at all times, necessitating tough choices and questionable actions. The exploration of the multiverse was great; I definitely think the film has established a short-hand for the concept and that future iterations of it will simply be taken for granted going forward, and I did enjoy seeing some new and old faces appear in cameo roles as the Illuminati, which again hints towards some exciting things in the MCU’s future. The film does suffer a little from some pacing and repetitive issues, however; obviously it can’t be all action all the time, but it does slow down to explain its concepts one time too many, and I found the framing of Dr. Strange’s meeting with the Illuminti jarring as it just highlighted that many of the actors weren’t actually there. Leaving Mordo’s vendetta unresolved was also a bit of a disappointment for me, as was the mid- and post-credits sequences, but I’m interested to see these plot threads resolved in a future film and had a blast with the film’s bizarre visuals and bat-shit-crazy moments. Bolstered by some great horror-themed shots and full of fan service and surreal imagery, the film, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness was an entertaining thrill-ride and absolutely galvanised Dr. Strange as one of the cornerstones of the MCU and, I hope, has opened the door for new versions of some of Marvel’s most popular characters to join this ever-expanding cinematic universe.
Rating: 4 out of 5.
What did you think to Doctor Strangein the Multiverse of Madness? Are you a fan of the muliverse concept or do you find it a bit too complex? What did you think to Dr. Strange’s character arc and the potential of him turning bad? Were you a fan of America Chavez or do you think she’s a bit too overpowered? What did you think to Wanda’s turn to the dark side and were you disappointed that Mordo was pushed to the side? Which member of the Illuminati surprised you the most and what did you think to their inclusion? Were you a fan of the film’s horror elements? Whatever your thoughts on Doctor Strangein the Multiverse of Madness, sign up to leave your thoughts below or leave a comment on my social media, and thanks for sticking around for Multiverse Madness!
In September 1961, DC Comics published “Flash of Two Worlds” (Fox, et al), a landmark story that brought together two generations of the Flash: the Golden Age Jay Garrick and the Silver Age Barry Allen thanks to the concept of the multiverse, an infinite number of parallel universes that allowed any and all stories and characters to co-exist and interact. Marvel Comics would also adopt this concept and, to celebrate the release of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness(Raimi, 2022) this month, I’ve been both celebrating the Master of the Mystic Arts and exploring the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s (MCU) equivalent of the multiverse every Sunday of May.
Air Date: 11 August 2021 to 6 October 2021 Network: Disney+ Stars: Hayley Atwell, Chadwick Boseman, Samuel L. Jackson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Ruffalo, Michael B. Jordan, Chris Hemsworth, Ross Marquand, and Jeffrey Wright
The Background: As a big comic book fan, it’s been absolutely amazing seeing the MCU become a multimedia juggernaut and some of Marvel Comics’ most beloved characters and concepts come to life on screen. Although Marvel Studios dabbled in television ventures with the likes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013 to 2020) and their Netflix shows, they really doubled down on TV productions for the MCU’s fourth phase to produce content for their parent company’s streaming service, Disney+. With MCU head honcho Kevin Feige behind them, the Disney+ shows aimed to maintain and expand the ongoing continuity of the MCU, but I don’t think anyone could have predicted that Marvel Studios would delve so deeply into the multiverse that we’d seen an adaptation of What If…?What If…? began life as a semi-consistent series of hypothetical, often light-hearted (or downright dark), stories that presented Marvel heroes and storylines with subtle (or major) changes. The Disney+ show followed this format and recontextualised the premise as an animated anthology series that would explore what the MCU would be like if characters or events had unfolded differently. The show’s animation was headed by Stephan Franck and sported a cel-shaded design that emphasised hyper-realism; as the MCU was officially exploring the concept of the multiverse, episodes could be part of the franchise’s overall canon and many recognisable faces, names, and voices returned to put a new spin on their iconic roles; however, although voice recording was able to continue remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, this production sadly marked the final performance of the late Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa/Black Panther. What If…? was received extremely well and the series was praised as a love-letter to the fans; despite some reservations about the format and presentation, reviews were primarily positive and spin-offs were quickly announced as either being in production or on the cards. Crucially, the multiversal scope of the series would be revisited in the live-action MCU films and characters and concepts from the show even seem set to cross over into the main MCU canon going forward.
The Plot: From beyond the multiverse, the cosmic being known as Uatu the Watcher (Wright) observes as the events of the MCU unfold differently, resulting in Peggy Carter (Atwell) becoming Captain Carter, Doctor Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) becoming a force for evil, a zombie infection running rampant, and T’Challa (Boseman) becoming Star-Lord. However, when a version of Ultron (Marquand) acquires the Infinity Stones and threatens the entire multiverse, the Watcher must break his oath of non-interference to assemble a heroic force capable of fending off this threat.
The Review: Because of the nature of the series, I think it’d be much better to look at each individual episode, what they do and how they work by themselves, and then talk about some overall themes and give my opinion on the entire concept down in the summary. The first season of What If…? is a nine-episode series of animated adventures that examine familiar characters and events in the MCU but change things about in subtle, or major, ways to create entirely new stories as part of the MCU multiverse. These alternate realities are observed by the enigmatic Watcher, a cosmic being bound only to observe and never directly interfere, and who acts as the narrator of the show. The Watcher’s opening narration explains the basics of the multiverse; as we were told in Avengers: Endgame(Russo and Russo, 2019), time and reality in the MCU is not a single, linear, fixed path. Instead, multiple timelines and alternate universes exist, with the deviations occurring from different decisions being made at key moments in time, however big or small. In this regard, time is less like a line and more like a river, with an infinite number of paths trailing off all over the place, and the Watcher acts as our impassive guide to this vast multiverse. The Watcher also serves as our narrator, quickly catching us up on the events preceding the episode and explaining when, where, and how each divergent timeline was created; however, he has taken a solemn vow to never interfere in the events he witnesses, no matter how gruesome or extreme they are.
The series kicks off with “What If…Captain Carter Were the First Avenger?” (Andrews, 2021), essentially a retelling of Captain America: The First Avenger (Johnston, 2011). Unlike in the original timeline, Strategic Scientific Reserve (SSR) Agent Peggy Carter chooses to stay and watch on the ground as skinny, ill-bodied Private Steve Rogers (Josh Keaton) prepares to become a super soldier. However, when the Nazi sleeper agent attacks the experiment this time around, Peggy manages to keep him from escaping with a sample of the serum but Steve is wounded, so Peggy ignores the orders of her commanding officer, John Flynn (Bradley Whitford), and voluntarily becomes enhanced to the peak of human physical conditioning before the experiment is lost forever. Promoted to head of the SSR, Flynn is outraged at the result; disgusted that the super soldier serum was wasted on a woman, he refuses to allow Peggy to actively participate in the war, much less on the front line, out of sheer prejudice, much to her chagrin and fury. As before, Hydra figurehead Johann Schmidt/The Red Skull (Marquand) seeks to usurp Adolf Hitler and claim victory for himself with the mysterious and all-powerful Tesseract. Flynn, however, is unimpressed by the threat and unwilling to risk even one man, let alone an entire platoon, on recovering the cube; luckily, inventor Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) believes so strongly in the Tesseract’s threat that he furnishes Peggy with a striking Union Jack-style costume and a familiar Vibranium shield so that she can single-handedly recover the Tesseract from Schmidt’s Hydra colleague, Doctor Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), decimating an entire convoy of Hydra’s soldiers with efficiency and glee and earning herself an official promotion to “Captain Carter”. Although he lost his best shot at fighting alongside his friend, Sergeant James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan), Steve is fully supportive of Peggy’s newfound strength and abilities and only too glad to pilot Stark’s Tesseract-powered “Hydra Stomper” armour. However, following an action-packed montage, Steve is apparently lost during a familiar assault on an armoured train; though grief-stricken, Peggy forces information out of Zola and leads an all-out assault against the Red Skull’s fortress, where they find Steve alive but are too late to stop the Red Skull from opening a dimensional rift with the Tesseract. The tentacles of a gigantic, interdimensional, Lovecraftian creature breach the portal, killing Schmidt and threatening all life on Earth; Peggy and Steve fend off the beast as Stark tries to shut down the portal, but Captain Carter is forced to sacrifice herself to the unknown by physically forcing the creature through the rift. The story then skips ahead to find the Tesseract being reactivated, spitting Peggy and the remains of the beast’s tentacles out into a Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement, and Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.) facility where she meets Director Nick Fury (Jackson) and Agent Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and learns the bittersweet news that the Allied Forces won the war but she is now seventy years in the future, and thus forever cut off from her friends and loved ones.
While the first episode arguably played things a little safe, we really see the potential of a What If…? series with the second episode, “What If…T’Challa Became a Star-Lord?” (Andrews, 2021), which wildly deviates from the story of Guardians of the Galaxy(Gunn, 2014). Young T’Challa (Maddix Robinson) longed to explore beyond Wakanda but was shielded from the chaotic outside world by his beloved and overprotective father, T’Chaka (John Kani), only to be abducted due to a mistake by Yondu Udonta’s (Michael Rooker) subordinates. Surprisingly, he was excited at embarking on adventures throughout the cosmos with the Ravagers and, while T’Challa doesn’t possess the Black Panther’s near-superhuman abilities, he sports all of Peter Quill’s (Brian T. Delaney) gadgets in addition to his Wakandan fighting prowess. His greatest assets, however, are his charisma, diplomacy, and reputation as a Robin Hood-type figure. Indeed, T’Challa is far more competent, notorious, and respected than his mainstream MCU counterpart; not only does Korath the Pursuer (Djimon Hounsou) know who he is, he views sparring with Star-Lord as the greatest honour and willingly joins his crew. T’Challa’s positive influence means the Ravagers put their skills towards helping others rather than for personal reward, thus sparing Drax the Destroyer’s (Fred Tatasciore) family and even convincing Thanos (Josh Brolin) that his destructive aspirations weren’t the answer to the galaxy’s problems! Touched by T’Challa’s mission to save others after the presumed destruction of Wakanda, Nebula (Karen Gillan), now a far less violent and far more beautiful woman, proposes a heist to steal the Embers of Genesis, a cosmic dust capable of ending galactic hunger, from Taneleer Tivan/The Collector (Benicio del Toro). While sneaking around the Collector’s museum, T’Challa finds a Wakandan spacecraft and is angered to find that Yondu lied to him about Wakanda in order to help him realise his true calling as an adventurer. The two reconcile in the best way possible: by teaming up to fight with this much more formidable version of the Collector, who is enhanced by weapons, technology, and items retrieved from some of the MCU’s most powerful and prominent individuals and races. Thanks to their teamwork, the Collector is disarmed and left at the mercy of his captives, and T’Challa forgives Yondu’s deception before reuniting with T’Chaka and his people in Wakanda, bringing his two families together in celebration over their mutual friend. Across the world, however, a greater threat awaits when Ego (Kurt Russell) comes looking for his son, here a mere Dairy Queen employee.
“What If…the World Lost Its Mightiest Heroes?” (Andrews, 2021) takes us back to the middle of Iron Man 2 (Favreau, 2010) and Nick Fury and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow’s (Lake Bell) latest effort to recruit Tony Stark/Iron Man (Mick Wingert) to the Avengers Initiative. Fury is horrified when his attempt to stave off Stark’s palladium poisoning apparently has the unexpected side effect of killing the would-be Avenger; this tragedy is quickly followed by Thor Odinson (Hemsworth) being accidentally killed by Hawkeye’s errant arrow and the archer later being found dead while locked in an impenetrable S.H.I.E.L.D. cell. Fury suspects that his recruits are being targeted by an unknown party, and charges Natasha to escape Brock Rumlow’s (Frank Grillo) custody and make contact with Doctor Betty Ross (Stephanie Panisello). Though initially distrustful of Natasha due to her association with those who’ve hounded her friend, colleague, and former lover, Doctor Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Ruffalo), Betty is convinced to take a closer look at the injector used on Stark and theorises that a microscopic projectile fired from the needle killed the superhero. Hungry for blood after learning of Hawkeye’s death, Natasha agrees with Fury’s theory that their killer is targeting Avengers recruits; unfortunately, General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (Mike McGill) arrives looking to arrest Banner and sparks his transformation into the rampaging Hulk as in his solo film. However, the seemingly immortal Green Goliath also falls victim to the mysterious killer when he violently explodes from the inside out, and things escalate even further when Loki Laufeyson (Tom Hiddleston) arrives looking to avenge Thor’s death. Fury manages to buy himself one day to solve Thor’s murder on the promise of delivering the culprit to the God of Mischief and, when Natasha finds that a dead agent’s credentials were used to access S.H.I.E.L.D.’s database, she’s brutally beaten to death by an unseen assailant, and only able to tell Fury that all the deaths are relating to “hope”. This, however, is enough to piece together the perpetrator’s true identity: Doctor Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), who targeted Fury’s recruits in the guise of the size-altering Yellowjacket after his daughter, Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), died while working for S.H.I.E.L.D. A broken, bitter, twisted old man, Pym blames Fury and has become a deranged killer due to his grief and anger. However, Pym and his tech are outmatched when Fury is revealed to be Loki in disguise but, after Pym is defeated and taken into Asgardian custody, Loki double-crosses Fury and declares himself ruler of humanity. To combat this threat, Fury gets back to work assembling his super team, starting with calling Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (Alexandra Daniels) back to Earth and uncovering Captain America’s frozen body.
The show shifts over to the world of magic and mysticism for “What If…Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?” (Andrews, 2021), which presents a world where Dr. Strange and Doctor Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) are still a couple in a loving relationship. Fully supportive and enamoured by Dr. Strange, Christine encourages his ego and his skills as a surgeon, but sadly her influence doesn’t extend to his driving skills. However, in this world, Dr. Strange is relatively unharmed from the car crash that took his MCU counterpart’s hands but is left grief-stricken when Christine dies as a result of his negligence. In a bid to fill the void in his life, and his heart, Strange travels the world and, once again, ends up studying the mystic arts at Kamar-Taj under the tutelage of the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). Like his mainstream counterpart, Strange becomes the Master of the Mystic Arts after the Ancient One’s death and successfully bargains with the Dread Dormammu (Cumberbatch), but remains preoccupied with the mistakes of his past and the promises offered by the Eye of Agamotto’s time-bending abilities. Haunted by memories of happier times with Christine, Strange ignores the warnings of the Ancient One and his manservant, Wong (Benedict Wong), and uses the Eye to place his current consciousness into the body of his past self. Unfortunately, the tragedy still occurs no matter how safely he drives, which route he takes, or even his refusal to go to the award speech as Christine dies again and again whether he’s there or what he does. Dr. Strange’s anguish at being unable to save Christine isn’t helped by the Ancient One’s explanation that her death cannot be averted as it would create a potentially universe-destroying time paradox (if Strange prevents her death, he won’t become a sorcerer and be able to go back and save her).
Refusing to believe that Christine is fated to die, and angered at the Ancient One’s refusal to help him break this “absolute point” in time, Dr. Strange uses the Eye to flee from the confrontation and consult the ancient tomes of the Lost Library of Cagliostro. There, he meets O’Bengh (Ike Amadi) and learns that one can potentially gain the power he requires by absorbing magical beings; thus, Dr. Strange conjures a variety of demonic, Lovecraftian, and magical creatures (including gnomes, familiars, dragons, and even the octopus-like creature Captain Carter fought). When they won’t willingly share their power, he resolves to forcibly take it, and quickly becomes obsessed with gaining more and more magical power from these entities over the course of centauries to become “Strange Supreme”. As he does so, he grows increasingly monstrous and takes on more of their attributes, but is shocked to learn from O’Bengh that he’ll never be powerful enough to achieve his dreams due to the Ancient One using magic from the Dark Dimension to split him in two and create two concurrent timelines. His other half, who took Wong’s advice and moved on from Christine’s death, is charged by an echo of the Ancient One to oppose his dark doppelgänger before his ambition erases all of reality. When Strange Supreme’s attempts to coerce his other half into joining his cause are rejected, a magical battle ensues that spans multiple dimensions. Despite Wong’s protective spells and Strange’s efforts to talk down his dark half, Strange Supreme’s centauries of basking in the powers of countless magical beings makes him the superior and he’s ultimately able to absorb his missing half. Finally whole again, Strange Supreme succeeds in undoing Christine’s death but is transformed into a demonic being by the effort this requires; understandably, she is horrified by his nightmarish appearance, and he’s left helpless to stop the time paradox from devouring all of his reality. Desperate to preserve the world, he begs the Watcher for help but he refuses to get involved, despite wishing to punish Strange Supreme’s reckless arrogance, and the once Sorcerer Supreme is left alone, despondent, and remorseful in the tiniest pocket of reality with nothing but his grief and regret for company.
One popular, recurring storyline in Marvel Comics in recent years has been the Marvel Zombies spin-off (Various, 2005 to present) that tells of a devastating zombie plague overwhelming the Marvel universe (and beyond). A version of this reality is explored in “What If…Zombies?!” (Andrews, 2021), which finds the Hulk crash-landing into the Sanctum Sanctorum as in Avengers: Infinity War (Russo and Russo, 2018) only to find it, and the streets of New York City, deserted. When Iron Man, Dr. Strange, and Wong arrive to take care of Ebony Maw (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) and Cull Obsidian (Terry Notary), Banner’s elation soon turns to horror when the three are revealed to be vicious, flesh-eating zombies who tear Thanos’s children to shreds, instantly infecting them in the process, and Banner is only saved from the same fate thanks to the timely intervention of Dr. Strange’s Cloak of Levitation, a swarm of ants commanded by Hope van Dyne/The Wasp, and Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Hudson Thames). Spider-Man’s amusing orientation video shows that the MCU’s zombies largely confirm to the “rules” commonly associated with their kind; they’re decomposing corpses with a voracious hunger who turn others with a single bite and can only be killed by removing the head or destroying the brain. However, they’re not as mindless or shambling as traditional zombies; they’re intelligent enough to co-ordinate their attacks and utilise tech like the Iron Man armour and magic like the Sling Rings. In a change of pace, the Watcher reveals a definite origin for the zombie outbreak by relating how Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) became infected with the virus while stuck in the Quantum Realm; when she bit Hank Pym, he brought the virus back with him and the entire world was quickly overrun once the Avengers were turned.
Banner joins up with the few uninfected survivors and learns from Okoye (Danai Gurira) of a possible cure at Camp Lehigh, New Jersey; the group travel to the Grand Central Station, where they’re attacked by zombified versions of Sam Wilson/The Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Hawkeye, and Captain America. Although they lose Harold “Happy” Hogan (Jon Favreau), the group is able to get the train working and fend off the zombies thanks to Okoye and the Wasp. However, the train is attacked by Zombie Cap, who infects Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) and forces Bucky to end his undead existence, retrieving his shield in the process, but Hope is also infected from a small cut she receives after disposing of Sharon. Although Peter tries to remain optimistic that she’ll be cured before she can turn, Hope sacrifices herself to atone for her part in causing the outbreak by carrying the group through a horde of zombies and dropping them off at Camp Lehigh. There, they find the zombies refuse to breach the camp thanks to the presence of the Mind Stone in the Vision’s (Paul Bettany) head; he and the severed head of Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) reveal that the Mind Stone’s properties can reverse the zombie virus, and the group is excited to spread the cure throughout the world from Wakanda. However, Banner learns that they’re not the first to respond to the Vision’s beacon, and Bucky is horrified to find that the Vision has been feeding parts of other survivors (including T’Challa) to a zombified version of Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) since she’s proven resistant to the Mind Stone and he’s been unable to kill her due to his love for her. When Wanda breaks free and proves uncontrollable due to her powers and hunger, the Vision rips the Mind Stone out of his head to atone for his actions and the group’s escape is covered by Bucky and the Hulk, who finally emerges from Banner’s psyche and is able to resist the zombie’s bite and hold back Wanda so the others can take off. The one-legged T’Challa, beheaded Lang, and shellshocked Peter console themselves with the knowledge that they’ll be able to save the world once they reach Wakanda, completely unaware that the nation has already succumbed to the infection and is under the rule of a zombified Thanos and his partially-completed Infinity Gauntlet!
We then go back to where the MCU all started in “What If…Killmonger Rescued Tony Stark?” (Andrews, 2021), which recreates the opening moments of Iron Man(Favreau, 2008) with one key difference: right as Tony Stark is about to be injured by one of his own missiles, he’s saved by N’Jadaka/Erik Stevens/Killmonger (Jordan), who fends off the Ten Rings soldiers looking to kidnap Stark and thus means that the genius, billionaire philanthropist never learns the humility or courage that led to him becoming Iron Man. Instead, he remains a conceited, arrogant, self-serving glory hound who believes that he needs to build bigger, better weapons to protect America’s interests. To that end, he drafts in Killmonger, who wastes no time in publicly outing Obadiah Stane (Kiff VandenHeuvel) as the man who bankrolled the Ten Rings’ attack on Stark, and Stark is so grateful to his saviour that he quickly promotes Killmonger to his new Chief Operations Officer, alienating Virginia “Pepper” Potts (Beth Hoyt) in the process. Killmonger swiftly becomes Stark’s closest friend and confidante and, together, they create robot drones, the “Liberators”, based on Killmonger’s fandom for anime. Killmonger pushes Stark to use Vibranium as a power source for the Liberators, and Stark sends in Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle) to steal some from Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis). However, the Black Panther attacks the meeting to recover stolen Vibranium, only for Killmonger to reveal his true intentions and kill T’Challa with one of Stark’s weapons. He chastises Rhodey for wearing the uniform of his oppressors and kills him with the Black Panther’s claw to make it seem like they killed each other; thanks to Just A Rather Very Intelligent System (J.A.R.V.I.S.; Bettany), however, Killmonger’s actions are revealed to Stark. Stark tries to avenge his friend’s murder using a Liberator, but Killmonger easily bests the drone and kills Stark with a Dora Milaje spear, which escalates the tensions between the United States and Wakanda into all-out war. General Ross assumes control of Stark’s assets and the Liberators are pushed into mass production; Killmonger then kills Klaue in order to deceive the Wakandans, then seizes control of the Liberators to lead his people in “defeating” the invading army. His victory and battle prowess wins over his uncle, T’Chaka, and earns him the mantle of the Black Panther; however, T’Challa’s astral warnings of Killmonger’s impending defeat are left a distinct possibility not only due to Ross’s obsession with continuing the war but also when Pepper and Shuri (Ozioma Akagha) agree to work together to expose Killmonger’s deception.
“What If…Thor Were an Only Child?” (Andrews, 2021) lightens things up a bit by retelling the events of Thor(Branagh, 2011); in this version of the story, in the absence of a brother to grow up alongside, Thor is little more than a lackadaisical, party-loving frat-boy who, despite still being worthy of Mjölnir, is far more interested in wasting time revelling with his friends than following his mother, Frigga’s (Josette Eales), instructions to behave or becoming a bore like his father, Odin Allfather (Anthony Hopkins). To avoid the all-seeing gaze of Heimdall (Idris Elba), Thor and his drinking buddies head the Midgard, the most backwater, insignificant world in all the Nine Realms, and invite guests from all over to join them in a massive, nonstop party. Tracking the cosmic disturbance and fearful of an alien invasion, Doctor Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) investigates and is both disturbed to find that Thor’s parties are so out of control that they can kill planets and won over by the Thunder God’s otherworldly charm. Jane and her intern, Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings), join the party, quickly being swept up in all the intergalactic chaos and merriment on display; Darcy even marries Howard the Duck (Seth Green), and Jane and Thor get matching tattoos, but soon wake up to massive hangovers and the arrival of S.H.I.E.L.D. Acting Director Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) is deeply concerned that Thor is leaving a trail of destruction as he takes his party on the road, and calls in Captain Marvel to assist with the perceived threat. Thor’s reunion with fellow party animal Prince Loki of Jotunheim is interrupted by Captain Marvel’s arrival; Thor brushes off her demands that he leaves, and a fight ensues that sees the two battle all across the globe. Despite Thor’s petulant, childish nature, the two are seemingly equally matched in terms of power and durability, but Carol’s forced to hold back her full power to avoid damaging the world or endangering lives. Since Jane disagrees with attacking or eliminating Thor since she’s so enamoured by him, she uses her tech to contact Heimdall and literally tells on Thor to Frigga. As Hill prepares an all-out nuclear strike against Thor, he’s terrified by Frigga’s impending arrival and begs his guests to help him clean up all evidence of their shenanigans. Despite Thor’s best, most frantic efforts to put right all the anarchy he and his friends had caused, she sees through his deception; however, rather than being mad at Jane for selling him out, he thanks her for teaching him a lesson in humility and asks her out…only for he, and the Watcher, to be stunned by the sudden appearance of an alternate version of Ultron!
This cliff-hanger is explained in the following episode, “What If…Ultron Won?” (Andrews, 2021), which presents a post-apocalyptic world where Black Widow and Hawkeye are the only Avengers left to oppose the all-powerful Ultron. In this world, Hawkeye not only sports his ridiculous mohawk and a mechanical right arm, but Ultron successfully fulfilled its goal to cause an extinction-level event by claiming the Vision’s body as its own, killing Iron Man, Cap, and Thor, and launching a worldwide nuclear attack that decimated humanity. When Thanos arrived looking to retrieve the Mind Stone, Ultron split him in two with one shot and claimed the Infinity Stones for itself, becoming a God-like being capable of laying waste to entire worlds and Realms with its endless supply of drones. Asgard, Ego, Xandar, and countless others all fall before Ultron’s power and even Captain Marvel is unable to oppose it; having eradicated the vast majority of life across the universe and ascended to a higher pane of existence, Ultron not only sees but also hears the Watcher. Although the Watcher previously considered intervening in Dr. Strange’s story, he held true to his vow of non-interference since he deals in a cosmic balance beyond the lives of mere mortals, even ones as powerful as the Master of the Mystic Arts. However, Ultron’s threat is so terrifying even to this cosmic observer that the Watcher is sorely tempted to assist Natasha and Clint in their efforts to coerce Zola’s artificial intelligence into helping them. The Watcher is pleased when their perseverance pays off but, although Zola is able to possess one of Ultron’s drones, he cannot shut down Ultron’s hive mind as Ultron is outside of the known universe, meaning Clint is forced to sacrifice himself so that Natasha and Zola can escape. The Watcher is aghast when Ultron not only does the impossible and breaches his cosmic observatory but is also able to match even the Watcher’s cosmic power. Their battle sees them literally smashing the dimensional barriers into numerous alternate realities and sees Ultron devour a whole universe and force the Watcher to flee. While Ultron prepares to lay waste to the entire multiverse, the Watcher is forced to turn to Strange Supreme for help in opposing Ultron’s threat.
This story, and the entire show, comes to a head in the final episode, “What If…the Watcher Broke His Oath?” (Andrews, 2021), which sees the Watcher recruiting Captain Carter, T’Challa Star-Lord, Killmonger, Party Thor, and a previously unseen version of Gamora (Cynthia McWilliams) to join Strange Supreme as the Guardians of the Multiverse. He enlists each of them right as they’re in the middle of tying up loose ends from their respective episodes and emphasises that every one of them is needed to protect something even bigger than their individual lives or concerns. Captain Carter immediately recognises the gravity of the situation, while Strange Supreme sees this as his chance at true redemption, and, despite the odds, they all tentatively agree to work together to combat Ultron, steal his Soul Stone, and destroy it using Gamora’s “Infinity Crusher” device. While Strange Supreme struggles to contain the dark magics within his body, Gamora is troubled by Killmonger’s obsession with Ultron’s technology, and Thor accidentally attracts Ultron’s attention, but the group is thankfully shielded by Strange Supreme’s protection spell. Following Captain Carter’s lead, the Guardians are able to launch a co-ordinated attack that allows T’Challa to swipe the Soul Stone; when Ultron makes short work of Zombie Wanda and follows the Guardians to its home reality, it gets summarily pummelled by the Guardians’ repeated attacks and Strange Supreme’s ability to counteract both Ultron’s Time Stone and match its enlarged form with his monstrous magic. Although they’re stunned to find the Infinity Crusher ineffectual because it and the Infinity Stones are from different realities, Ultron’s threat is ended when Captain Carter helps Natasha avenge Clint and fire an arrow containing Zola’s consciousness into Ultron’s armour, erasing its sentience once and for all. In the aftermath, Killmonger claims Ultron’s armour and proposes using the Infinity Stones to “fix” their universes; when they refuse, he attempts to destroy them and they’re saved by a Zola-controlled Vision, who tries to take the Infinity Stones for himself. Before they can properly get into a potentially devastating battle over the gems, Strange Supreme freezes them in time and seals them within a pocket dimension, ending their threat once and for all. The Watcher trusts Strange Supreme with watching over the two, and returns everyone to their proper place and time; since Natasha’s world was left lifeless by Ultron, the Watcher sends her to help Nick Fury overthrow Loki, and then alters his vow of impassive observation to a pledge to protect the multiverse when needed.
The Summary: At first, I wasn’t too sold on What If…?’s animation style; the slick, computerised cel-shaded look has never been a favourite of mine, but I was quickly won over by it due to how closely each character and episode mirrors their live-action counterparts. Everything from the recreation of certain shots, to the musical cues, to the costumes and likenesses perfectly emulates the source material each episode is based on, meaning we get the brown-hued colour scheme of World War Two for Captain Carter, the barrage of bizarre cosmic colours for Star-Lord, and the industrial, high-tech grey of Stark and S.H.I.E.L.D. facilities. Although some notable names from the MCU didn’t return to lend their voices to their iconic characters, What If…? employs the services of some incredibly gifted soundalikes and even goes the extra mile in presenting a version of Bruce Banner that resembles both Edward Norton and Mark Ruffalo, which is fitting considering we encounter this character between his solo film and his first big MCU crossover. Animation also means that What If…? is theoretically able to do absolutely anything it desires, regardless of budget, and is limited only be the imagination of the animators; thus, while things are a little on the safe side with slightly different retelling of Captain America: The First Avenger, Thor, and other MCU films, it’s not long before we’re seeing massive Lovecraftian creatures, a whole host of Marvel heroes interacting in ways we’ve not really seen before, an additional taste of the cosmic madness of the universe (and multiverse), and a wide variety of both horrifying and oddball concepts to really test the waters of what the MCU is capable of going forward.
I really liked that, despite their reversed roles, Peggy and Steve still have a mutual attraction based on mutual respect and their respective struggles; Peggy faces an uphill battle due to being a woman in a male-orientated world (and war) that constantly weighs her down even after she’s enhanced by the super soldier serum, and of course Steve has been overlooked and undervalued his entire life due to his gaunt frame and sickly nature. While everyone else is either incredulous due to her being a woman or impressed by her fighting prowess because she is a woman, and she must prove her worth through her deeds to win them over, Steve admires the person that she is and her fighting spirit; he’s the only one that doesn’t judge her for her gender and who doesn’t need convincing that she’s the right person for the job and is only too grateful to be an active combatant alongside her in the Hydra Stomper. Peggy is also quite different in the role; like Steve, she attacks it with a sense of duty and honour, but she also takes far more joy in her newfound abilities. There’s a sense that she’s finally able to let loose, that she’s been given the physical gifts to realise her full potential, and she literally dives head-first into making the most of that opportunity. T’Challa’s characterisation as a galaxy-wide force for good is a fitting tribute to the late Chadwick Boseman; unlike Peter Quill, T’Challa is a well-respected and competent space mercenary, and I loved the running gag that he’s somehow able to convince even the most maladjusted individuals to give up their villainous or tyrannical ways simply through presenting a convincing argument. Korath is only too willing to change sides simply out of his worship of Star-Lord, and his crew follow his lead into doing good deeds simply because he was such a positive influence on them. Unfortunately, he’s not able to have the same influence on the Collector, who’s not only blinded by his position in this universe, but also driven by his inherent greed and given a major power boost thanks to his artefacts. However, while threats still remain in this timeline, on the surface it seems to be a far more peaceful and united universe simply thanks to T’Challa’s positive influence on others.
Things take a turn to the dark side once the Avengers (especially Stark) start getting killed off; What If…? is a self-contained show within the larger MCU multiverse, meaning literally anything can happen to anyone, and seeing the franchise’s core six heroes be so brutally murdered really hammers that home. It also gives Hank Pym, someone introduced later into the MCU, a chance to be a more prominent player in this sandbox; seeing him active in the MCU’s first phase is a great way of fleshing out the world in a unique way, especially as he’s become a murdering psychopath. This is a Pym whose neuroses and paranoia have been pushed to breaking point, which deftly showcases just how much of a threat a guy with Pym’s intellect and technology can be to even the most superhuman individuals. Of course, the epitome of dark character turns is the tragic tale of Strange Supreme; it’s absolutely heart-breaking to see Dr. Strange left so desperate and despondent by Christine’s loss that he fell deeper and deeper to the darkness. His frustration and anguish at being unable to change the past see him become obsessed with gaining more and more power, to the point where he is fixated only on being reunited with his love. This makes him blind to all pleas, even those of his uncorrupted counterpart, and it isn’t until all of reality is about to be erased forever that he realises the error of his ways. Sadly, by then, it’s much too late for him to undo anything; Christine once again dies in his arms and everything that ever was is unravelled due to his time paradox; even the Watcher judges his heinous actions, and the once mighty Strange Supreme is left alone and repentant in the tiniest slither of reality. It’s a poignant and gut-wrenching take on the snarky, stubborn, and arrogant Sorcerer Supreme, one that shows just how dangerous a threat he could be if he lost his strong moral compass, and it’s a testament to the show that the character remained a tragic and relatable figure right up until the end rather than simply being a malevolent antagonist.
Easily the darkest tale is the inclusion of zombies; never before has the MCU veered so closely towards traditional horror and I really appreciated the bleak, gory change of pace. It was fantastic seeing the MCU’s most powerful characters reduced to animalistic ghouls, forcing the few survivors to battle their lifelong friends and making painful sacrifices to ensure the safety of others against overwhelming odds. This was also a prime opportunity to show a new side to the Vision; him luring in survivors just to feed his love is a haunting glimpse at the darker side of his cold, calculating logic. We’ve seen such behaviour, this overpowering sense of denial, in zombie films before and, here, it served as a gruesome reminder of just how close to the brink this alternate reality is to total collapse. This continued in Killmonger’s welcome reappearance, with his alternate tale basically showing what could have happened if he had succeeded in his goals of reclaiming his Wakandan birthright; Killmonger was always one of the MCU’s more driven and dangerous antagonists and his episode showed just how truly vindictive and sadistic he really was. He had no qualms about deceiving or using anyone and any resource at his disposal, and even incited an all-out war just so that he could get himself into a position of trust and power, which serves as a stark reminder to just how ruthless a villain he really was. The party-loving version of Thor is the polar opposite; Party Thor cares little for battle or being a king and just wants to enjoy himself. He revels in being the centre of attention and throwing the biggest, most outrageous parties in all the Nine Realms and is lauded amongst his guests as being the wildest party animal around. Thor is a consummate free spirit and a friend to all; alien races, Gods, and recognisable beings from all across the cosmos cheer his name and share in his revelry, making for some of the most light-hearted and amusing moments in the entire series as Surtur (Clancy Brown) tries it on with Lady Liberty and Frost Giants deface Mount Rushmore. This episode also leads to one of the best fist fights in the series as Thor and Captain Marvel trade blows, but he delights in the fight as much as he does in enjoying himself with mead, and only the disapproval of his mother finally shakes Thor from his apathy and pushes him to make amends for his reckless merriment.
Of course, things come to a suitably dramatic and action-packed conclusion with the final two episodes, which finally force the Watcher into action. Up until then, the watcher existed outside of the normal universe, powerful and cosmic enough to remain completely undetected, but Ultron’s sentience and force grows to such an extent that it’s able to sense the Watcher, breach his observatory, and begin a maniacal campaign to conquer and destroy the entire multiverse. Untold aeons of quietly observing the multiverse haven’t exactly dampened the Watcher’s power cosmic, but in the face to Ultron’s might, enhanced by the six Infinity Stones, the enigmatic onlooker is forced to do the one thing he has never done and ask for help, calling upon the characters he has been observing and asking them to intervene where he cannot. Seeing these wildly different versions of these characters interacting was a blast; they arguably got on the same page much faster than the regular Avengers (which is no doubt due to the short length of the episodes) and were able to launch a united attack on Ultron as a result. Indeed, Ultron kind of got a bit shafted in the last episode; it went from going toe-to-toe with a cosmic being to getting battered about by a handful of mortals and Godlings simply because the Guardians were able to keep the pressure on and keep Ultron from activating the Infinity Stones. Realistically, Ultron could’ve just “snapped” them all away, but then that wouldn’t be anywhere near as exhilarating for a final battle now, would it? Seeing Killmonger claim the gems and just the idea of what his twisted imagination would use them for was a cool moment, as was the idea that he might someday escape his trap to threaten the multiverse again, and just about the only issue I had with that last episode was the random inclusion of a Gamora when they could’ve maybe employed Zombie Wanda instead. Overall, though, I thoroughly enjoyed this series; the presentation, the humour, the fun twists on established characters, and the bizarre stories were all really fun and engaging and I can’t wait to see more from this as the MCU continues to expand into more and ore obscure concepts.
Rating: 5 out of 5.
Did you enjoy What If…?? Which episode was your favourite, and which of the alternate characters did you like the most? Did you enjoy the Watcher’s inclusion and characterisation? What did you think to all the cameos and the animation style? Did you enjoy seeing Ultron as an all-powerful force and what did you think to its battle with the Watcher? Were you also disappointed that Gamora didn’t get her own episode? Are you a fan of the What If…? comics and, if so, which was your favourite? What other hypothetical scenarios would you like to see explored in a future season? Whatever your thoughts on What If…?, sign up to drop a comment down below and check back next Sunday for the final instalment of Multiverse Madness.
In September 1961, DC Comics published “Flash of Two Worlds” (Fox, et al), a landmark story that brought together two generations of the Flash: the Golden Age Jay Garrick and the Silver Age Barry Allen thanks to the concept of the multiverse, an infinite number of parallel universes that allowed any and all stories and characters to co-exist and interact. Marvel Comics would also adopt this concept and, to celebrate the release of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness(Raimi, 2022) this month, I’ve been both celebrating the Master of the Mystic Arts and exploring the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s (MCU) equivalent of the multiverse every Sunday of May.
Air Date: 15 January 2021 to 5 March 2021 Network: Disney+ Stars: Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Kathryn Hahn, Teyonah Parris, Kat Dennings, and Evan Peters
The Background: Without a doubt, the MCU has become a nigh-unstoppable multimedia juggernaut that has brought some of Marvel Comics’ most beloved, and obscure, characters to life on the silver screen. Although Marvel Studios had dabbled in television ventures as well with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013 to 2020) and their Netflix shows, they really upped their focus on TV productions for the MCU’s fourth phase and to coincide with the release of their parent company’s streaming service, Disney+. Spearheaded by MCU head honcho Kevin Feige, the Disney+ shows focused heavily on maintaining and expanding the continuity of the MCU going forward, and the first of these announced was a spin-off that would focus on the previously underutilised characters of Wanda Maximoff (Olsen) and the Vision (Bettany). WandaVision was a curious venture that aimed to explore new areas of the MCU, and the multiverse, by placing the characters in different decades and parodying popular sitcoms throughout the years. Feige aimed for the show to shed new light on Wanda’s potentially dangerous powers and to lay the foundation for the MCU’s fourth phase by dabbling in the multiverse. Inspired by both classic sitcoms and notable comic book storylines involving both characters, the show was framed as a surreal and bizarre mystery that would weave in aspects from outside the MCU and build to a dramatic finale that fundamentally altered Wanda’s character. Released in weekly episodes that sent fan speculation into a frenzy, WandaVision received widespread critical acclaim; critics praised the show from breaking away from the usual MCU formula and its emotional and dramatic themes, though some criticised the finale and the show’s overall pacing. Still, WandaVision was highly successful and, while there are currently no plans for a second season, its story arcs were continued in further MCU films and spin-offs.
The Plot: Three weeks after the events of Avengers: Endgame(Russo and Russo, 2019), Wanda Maximoff and the Vision are living an idyllic suburban life in the town of Westview, New Jersey, where they conceal their true natures. However, things are not as they seem as their surroundings begin to move through different decades and they discover that they’re being manipulated by a malevolent supernatural force.
The Review: I’m admittedly pretty late to the Marvel Disney+ shows, primarily because neither my television nor my service provider actually carry the app, and it’s not the same watching on a smaller screen. I’d usually be content to wait for the DVD release, but it’s looking like we won’t actually get one so, with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness right around the corner, now seems like as good a time as any to actually watch WandaVision, which I honestly was the least excited about of all the Disney+ shows. This isn’t because I dislike the characters or the actors that portray them, it just seemed like a weird spin-off to produce, especially given the events of Avengers: Endgame, but I heard a lot of good things about it and followed the every-growing fan speculation so it was great to actually sit down with it and binge-watch it in one sitting.
Thanks to the inclusion of super cringe, super appropriate jaunty theme songs and opening titles at the start of each episode, WandaVision quickly catches us up with the two Avengers and the general theme of the show; somehow, Wanda and the Vision have gotten married and settled down in Westview, a quiet little town where they hope for a fresh start amongst normal, everyday people. To achieve this, the two keep their extraordinary abilities hidden; however, when in the privacy of their own home, Wanda freely uses her magic to perform household chores, such as tidying and cleaning, and the Vison walks around in his default synthezoid form without a second thought. Outside of the house, the Vision alters his physical appearance to pass as human and works at Computational Services Inc.; while he is naturally incredibly efficient and hardworking, neither he nor his co-worker, Norm (Asif Ali), has any idea what the company actually does. Although Wanda and the Vision seem perfectly happy in their new life, with all its quirks and eccentricities, WandaVision shows hints towards a darker side of their lives right from the first episode; while entertaining his boss and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Hart (Fred Melamed and Debra Jo Rupp), neither of the main characters can recall where they came from, when they got married, or how they even got there. Wanda is so confused by her inability to answer such simple questions that she simply sits, perplexed, while Mr. Hart chokes to death on a piece of food and Mrs. Hart is locked in an agonising loop where she can only say “Stop it!” with good humour. Eventually, Wanda sees how serious the situation is and asks the Vision to step in and the whole incident is laughed off as a gag, but it’s a disturbing moment made all the more intriguing when the episode ends with its events being watched by another within the show, providing our first hint that WandaVision is a show within a show.
Still, despite this incident, the two are determined to fit in with their quaint little suburban community; the Vision joins the neighbourhood watch, Wanda joins the planning committee for the local talent show, and Wanda is keen to take the family trick-or-treating later in the show. Essential to helping her to fit in is Agnes (Hahn), Wanda’s “neighbour to the right”, who constantly drops in on her at the most convenient of times to offer friendly advice about how to deal with the local social committee or to help her out of awkward situations. Agnes takes a special interest in Wanda and the Vision’s sex life (apparently because she is under-sexed and under-valued by her unseen husband, Ralph), and continuously probes Wanda for intimate details about her life and offers Wanda advice about how to spice up her sex life. Right from the off, Agnes is dropping hints about the two starting a family, and this is only exacerbated when Wanda feels detached from the community because she doesn’t have children like Dottie Jones (Emma Caulfield Ford), the head of the committee and a prominent figure in Westview’s social elite. After their magic show is a smash hit (despite the Vision being inebriated due to gum clogging his systems and Wanda frantically using her Chaos Magic to explain away her husband’s superhuman feats, and the fact that there are no children in attendance for show), Wanda is overjoyed when she spontaneously becomes pregnant and so angered by the strange appearance of a beekeeper’s outfit emerging from a manhole that she literally rewinds time to return to her happy moment.
Wanda’s pregnancy is explored through the third episode, “Now in Color” (Shakman, 2021); while she is delighted to find that she is already four months pregnant and happy to busy herself using her magic to decorate and prepare a nursery, the Vision begins to find himself disturbed by the strange goings on in their lives and around Westview. Every time he stops to consider why his neighbours are acting so strangely or how Wanda’s pregnancy is progressing so fast, Wanda gets closer and closer to popping, replacing his concerns with the dual emotions of happiness and anxiety at the thought of becoming a father. Wanda’s pregnancy sends her powers all out of whack and causes a neighbourhood blackout; when she worries that Westview will suspect she’s the cause of it, this strikes a chord with the Vision but, again, Wanda causes an abrupt jump cut to keep him from following his thoughts through any further and he’s soon rushing off to retrieve Doctor Stan Nielsen (Randy Oglesby) to help deliver the baby. Although she tries her best to hide her condition using bowls of fruit and to wish away a stork she randomly brings to life, Wanda eventually succumbs to her pregnancy but, luckily, her new friend Geraldine (Parris) is on hand to help out. Thanks to Geraldine, Wanda successfully gives birth to Baby Tommy and then she and the Vision are shocked at the arrival of his twin, Baby Billy. While thanking Geraldine and cooing over her babies, Wanda is reminded of her own twin brother, Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson); this seems to snap Geraldine out of her trance and, when she accidentally reminds Wanda of her brother’s death at Ultron’s (James Spader) hands, Wanda becomes enraged and forcible ejects Geraldine from Westview, which is revealed to be encased within a translucent energy field not unlike television static and monitored by government agents.
This is the perfect way to transition to some actual context for the show as, after three episodes of intrigue and mystery, “We Interrupt This Program” (Shakman, 2021) goes a long way to explaining just what the hell is happening by following Geraldine after she is restored to life by the second snap of the Infinity Gauntlet. It turns out that she’s not a native of Westview at all and is, in fact, a grown-up Monica Rambeau, which is relayed in a harrowing sequence where Monica stumbles through a hospital thrown into disarray by people suddenly returning from being disintegrated and culminates in her receiving the heart-breaking news that her mother, Maria (Lashana Lynch), succumbed to cancer while Monica was lost to the snap. Monica is a former fighter pilot captain in the Sentient Weapon Observation and Response Division (S.W.O.R.D.), an intelligence agency founded by Maria and now run by Director Tyler Hayward (Josh Stamberg) that monitors and responds to threats posed by robotics and artificial intelligence. Monica is assigned to assist the Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B. I.) with a missing persons case in Westview and liaises with Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), whose investigation has stalled because no one seems remember Westview or its inhabitants and the entire town is sealed within an odd temporal anomaly referred to as the “Hex”. After Monica’s drone disappears inside the Hex and Monica is sucked within shortly after, Hayward brings in Doctor Darcy Lewis (Dennings) and a number of other scientists to help. Darcy then recognises the patterns of cosmic background radiation and discovers that they are akin to old analogue broadcast signals, successfully tunes into WandaVision, and becomes invested in the show. Woo and Darcy ascertain that WandaVision’s “cast” is comprised of Westview’s missing residents, and that Monica and everything that breaches the Hex is assimilated into the show to become part of the cast a harmless toy, or a beekeeper. Their attempts to contact Wanda using radio signals only unnerve Wanda and injure Dottie, and Wanda is enraged at Monica trespassing in Westview; their confrontation is so traumatic for her that her sitcom demeanour falls away, and she’s briefly horrified by an apparition of the Vision’s mangled corpse.
From then on, WandaVision routinely switches between the ongoing drama within the show and the efforts of those outside the Hex to try and figure out what’s happening. Wanda and the Vision’s struggles to calm their crying children are skipped over when the twins spontaneously age-up to five years old; Billy (Baylen Bielitz) and Tommy (Gavin Borders) adopt a stray dog, “Sparky”, and then age-up another five years to be “old enough” to keep him. Sadly though, Sparky goes missing and is found dead by Agnes; Wanda struggles to comfort her boys, hypocritically asking Billy (Julian Hilliard) and Tommy (Jett Klyne) not age-up any further so they can face the natural reality of Sparky’s death. However, having seen what their mother is capable of (she soon decides she’s “tired of hiding” and openly uses her magic in front of Agnes), they implore her to use her powers to “fix the dead”, a feat that she believes is beyond even her and yet she’s stunned when “Pietro” (Peters) shows up on her doorstep, alive and well but sporting a new face and personality. The twins quickly become close to their fun-loving, free-spirited uncle; Pietro still has his superspeed, here depicted very similarly to his MCU counterpart, and is very much the freeloading man child archetype. Pietro causes havoc on Halloween night and is generally a bad influence on the twins, which he claims is what Wanda wants from him. Wanda doesn’t fully trust or understand his appearance, however, and is confused by their differing memories of their childhood; he relates a fuzzy memory of being shot to death and then hearing her calling for him and expresses an awareness of Wanda’s influence on Westview. Rather than judging her, Pietro is impressed at how far her powers have progressed but, just as she begins to feel comfortable enough to open up about how alone she has felt, Wanda has a brief vision of Pietro’s bullet-riddled corpse dead and strikes him with her powers when he makes a glib remark about the Vision’s death, which is enough to cause her to distrust him from then on.
Despite Wanda’s best efforts, the Vision’s concerns about Wanda and Westview continue to niggle at him; he’s aghast when Wanda brazenly uses her magic in front of Agnes and horrified when he learns the townsfolk are being manipulated by Wanda’s powers. When he confronts her, Wanda tries to walk away from the heated argument, and even rolls the credits, but the Vision persists, desperately trying to talk sense into her and infuriated that he’s being controlled, though Wanda insists that she’s not in control of what’s happening and is simply trying to make the best of it. Still, Wanda is troubled by the Vision’s behaviour towards her and his increasing tendency to go “off-script”; the Vision finds residents locked in (and pained by) endless, repeating loops or frozen in place at the edge of town and is stunned when Agnes reveals that he’s not only an Avenger…but also dead, two things he has no memory of. When he attempts to breach the Hex, he begins to disintegrate before Darcy and Hayward’s eyes, distressing Billy so much that Wanda expands the Hex to cover an even greater area and causes Darcy and several other S.W.O.R.D. agents to become assimilated into WandaVision. This only encourages Hayward’s belief that Wanda is a significant threat to Westview; already antagonistic towards superpowered individuals thanks to the struggles he lived through during the Blip, Hayward believes that Wanda is an aggressive terrorist and routinely clashes with Darcy, Woo, and Monica when they champion Wanda’s heroic actions and frame her as a victim of oppression and experimentation rather than aggressor, despite her recent actions. However, Hayward is unconvinced and even manipulates security footage to suit his agenda when, in reality, he’s reconstructed the Vision’s physical remains into a weapon under his direct control.
When Monica successfully breaches the Hex using a 1980s drone, Hayward attempts to assassinate Wanda, so she leaves her idyllic fantasy land to deliver a warning against him trying to interfere in her life. This, and expanding the Hex’s influence, causes Wanda’s mental state and control over Westview to begin to deteriorate as the show jumps ahead to the late-2000s; the house and town glitch and switch between eras and Wanda jumps at the chance to take a personal day while Agnes watches the twins. However, her confusion over her unpredictable powers soon turns to dread when she discovers an ominous, gothic lair in Agnes’s basement and her magic is rendered useless by a series of runes. This is when Agnes reveals (through a jaunty musical number) that she’s actually a malevolent witch named Agatha Harkness and has been behind everything happening in Westview (including Sparky’s death!) all along. While this is a fun reveal and definitely changes the context of the show, it does fall a little flat as many watching (including myself) would have no real idea of the significance of the name “Agatha Harkness”. Still, WandaVision tries to make up for this with a flashback to 1693 Salem, Massachusetts that shows Agatha being condemned by her fellow witches for practising dark magic from the forbidden tome known as the Darkhold and revealing that she’s capable of draining the magic and lifeforce of other witches to increase her powers. Drawn to, and envious of, Wanda’s power, Agatha desires to learn the secret of Wanda’s natural affinity for magic and forces her to relive some of her most traumatic memories to understand how the Avenger could possibly be the fabled “Scarlet Witch”.
Wanda witnesses a childhood memory of how she and her family would regularly watch old US sitcoms to bond and practice their English. It was during young Wanda’s (Michaela Russell) favourite episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961 to 1966) that their home was bombed, killing her parents and trapping her and young Pietro (Gabriel Gurevich) and actually the first instance of her using her Chaos Magic to affect the probability of the missile exploding. A subsequent memory of her volunteering to be a part of Hydra’s experiments with the Mind Stone shows that the Infinity Stone simply amplified Wanda’s natural magical abilities rather than causing them, as the MCU first suggested. Wanda also remembers a time when the Vision offered her comfort after Pietro’s death by suggesting “grief [is] love persevering”, and the truth behind her visit to S.W.O.R.D. headquarters after his death; contrary to Hayward’s earlier footage, Wanda was denied custody of the Vision’s expensive and potentially dangerous remains but was allowed to see for herself that he was truly gone. Grief-stricken, she visited Westview, where the Vision had intended for them to start a life together, and exploded in a burst of Chaos Magic; empowered by her pain and loss, her powers not only swept through Westview, transforming it into its original 1960s sitcom setting and enslaving its citizens, but also reconstituted an exact replica of the Vision for Wanda to settle down with and alleviate her anguish and she willingly lost herself to this fantasy world. Essentially a magic vampire, Agatha takes power from those she deems unworthy, and is far more adept at wielding dark magic than the more emotional and naïve Wanda; Agatha mocks Wanda for wasting the powers of the Scarlet Witch in such a way and goads her into a battle by threatening her children so that she can take that power for herself. Wanda is saved by the intervention of Hayward’s reconstructed Vision; cold and ruthless, White Vision attempts to kill Wanda as per Hayward’s orders, but she’s saved by the Vision. As both Visions prove to be equally matched in terms of powers and abilities, the Vision is able to subdue his counterpart by hypothesising that neither are the “true” Vision by using the philosophy of the Ship of Theseus to show that they are simultaneously both the Vision and not the Vision. The Vision then restores White Vision’s memories and personality, releasing him from Hayward’s control and ending his threat as he darts off the an uncertain future.
Hayward’s efforts to bring Wanda down lead Agatha to condemn him and his S.W.O.R.D. troops as being little more than the modern-day equivalent of witch hunters, but Wanda protects them regardless and Monica reveals that repeated exposure to the Hex has granted her superhuman abilities that allow her to shield the twins from Hayward’s attempt to gun them down. Darcy then rams his jeep to keep him from getting away and, thanks to Woo’s subterfuge, Hayward’s plot to emerge a hero from the whole affair is exposed. Agatha reveals that the Darkhold foretold that Wanda’s power is destined to not only rival the Sorcerer Supreme’s, but also to destroy the world, and forces her to face the consequences of her actions by releasing Westview’s citizens from her spell. Wanda is distraught to learn that those she thought she was protecting were in such physical and emotional pain, to the point where they beg her to let them go…or die to be free from their torment. Wanda creates a gap in the Hex so that the citizens can finally leave in order to both atone for her actions and to reject Agatha’s claims, but quickly reseals the Hex to keep Billy, Tommy, and the Vision from being erased. Forced to choose between saving her family or saving the town, Wanda ultimately accepts that she is the legendary Scarlet Witch and manages to outsmart Agatha by first overloading her with her Chaos Magic and then turning Agatha’s trick against her by casting protective runes that render Agatha’s powers inert. Wanda punishes the defeated and despondent Agatha by forcing to reassume her “role” as Agnes as recompense for her actions, and finally dispels the Hex, restoring Westview and the surrounding area to normal. Wanda and the Vision head home with the twins and reassure them that they’ll always be a family, before the two share an emotional last moment together where she admits that he was a product of her love and hope as much as her sadness and promises that they’ll see each other again. While Monica knows how much Wanda sacrificed to restore Westview and understands her pain, Wanda’s faced with the judgemental eyes of those she inadvertently hurt, so she heads out to understand her power in isolation at a remote cabin, where she studies the Darkhold in her astral form.
The Summary: At its core, WandaVision is a story about grief, loss, and the extremes one goes to after having suffered through some of the worst traumas both imaginable and unimaginable. Hayward’s concerns over Wanda’s threat, while radical, are well founded as, in a moment of anguish, she effectively manipulated the minds and wills of an entire town and forced them to bend to her desires just to make herself feel better. However, it’s clear that Wanda hasn’t done this out of any animosity or aggression; she’s simply suffering and in a great deal of pain, but has caught many innocent souls in her web as a result. Even the Vision is disturbed to see what Wanda’s influence is doing to Westview’s citizens; by touching his fingers to their temples, the Vision is able to free them from Wanda’s control and is met with only hysteria and pleas for help and to get Wanda to stop. When he confronts Wanda, the Vision is enraged at her actions and yet hoping that she didn’t tear families apart and hijack people’s lives out of any malicious intent…however, even Wanda begins to question her intentions and motivations, and her tendency to lash out and the uncertainty about the true nature of the Scarlet Witch certainly raises questions about her character.
WandaVision wonderfully separated itself from other MCU productions with its production style, format , and overall presentation, which becomes very metatextual and is full of homages to both the source material (the family dress up in comic-accurate costumes for Halloween) and a wide variety of American sitcoms. The first few episodes are presented in black and white, using an older aspect ratio, and clearly drawing inspiration from the sitcoms of the 1950s and 1960s, particularly the likes of Bewitched (1964 to 1972) in not only its premise and setting but also the filming techniques used (the special effects are achieved using practical, in-camera effects and of-the-time methods to give it that authentic fifties feel). The Bewitched influences are even more explicit in opening titles of the second episode, “Don’t Touch That Dial” (Shakman, 2021), which are directly influenced from that show, and we see this again as the series progresses, particularly in “Breaking the Fourth Wall” (ibid), which emulates the opening titles of Modern Family (2009 to 2020). The series is injected with a wash of colour at the conclusion of “Don’t Touch That Dial” and jumps into the vibrant brightness of the 1970s from “Now in Color” (ibid) to evoke groovy, jaunty, sitcoms like The Brady Bunch (1969 to 1974). With each new era, the character’s wardrobes, hair styles, and the show’s furnishings are all updated accordingly, and the focus quickly becomes about depicting the growth of Wanda’s family unit. Initially, episodes feature a canned laughter track to accompany the many sight gags and double entendres; this laughter track remains even when odd or disturbing events are happening onscreen, such as when characters are in danger of going “off-script”, and is ultimately replaced in favour of characters directly breaking the fourth wall or being filmed in a mockumentary, as was the style of late-2000s sitcoms.
WandaVision certainly got people talking when it first came out, and it’s easy to see why; every episode is peppered with gags, double meanings, and vague hints about what’s really happening in Westview (Agnes refers to Wanda as “The star of the show!”, which is another double meaning as she’s the star of the talent show and her own actual show). Many of the episodes end with false commercials for products and services that act as metaphors for Wanda’s suffering and anguish: The Stark Industries ToastMate 2000 is a metaphor for her sex life (and emits the same ominous beeping as the Stark missile that threatened Wanda’s life as a child, alongside the slogan “Forget the past, this is your future!”), Strücker watches directly reference the man who experimented on Wanda, Hydra Soak bath powder promises an experience so relaxing that it’ll make bathers forget their troubles and unlock the “Goddess within”, Lagos paper towels are tough and absorbent enough to clean up any accidental mess, the claymation Yo-Magic yoghurt is delivered to a boy stranded on a desert island who struggles to open the lid and wastes away to a skeleton over the course of several days and nights, and Nexus antidepressant pills offer a reprieve for those struggling with the weight of loneliness, guilt, and the feeling of life moving on without them and desperate for some relief. As if these odd commercials weren’t enough, the early black and white episodes are often punctuated by bursts of colour that disturb Wanda and allude to things being not quite right; Wanda is confused to find a toy helicopter that matches Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey, Jr) colour scheme and a tense discussion between Wanda and Dottie quickly turns bizarre when Woo speaks directly to Wanda through the radio, briefly causing Dottie to snap out of character and cutting herself to reveal red blood against the monochrome surroundings. Furthermore, there are numerous allusions to a greater threat looming in the background, one many assumed to be Mephisto; Dottie states that “The Devil’s in the details” and Agnes lends Wanda her rabbit, Señor Scratchy, but ultimately the threat proved to be much closer to home and hiding in plain sight.
Overall, I can see why so many people were impressed by WandaVision; the show is practically the definition of variety, featuring a lot of humour, heart, and drama to keep you invested throughout its run time. No two episodes are the same, even those set within the same time period, and the show evolves as we learn more about what’s going on, splicing in more of those familiar MCU elements while giving returning side characters like Darcy and Woo more time in the spotlight to shine as interesting personalities in their own right. WandaVision also introduces a new superhero to the MCU in the form of the grown-up Monica Rambeau, who ends the series altered at a cellular level and with the prospect of her own space adventure ahead of her with the Skrulls. Of course, there are some things that don’t work; it’s a bit of a tease to bring in Evan Peters only to have him revealed to be an actor with a ridiculously suggestive name who was manipulated by Agatha rather than actually being the Quicksilver from the X-Men movies (Various, 2014 to 2016). Agatha’s reveal didn’t really work for me either, as mentioned, but I did enjoy her as a villain and puppet master; however, it can’t be denied that reducing WandaVision to a big light show battle did kind of go against the deeper themes explored throughout the previous episodes. I think it might have been more effective to leave the Visions to handle the heavy combat in the finale and have Agatha and Wanda engage in a battle of wills rather than tossing fireballs at each other, but it was a colourful and intense end to the series. I enjoyed the chance to explore these characters in more detail, the new introductions to the MCU, exploring the effects of the snap from a different perspective, and the introduction of Wanda’s children and the expansion of her powers. WandaVision definitely tries something new and, for the most part, manages to stand out through its unique presentation; when it’s exploring Wanda’s complex trauma or paying homage to classic sitcoms, it’s really at its strongest, but there are a few missed opportunities spliced in there that may put some viewers off.
Rating: 3 out of 5.
Did you enjoy WandaVision? What did you think to the themes of grief and loss explored in the series? Did you enjoy the exploration of Wanda and the Vision and the additional spotlight given to some of the MCU’s side characters? What did you think to the use of different colours and filming techniques? Were you also caught up in the speculation, and were you suspicious of Agnes at the time? Did you find Evan Peters’ inclusion disappointing or were you excited to see him included? What do you see happening next for these characters and are you excited to see more from Monica and White Vision? Whatever you think about WandaVision sign up to let me know below or leave a comment on my social media, and check back in next Sunday for more Multiverse Madness!
In September 1961, DC Comics published “Flash of Two Worlds” (Fox, et al), a landmark story that brought together two generations of the Flash: the Golden Age Jay Garrick and the Silver Age Barry Allen thanks to the concept of the multiverse, an infinite number of parallel universes that allowed any and all stories and characters to co-exist and interact. Marvel Comics would also adopt this concept and, to celebrate the release of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness(Raimi, 2022) this month, I’m both celebrating the Master of the Mystic Arts and exploring the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s (MCU) equivalent of the multiverse every Sunday of May.
Released: 4 November 2016 Director: Scott Derrickson Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Budget: $165 to 236.6 million Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Mads Mikkelsen, Benedict Wong, and Tilda Swinton
The Plot: Doctor Stephen Strange’s (Cumberbatch) life is a celebrated neurosurgeon is shattered after a car accident robs him of the use of his hands. When traditional medicine fails him, he looks for healing, and hope, under the tutelage of the enigmatic Ancient One (Swinton). Arrogantly mastering spells and magics in a short space of time, Dr. Strange is forced to choose between his life of fortune and status and defending the world from the dark forces rogue sorcerer Kaecilius (Mikkelsen) seeks to unleash.
The Background: The creation of legendary artist Steve Ditko, Dr. Strange started out as a five-page pitch prior to his debut in the pages of Strange Tales and was known for his elaborate spells and quirks and bizarre adventures. Dr. Strange is renowned as one of Marvel’s most pivotal figureheads, and actually has quite the storied history with adaptation. Like a number of Marvel superheroes, the Master of the Mystic Arts first flirted with the silver screen in the seventies thanks to an extremely obscure live-action adaptation that I’m sure the vast majority of people have never heard of. Dr. Strange also cropped up in Marvel cartoons over the years, and even had a feature-length animated adventure back in 2007, but another live-action adaptation very nearly happened in the late-eighties and mid-nineties as well. After many failed attempts to bring the character to cinema screens throughout the 2000s, the legalities surrounding Dr. Strange were tidied up when, in 2014, Dr. Strange was officially announced to be part of the MCU’s third phase of films. Scott Derrickson was chosen to helm the film after producing not only a twelve-page scene for the film but also a ninety-minute pitch, concept art, and even an animatic all at his own expense. Derrickson’s background was in horror, and he aimed to ensure that he had actors of the highest calibre to experience the film’s fantastical elements. Although many actors were considered for the title role, Derrickson (and many fans) always envisioned Benedict Cumberbatch as the Sorcerer Supreme, and the actor took great care to properly reproduce the character’s hand gestures from Ditko’s art work. Derrickson also returned to Ditko’s original art for the film’s special effects, which aimed to bombard the viewer with surreal imagery and fantastical visuals to set the film apart from others in the MCU. Despite being one of Marvel’s more obscure superheroes, Doctor Strange was a massive success; its worldwide gross of almost $680 million ensured that the film would receive a sequel, and the film was universally praised for its visuals and originality in a genre quickly becoming bloated with superhero adventures.
The Review: I remember being quite excited and intrigued when Doctor Strange was announced and the first trailers dropped; Dr. Strange is another Marvel superhero who I am not really all that familiar with, as my reading of him is limited to a few sporadic appearances in other stories and the comics collected in his Marvel Platinum compilation. Thus, the bulk of my knowledge about him comes from what I’ve read online, his appearances in the 1994 Spider-Man cartoon, and the aforementioned animated feature; however, it turned out that this was more than enough to make me familiar with the character, some of his abilities, and a couple of his major enemies ahead of seeing his live-action debut for the first time.
When we’re first introduced to Dr. Strange, he’s already a wealthy, acclaimed, and arrogant neurosurgeon; so talented are Dr. Strange’s abilities that he can easily perform life-saving brain surgery while identifying music tracks, and not only instantly identify a premature case of brain death and operate on a man already declared clinically dead but also perform complex invasive procedures into the brain without the aid of scans or camera imagery. Dr. Strange is so full of himself that he talks down to others at every opportunity, offering little in the way of professional courtesy or respect, and routinely turns down surgical prospects that he deems unworthy of this time and attention in order to be given a real challenge. He believes that a normal, everyday Emergency Room is a “butcher’s shop” that is capable of only saving one life at a time compared to the scope of his more specialised field of expertise, which has brought him fame and acclaim. This has bought him a luxurious apartment full of expensive clothes and accessories, and a supercar that he drives with reckless abandon that is only compounded by his insistence on talking on speaker phone while rocketing around tight, winding roads outside of the city; distracted by his phone, Dr. Strange is blindsided and sent careening down a cliff side in a horrific car crash that leaves him a bloodied, broken mess. Although he survives, his hands are completed shattered from the accident and, following many painful and desperate surgeries, he is left frustrated and angered by a constant trembling in his hands that spells the end of his surgical career.
Dr. Strange’s condescending attitude and tendency to show off means he clashes with fellow surgeon Nicodemus “Nick” West (Michael Stuhlbarg), a fully qualified and experienced doctor whom Dr. Strange sees as an incompetent fool at the start of the film. Dr. Strange partially blames Nick for the state of his wrecked hands mid-way through the film, but he is forced to turn to him later on when his trembling hands still prove incapable of performing surgery. However, while also frustrated by Dr. Strange’s attitude, his medical skill and sheer genius in the operating room are a source of awe to Doctor Christine Palmer (McAdams), a former lover of Strange’s and the closest thing he has to a friend. While he helps her with a misdiagnosed patient, he does so mainly to stick it to Nick and more to show off his incredible talents rather than out of any kind of professional courtesy, and, though the two share some banter given their previous relationship, she knows all-too-well how vain and self-centred Dr. Strange is. However, even she couldn’t predict the sudden shift in his attitude following the accident; where he was once arrogant and condescending, Dr. Strange becomes a broken, infuriated, embittered man who lashes out at her attempts to help, drains his fortune on experimental procedures, and is so driven to desperation that he seeks out Jonathan Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt), a former paraplegic who made a miraculous recovery and points him towards Kamar-Taj.
Using the last of his resources, Dr. Strange travels to Kathmandu to seek out the mysterious Kamar-Taj and attracts the attention of Karl Mordo (Ejiofor), who saves Strange from a brutal beating at the hands of muggers and brings him to the doorstep of a dilapidated building, where he is introduced to “The Ancient One”. Even in his pain and suffering, Dr. Strange remains sceptical and somewhat insolent; this is understandable, to be fair, given he’s a man of science and logic and the idea of magic is as bizarre to him as it would be to us, but his insolence is only exacerbated thanks to his relentless ego and temper. Mordo empathises with Strange’s scepticism, and even relates to it, but is a far more respectful and informed individual after learning from the Ancient One. The Ancient One literally forces Dr. Strange to open his eyes to a wider world, one beyond the limits of the physical body and his rational perspective on life, by pushing him into the Astral Dimension by separating his Astral Form from his body. There, beyond time and space and the limits of reality, he is given the briefest glimpse of the vast, dangerous wonder of the multiverse. Though cast away from Kamar-Taj, Dr. Strange’s stubbornness impresses Mordo, who is able to convince the Ancient One to give the damaged neurosurgeon a chance to redeem himself under their tutelage, despite the similarities she sees between Strange and Kaecilius.
What follows is an extended training montage in which the Ancient One introduces to Dr. Strange (an the audience) the logistics of magic and how it works in the MCU; through training and hard work, sorcerers are able to draw upon energies from across the multiverse to conjure weapons, cast spells, and work wonders. Because of the damage to his hands, Strange initially struggles with the physical aspects of his training, but is humbled when he sees an amputee performing spells and learns that he must set aside his ego, and his disbelief, in order to succeed; the Ancient One pushes him to this revelation by stranding him on Mount Everest and forcing him to transport himself back or risk death. Thankfully (or conveniently, depending on your perspective), Dr. Strange possesses a photographic memory; just as this allowed him to acquire Medical Doctorate and PhD at the same time, this means that he can digest multiple volumes from the Kamar-Taj library both while awake and asleep thanks to utilising his Astral Form. Dr. Strange’s thirst for knowledge and incredible learning ability impresses the Kamar-Taj librarian, Wong (Wong), who puts Strange onto more advanced tomes and warns him against stealing from the Ancient One’s private collection. Stoic and gruff, Wong provides much of the film’s comic relief, but it’s also through him (and while learning combat alongside Mordo) that Dr. Strange learns more about Kaecilius and how he fell from grace.
Kaecilius was introduced at the very start of the film, when he and his zealots attacked Kamar-Taj, and stole pages from one of the library’s many mystical tomes before managing to escape from the Ancient One after one hell of a visually impressive confrontation in what we later learn is the “Mirror Dimension”, a pocket reality where the environment is constantly shifting and changed around the inhabitants as the caster dictates. Proud and headstrong, Kaecilius questioned the Ancient One’s teachings and turned against his teacher after learning that the Ancient One was drawing forbidden powers from the Dark Dimension to extend her lifespan and grant her her awesome powers. A cold, driven man, Kaecilius believes her to be a hypocrite who deceived all of her pupils and, alongside those he has convinced to his cause, works to decipher the pages he stole from Kamar-Taj to both draw from that same dark energy and expose the Ancient One’s true nature. This sees him, and his fellow zealots, become imbued with the malevolent influence of the Dread Dormammu (Cumberbatch), a primordial cosmic entity that is seemingly the embodiment of hatred and seeks to infest and conquer all realities using sorcerers like Kaecilius as puppets. Kaecilius, sadly, falls into the same trap as many MCU villains in that he’s largely a waste of a talented actor and disappointingly absent for much of the film; spoken about as a kind of bogeyman and as a dark mirror of Dr. Strange, Kaecilius ends up being a lot like Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) in that he makes an impression when he is on screen thanks to Mikkelsen’s scowling countenance and silky-smooth line delivery but ends up being a regrettably forgettable villain who is simply there to give Dr. Strange someone to fight against and strive to be the opposite of.
The Nitty-Gritty: Magic such as this is a tricky concept to bring to life, and was wholly new to the MCU at the time; we had seen a version of magic before, of course, one that is just as much attributed to near-God-like alien physiology and technology, but had never seen literal, unequivocal magical spells and abilities before. Thus, it was smart of the film to introduce this franchise-changing concept slowly, and in a way that kept things tantalisingly grounded (for the most part) while hinting at magic’s incredible (and near-limitless potential). Sorcerers tend to limit their magic to glowing, sparking whips, shields, or melee weapons and to instantaneously shift from one location to another, and often focus their abilities through weapons or objects such as the Staff of the Living Tribunal or the Sling Ring. The film slowly develops the wealth and potential of magic as it progresses, localising it in the mysterious foreign land of Kamar-Taj and then expanding it to encompass more familiar and urban locations, such as New York City. This allows us to see that this kind of magic has always existed in the MCU, we just haven’t experienced it yet, and it was smart to frame magic, and the secret of Kamar-Taj, as a mystery that Dr. Strange must solve.
Wong reveals to Dr. Strange that the true purpose of Kamar-Taj, and the sorcerers, is to man three Sanctum Sanctorums across the world and continuously fend off threats from beyond their world, such as Dormammu, in an on-going battle of light against darkness. Despite everything he’s seen and learned, this is where Dr. Strange initially chooses to bow out since he has no intention of fighting a magical war, but he is forced to fight alongside Mordo and Wong when Kaecilius suddenly attacks the Sanctum Sanctorums. Though a talented and peerless surgeon, Dr. Strange struggles to learn the ways of magic; even after absorbing knowledge from Wong’s library, he is severely outmatched against Kaecilius and his followers, and succeeds only through luck, the use of rudimentary spells, and the intervention of the Cloak of Levitation, a semi-sentient cape that allows him to fly and adds more comic relief to the film. Dr. Strange’s scepticism soon turns to an insatiable thirst for knowledge and to challenge himself by experimenting with more and more advanced magic; this not only leads him to steal volumes from the library and question the nature of Kamar-Taj, but also to experiment with the Eye of Agamotto. This ancient relic houses the Time Stone and allows the user to control the flow of time itself, localising it to reverse or speed up time as they dictate, and Wong and Mordo are angered by Strange’s recklessness with the Infinity Stone. Mordo, in particular, is outraged at Strange’s careless tampering with the laws of reality, something he believes should be protected at all costs, just as he whole-heartedly believes in the teachings and standards set by the Ancient One.
The multiverse is presented as a veritable acid trip, a bizarre bombardment of colours, energy, and surreal environments that overwhelm Dr. Strange’s perception of reality and throw all logic out of the window. This, and the fantastical nature of Dr. Strange, allows the film to stand out from others in the MCU with some truly trippy visuals, such as New York collapsing in on itself, Dr. Strange’s Astral Form directing Christine’s attempts to save his physical body (and even killing one of Kaecilius’s followers, something he is aghast at thanks to his Hippocratic Oath), and worlds full of fantastic visuals, warped gravity, and cosmic impossibilities that exist side-by-side with a Dark Dimension full of malice and hatred, where only malevolence lives. Seduced by Dormammu’s influence, Kaecilius longs to destroy all concepts of time and allow the Dark Dimension to envelop the world in a perverted attempt to “save” it. So driven by his conviction and power is Kaecilius that he fatally wounds the Ancient One, but not before revealing that the Ancient One has been drawing power from the Dark Dimension. Before dying, the Ancient One explains to Dr. Strange, in the Astral Dimension, that her methods were necessary in order to defend the world and that such bending of the rules will be necessary to balance out Mordo’s steadfast nature and defeat Kaecilius.
Indeed, Dr. Strange is faced with an apocalyptic scenario when Kaecilius and his zealots conjure Dormammu in Hong Kong, leading to widespread chaos and destruction and the deaths of Wong and many other sorcerers. Taking the Ancient One’s words to heart, Dr. Strange sees no other option but to first reverse time to restore those who have fallen and journey to the Dark Dimension himself and confront Dormammu head-on. There, in a world of swirling, nightmarish, eldritch horror, we see how truly gigantic the scope of the MCU is as the titanic cosmic being that is the Dread Dormammu dwarfs the fledging sorcerer and threatens to overcome the entire world and spread his reach to every man, woman, and child. However, Dr. Strange has the last laugh when he unleashes the power of the Time Stone to trap Dormammu in an ever-repeating loop of time; there, Dormammu’s continual attempts to kill Dr. Strange, though successful, ultimately fail as the loop resets over and over, angered the malevolent creature since he is unfamiliar with the concept of time and forced to bargain with Dr. Strange. In return for taking Kaecilius and his followers and abandoning his desires to consume the Earth, Dr. Strange agrees to release Dormammu from the loop, thus saving the entire world and ending the threat from the Dark Dimension. Although we see Dr. Strange die again and again, we have no way of knowing exactly how long this loop lasted for, or how much pain and suffering Dr. Strange endured as he made perhaps the greatest sacrifice of anyone in the MCU as he was fully committed to ending his days in that cycle of death and this moment not only completed Dr. Strange’s character arc in the film of learning to set aside his ego but also cemented him as a big-time player in the larger MCU. Unfortunately, while Dr. Strange finally sees that his true destiny is to serve a greater good, Mordo is disillusioned by the revelations and the lengths that Strange goes to to repel Dormammu and pledges to rid the world of sorcerers.
The Summary: Doctor Strange remains one of the most unique and intriguing entries in the MCU; even when Thor Odinson (Chris Hemsworth) first burst into the franchise and shook it up by introducing Gods and a version of magic, and we started seeing the first hints of the Infinity Stones, I never would have guessed that we would see the Sorcerer Supreme reversing the flow of time, fending off cosmic entities like Dormammu, or blowing the fabric of his fictional world apart with concepts like the multiverse. And yet, at its core, Doctor Strange is the humbling story of redemption for a vain, arrogant asshole of a man who endures a horrific accident, has his entire world destroyed, and is forced to accept a greater destiny. It’s pretty clear now that the intention was to set up Doctor Strange as a counterpart to Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr); both are snarky, self-absorbed men who put their unique talents to use in service of both personal glory and the wellbeing of the world around them. However, while Iron Man helped to ground the MCU and make its fantastical elements relatable, Dr. Strange’s very existence meant that the scope of the MCU was basically limitless and we’ve since seen that it stretches beyond even our reality. Full of mind-bending visuals that make for some entertaining action sequences, Doctor Strange might have played things a little too safe but that’s not exactly a bad thing when it comes to a concept like magic, which can basically do anything and make characters like Dr. Strange severely overpowered. Thankfully, the film frames Strange as very much a rookie and struggling to master and even fully understand this bizarre world he has entered into, meaning that subsequent appearances by the character can simply build upon the foundations laid by this fantastical first film.
Rating: 4 out of 5.
Were you a fan of Doctor Strange? What did you think to the introduction of magic to the MCU and the way the film explained the concept? Did you enjoy Dr. Strange’s character arc and portrayal in the film? What did you think to the Ancient One and the depiction of Mordo? Were you also a little disappointed by Kaecilius, and what did you think to the final showdown between Dr. Strange and Dormammu? What are some of your favourite stories involving these characters and do you think Dr. Strange is too overpowered as a character? Whatever your thoughts on Doctor Strange, sign up to leave your thoughts below or leave a comment on my social media, and check back in next Sunday for more Multiverse Madness!
In September 1961, DC Comics published “Flash of Two Worlds” (Fox, et al), a landmark story that brought together two generations of the Flash: the Golden Age Jay Garrick and the Silver Age Barry Allen thanks to the concept of the multiverse, an infinite number of parallel universes that allowed any and all stories and characters to co-exist and interact. Marvel Comics would also adopt this concept and, to celebrate the release of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness(Raimi, 2022) this month, I’ll be both celebrating the Master of the Mystic Arts and exploring the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s (MCU) equivalent of the multiverse every Sunday of May.
Story Title: “Doctor Strange, Master of Black Magic!” Published: 9 April 1963 (cover-dated July 1963) Writer: Stan Lee Artists: Steve Ditko
The Background: Dr. Strange began life as the brainchild of legendary artist Steve Ditko, when he submitted a five-page pitch for a new type of character, one who dabbled in black magic, to the immortal Stan Lee. The character was so named as he was to debut in the pages of Strange Tales, a Marvel Comics anthology title that initially published horror tales, and it was Lee who infused the character with many of his more elaborate spells and quirks. Known for his surreal visuals and bizarre adventures, Dr. Strange has since become one of Marvel’s most pivotal figureheads. The Master of the Mystic Arts has been at the centre of many of Marvel’s most important stories and remains one of their most powerful characters, and has even successfully crossed over into the mainstream thanks to featuring in various videogames, cartoons, and the MCU.
The Review: The story begins with a man being tormented by horrific nightmares as he sleeps; presumably having tried every solution to no avail (though there’s no actual in-comic evidence of that), he seeks out the help of the mysterious Dr. Strange, a man rumoured to practise the dark arts, in order to ease his torment. The next morning, he arrives “on a quiet street in New York’s colourful Greenwich Village” at the fantastic home of the aforementioned doctor, and begs for his help. The man tells of a haunted figure, bound in chains, who incessantly glares at him in his dreams, and Strange immediately pledges to visit him that evening and discover the answer by entering the man’s slumbering mind!
Before this, though, Dr. Strange indulges in a bit of meditation where he separates his soul (or “metaphysical spirit”) from his physical form and effortlessly travels through walls and across vast distances to “a hidden temple somewhere in the remote vastness of Asia” where his wizened master dwells. The old man warns Strange of a darkness that threatens him and urges him to be cautious as Strange is set to succeed the elderly wizard as the defender against the forces of evil. Dr. Strange heeds the warning, and promises to depend upon his magical amulet when under threat, and makes good on his promise to visit the man and enter his nightmare using his metaphysical spirit form.
In the desolate void of the dream world, Strange encounters the figure tormenting the man and demands answers. The cloaked spirit claims to the symbol of the evil this man has done to a “Mr. Crang”, but their conversation is quickly interrupted by the arrival of a caped, shadowy figure on horseback, one far more menacing and known all-too-well to Dr. Strange. The entity is Nightmare, a being of darkness and chaos, who vows to make Strange pay for entering the hostile dream dimension once more. As Dr. Strange’s physical body is left helpless and in a trance, the sleeping man awakens and, keen to keep Strange from revealing what he knows about Mr. Chang, pulls out a gun and prepares to murder the sorcerer on Nightmare’s bidding!
However, Dr. Strange isn’t left entirely helpless; he calls out to his master for aid and, from half a world away, the elderly wizard manipulates the mysterious golden amulet around Strange’s neck. The trinket glows brighter and brighter, revealing “a fantastic metal eye […] such as no mortal has ever beheld” and, upon seeing this strange eye, the would-be gunman freezes on the spot and is left immobile. This is all the distraction Strange needs to easily dart past Nightmare and return to his body, though his shadowy foe vows to have his revenge one day. Upon returning to the physical world, Strange compels the man to speak the truth and he finally reveals that his nightmares were caused by all the robberies he committed against other businessmen. The story ends with Dr. Strange urging the man to confess to his crimes as it’s the only way he’ll be able to sleep and thus ends the…less than thrilling first appearance of the Master of the Mystic Arts.
The Summary: “Doctor Strange, Master of Black Magic!” is very clearly a back-up tale in a comic book featuring a bunch of different short stories and, as a result, is a brisk little episode simply designed to introduce this quirky new character to Marvel’s readers. We really don’t learn a whole hell of a lot about anything going on here; we don’t even learn the name of the man being haunted by Nightmare let along any background on Dr. Strange, his origin, or his motivations. Even Dr. Strange’s powers are vague, at best, with the focus of this first story being solely on his ability to astral project and enter dreams to help others. His magical amulet isn’t named or explained beyond being this mystical artefact and a lot of the familiar trappings either aren’t really here or are ill-defined compared to what you might expect from the character.
The story itself is incredibly simplistic, which is most likely due to how few panels and pages were allotted to tell the tale, and there’s definitely a lot of questions left hanging in the air for subsequent stories to fill us in on, which is a refreshing change from other superhero debuts that bombard the reader with nothing but exposition. “Doctor Strange, Master of Black Magic!” is arguably too vague, though, but it’s definitely very intriguing; Dr. Strange isn’t really positioned as a superhero in the traditional sense and is, instead, more of an enigmatic consultant for ailments and supernatural occurrences. The real standout here is the art, particularly regarding Dr. Strange’s character design; while the backgrounds and locations aren’t that interesting (the dream dimension is basically an empty void), Dr. Strange is colourful and eye-catching and I enjoy how he gives off a wise, almost condescending authority that would become so synonymous with the character going forward. The hooded figure and Nightmare are intriguing malicious forces representing guilt, sin, and chaos but they’re very vaguely defined, so it’s pretty easy for Dr. Strange to steal the show. It’s just a shame that he basically spends the entire story either standing around or sitting down in a trance rather than doing something more interesting, like casting spells or spewing out nonsense incantations.
Rating: 2 out of 5.
Could Be Better
Have you read “Doctor Strange, Master of Black Magic!”? Do you own a copy of Strange Tales #110? What did you think to the story and the mystery surrounding Dr. Strange? Do you think that the tale needed a few more pages to tell a bit more of his story or did you enjoy the intrigue surrounding Dr. Strange and Nightmare? What are some of your favourite Dr. Strange stories and who is your favourite villain of his? Do you enjoy multiverse shenanigans in comics or do you find them to be overly complicated? Whatever your thoughts on Dr. Strange, sign up to drop a comment down below or let me know on my social media and check back next Sunday for more Multiverse Madness from the Sorcerer Supreme.
In September 1961, DC Comics published a little story called “Flash of Two Worlds” (Fox, et al), a landmark story that featured in The Flash #123 and brought together two generations of the Flash: the Golden Age Jay Garrick and the Silver Age Barry Allen. In the process, DC Comics created the concept of the multiverse, the idea that DC Comics continuity was comprised of an infinite number of parallel universes that allowed any and all stories and characters to exist and, more importantly, interact and I’ve been celebrating this ground-breaking concept every Sunday of September!
Story Title: The Battle of the Century! (Includes four chapters: ‘A Dual of Titans’, ‘When Heroes Clash!’, ‘The Call of Battle!’, and ‘The Doomsday Decision’) Published: March 1976 Writer: Gerry Conway Artists: Ross Andru and Dick Giordano
The Background: Despite the fact that the two companies were both producing colourful, superpowered costumed heroes in a cut-throat industry, relations between DC Comics and Marvel Comics have been surprisingly collaborative and amicable over the years (they’ve certainly been more civil with each other than many of the toxic “fans” I see arguing on social media every day…) Sure, there’s been lawsuits and underhanded tactics from both companies, but not only were the legendary Stan Lee and the disreputable sham Bob Kane actually good friends but the two companies both borrowed from and inspired each other and they’ve even collaborated on numerous joint publications in the past.
The idea of pitting Clark Kent/Superman against Peter Parker/Spider-Man was first suggested by author and literary agent David Obst, who pitched the idea to Marvel Comics publisher Stan Lee and DC Comics editorial director Carmine Infantino as a live-action feature film. Writer Gerry Conway and artist Ross Andru, two of the few who had worked on both characters in the past, were brought in to bring the concept to life, which was treated as more of a fantasy tale (despite the fact that DC had introduced the concept of the “Multiverse” over a decade previously). The comic, which generally sells for quite a high price these days, wouldn’t be the last time Superman and Spider-Man (or DC and Marvel, for that matter) crossed paths as the two would collaborate on a number of inter-company crossovers during the eighties and nineties.
The Review: Our story begins with just another normal, boring day in Metropolis as a gigantic mechanical construct is tearing its way through the city. Even Superman laments the frequency of such events but is unable to see who is controlling the robot thanks to it being lined with lead and is equally unable to stop it thanks to its incredible strength, an “inertia ray”, and gravity beams being emitted from its mechanical feet that crush Superman with “ten times the gravity of Krypton”.
All of this means that Superman is smashed through the nearby buildings (which are, we later learn, conveniently empty despite the fact that the robot is rampaging through downtown Metropolis with reckless abandon and Superman even has to save innocent civilians from falling debris) and is unable to keep the robot from stealing a computer console from Scientific and Technological Advanced Research Laboratories (S.T.A.R. Labs). Indeed, Superman is so distracted with trying to retrieve this from the robot’s head that he completely misses that the mastermind directing the machine’s attack was none other than Lex Luthor himself!
Superman returns to his civilian life as Clark Kent, reporter for the Daily Planet (owned by Galaxy Communications at the time), who avoids one of Steve Lombard’s mean and unprofessional pranks thanks to his super powers, gets chewed out by his boss, Morgan Edge, for not covering the attack (quite why Edge chooses to target Clark over Lois Lane or Lombard is beyond me), and realises from watching the footage back that he can track the robot’s obvious trail of destruction and gigantic footprints to Metropolis Bay There, beneath the water, he immediately discovers (and is attacked by) a walking undersea laboratory. Inside the lab, Superman confronts Luthor and after trying, and failing, to convince him to renounce his evil ways and rekindle heir former friendship, is attacked by a series of high-intensity laser beams. Though he’s able to dart through them, one blasts him into his eyes and, thanks to essentially being red sun radiation (which weakens Superman), dazes him and causes him to wreck Luthor’s lab. Luthor manages to spirit away the programming circuit he stole from S.T.A.R. Labs but ends up being apprehended by Superman after almost drowning to death.
The story then switches to New York City right as Spider-Man is swinging in to take care of a handful of crooks who are in the middle of robbing the Metropolitan Museum. Of course Spidey easily trounces the crooks with his spider-powers but things quickly escalate when the mastermind behind the plan, Doctor Otto Octavius/Doctor Octopus, suddenly attacks with his mechanical limbs and, thanks to the element of surprise (and a good old whack to the back of the head), is able to temporarily knock Spider-Man unconscious and escape in his ridiculous looking “Flying Octopus” craft with boxes and boxes of loot.
After fleeing from the police (who naturally assume Spider-Man to have been involved in the robbery), Spidey (as Peter Parker, obviously) presents the photographs of the entire event to his boss, J. Jonah Jameson, but earns the cantankerous editor’s wrath when Jameson prints the shots unseen and is left with nothing but a blurry, instinct picture on page one of his newspaper, the Daily Bugle. When his spider-sense suddenly alerts him to a passing blimp overhead, Peter ditches Mary Jane Watson and heads off to investigate as Spider-Man only to discover (after having to think on the fly thanks to his web fluid having run dry) that the blimp was disguising Doc Ock and his flying machine. The ensuing fight wrecks the blimp, causing it (and them) to crash into the Central Park reservoir and, with one swift punch to the jaw, Spidey successfully apprehends Doc Ock and heads off to try and smooth things over with Mary Jane.
As luck (or fate, or simple plot convenience) would have it, both Lex Luthor and Doc Ock end up being shipped off to “Federal Maximum-X Security Penitentiary Number One, the most “escape proof” prison in the world” out in New Mexico and the two immediately bond over their respective losses and enemies and agree to join forces upon escape. Though Doc Ock is sceptical of their chances, Luthor quickly uses a number of small, high-tech devices hidden under a layer of fake skin to disrupt the prison’s security cameras and guards and allow Doc Ock to regain control of his mechanical limbs and literally carry them both to safety within just a few hours of Luthor’s arrival,
The story proper begins with Clark, Lois, and other members of the Daily Planet staff attending the world news conference in New York; as you might expect, Peter is also there and, after being berated by Jameson, snaps at his boss and quits his job, shocking (but also impressing) Mary Jane with his sudden outburst. Meanwhile, Clark is stunned to hear that Edge doesn’t want him covering the news conference and, again, alludes to his temptation to replace Clark with a more well-known newscaster. Frustrated that Clark is happy to roll over and allow himself to be forced out of the “biggest story of his career”, Lois storms off in anger at his cowardice and her inability to truly hate him since he’s so charming and likeable. In true Lois Lane fashion, she risks her life climbing up a scaffold to get some better pictures (because Jimmy Olsen couldn’t make the trip, apparently) and nearly falls to her death when she’s saved by Peter. They bond over their respective professional accomplishments, much to Mary Jane’s displeasure, but Peter is left flabbergasted when Superman suddenly swoops in and seemingly vaporises them both right before his eyes!
Clark also witnesses this event and is equally stunned and changes to Superman to investigate while Peter frantically switches to Spider-Man using the staircase (because, in a cute moment, the convention doesn’t have traditional phone booths). The two superheroes instantly run into each other in the skies above the building and come to blows (Superman having assumed, as many often do, that Spidey is connected to his doppelgänger). Although Superman immediately begins to be the voice of reason, Luthor and Doc Ock (who were behind the fake Superman; Luthor’s even still wearing the costume and has the lifelike mask nearby!) decide to escalate their conflict by surreptitiously blasting Spider-Man with red sun radiation to power him up for the fight.
Thanks to the red sun radiation, his anger at being pushed around, and believing the Superman has captured or killed the woman he loves, Spider-Man attacks relentlessly; his strength knocks Superman off balance and his fury causes him to stubbornly refuse to listen to reason, all of which makes Superman mad enough to throw a killing blow at Spidey’s head. At the very last second, Superman is able to pull his punch but the resulting “wind-blast” sends Spider-Man flying through buildings and across the city. Disgusted at having nearly killed a man, Superman tries one more time to get Spidey to listen to reason and, when the red sun radiation wears off and amusingly leads to Spidey simply hurting his fists on Superman’s steel-hard body, Spider-Man finally relents. After comparing notes, they quickly bury their issues and agree to work together to uncover the truth about what happened but the proof of the pudding is clear: Spider-Man dominated the fight between the two and had Superman reeling throughout.
Following the “energy residue” of the imposter to the Penn Central railroad yard, Superman shows that he hasn’t quite shaken off the dickish ways of his sixties incarnation by allowing Spider-Man to go in first and run a gauntlet of traps and hazards before he (as in Superman) just ploughs right in there and they both confront the combined might and intelligence of Luthor and Doc Ock. Revealing that Lois and Mary Jane have simply been taken captive to lure the two heroes into a trap, the villains quickly vanish, having been mere projections all along (which you’d think Superman and Spider-Man would be able to register with their enhanced sense but apparently not…), and nearly manage to kill Spidey with a booby trapped computer console before Superman intervenes.
Superman then rebuilds the wrecked computer at super speed and down to the smallest detail, apparently somehow managing to repair and restore the destroyed files that would have been on it in the process, which leads the two to Mount Kilimanjaro. There, a local nomadic Masai tribe lead them to another of Luthor’s secret bases. After battling and defeating a superpowered tribesman (who also wields a sword charged with red sun radiation), the two discover that Luthor and Doc Ock have headed to the upper atmosphere and the abandoned satellite headquarters of the Injustice Gang. There, Lois and Mary Jane are held hostage and are privy to the supervillains’ mad scheme: using the programming circuit he stole from S.T.A.R. Labs, Luthor is able to disrupt and hijack Comlab (a massive, missile-like communications tower in orbit) and cause it to fire a “high-intensity laser probe” into the Earth’s atmosphere and hold the world to ransom or face untold death and destruction from the violent storms the laser causes.
Superman and Spider-Man (piloting a shuttle of his own with surprising efficiency) head up to stop them but are immediately overwhelmed by Luthor’s lasers and captured. Although they catch their foes off-guard by feigning helplessness, Superman and Spider-Man are thrown off balance when Luthor suddenly shuts off the satellite’s artificial gravity (quite how this would affect Superman is beyond me…), which allows the villains to topple the costumed heroes with a humiliating ease.
Quickly recovering, the two turn the tide when Superman is able to get close enough to Doc Ock to…remove his glasses! Distracted by recovering his comrade’s glasses, Luthor is unable to defend himself against Spider-Man, and Spidey is able to turn Doc Ock against Luthor by appealing to his greed because, after all, what use is money if Luthor plans to decimate the world? Although this is enough to disable to destructive laser and cause the two villains to come to blows, Superman must still take care of a gigantic tidal wave that threatens to engulf the entire United States! Of course, Superman is able to dispel the wave by flying at it at super speed and, with the villains subdued and the threat ended, Superman and Spider-Man part as allies and return to their respective lives, with both men able to win over (and back) their employers with their exclusive insight into this one of a kind team up.
The Summary: I grew up reading Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man stories from the 1970s so, for me, Superman vs. The Amazing Spider-Man feels like a very familiar and nostalgic little tale. The artwork and characterisations are representative of this era; both the main characters and their villains pop out nicely, with Luthor being more of the scheming supervillain rather than a manipulative businessman. While Spider-Man is just as troubled by his angst and anxieties and spouts the usual quips and puns that were “hip” at the time, Superman is far from an unstoppable demigod while still having one foot in the ridiculously overpowered nature of his Golden Age counterpart.
If you’re a fan of Lois and Mary Jane then this isn’t the comic for you; the two barely factor into the plot at all and, arguably, could have been excised completely and the villains’ scheme would have carried on largely unchanged. Similarly, characters like Jameson, Morgan, and Lombard are mainly just there for comic relief or to flesh out and contrast the normal, everyday lives of our two heroes. This is a bit of a missed opportunity, in many ways, as we’re denied a meeting between Jameson and Clark’s usual boss, Perry White, or even a sub-plot where Lois and Mary Jane have to work together to either escape or help stop the villains. Maybe if the story hadn’t suddenly veered off to waste time on the Marais tribe or wasted pages recapping the origins and powers of the heroes and villains we could have seen more of these interactions or had Spider-Man visit Metropolis.
Still, the comic is called Superman vs. The Amazing Spider-Man and we definitely do get that; the two fight for about twelve pages and it’s a fairly evenly matched affair thanks to Spidey being supped-up by Luthor’s special red sun ray. Superman, ever the Boy Scout, spends most of the fight reeling from Spidey’s surprising strength and trying to calm the web-slinger down and, every time he tries to fight back, Spider-Man is right there to shut him down and press the attack. In fact, Superman only throws one punch in the entire fight but it’s enough to send Spidey flying with “the force of a compact hurricane”. Interestingly, there’s a lot of subtext that can be gleaned from this bout; Spidey, representing Marvel Comics, is the young, hot-tempered upstart who hits first and asks questions later and Superman, representing DC Comics, is the older, more level-headed veteran who seeks to resolve conflict peacefully but will strike back if pushed too far.
Naturally, the two pool their respective talents far more than they clash and, after resolving their issues, never come to blows or conflict again. I suppose it’s nice that there wasn’t a lame excuse for them to fight again, like hypnotism or whatever, but the actual inciting incident is pretty paper thin (even though he saw “Superman” vaporise Mary Jane and Lois, Peter knows Superman by reputation so you’d think he’d hesitate to suddenly think he’d gone rogue) and I would have liked to see a bit more of how their different approaches to situations clash. We only really got to see this once when they reached the rail yard and it seemed petty and mean on Superman’s part to send Spidey in alone when he (again, as in Superman) could just burst in there without issue.
It’s a good job that the clash and interactions between the two heroes pays off as the supervillain team up is a bit lacklustre; Doc Ock is reduced to a mere common criminal and a henchman here, having no real agency and playing very little role in the story other than giving Luthor someone to talk and boast to and acting as Luthor’s muscle. It’s a shame as Doc Ock is one of Spidey’s most devious, intelligent, and imposing villains but he may as well not be in the story at all since everything (from the prison escape, to framing Superman, to the red sun ray, and the orbiting satellite/laser plot) is Luthor’s plan and Lex may as well have teamed up with Flint Marko/The Sandman for all the use Octavius’s arms and demented genius were. As a result, Luthor comes out of this looking like a scheming, diabolical madman who is happy to threaten and kill millions for a measly ten billion dollars; his genius allows him to create all kinds of fantastic technology and even duplicate red sun radiation to weaken Superman but, in the end, he’s undone because Spidey was able to manipulate Octavius to turn against him.
Overall, it’s a decent enough story; well drawn and full of big, action-packed panels when the two heroes clash and take on their foes but the main appeal of Superman vs. The Amazing Spider-Man is, unsurprisingly, in seeing two of Marvel’s premier superheroes butting heads and joining forces. In that regard, the story works but just barely; it reads like a typical, run of the mill Superman story from the time just with a guest appearance by Spider-Man and some of his supporting characters. When the Marvel characters do appear, they’re written exactly as you’d expect from that era as well and no one side really looks better or dominates the other…unless you look at the subtext at work. Superman and Spider-Man appear to be evenly matched in their fight but Spider-Man is clearly the aggressor; Luthor outshines Doc Ock at every turn, relegating him to being a mere henchman, so I guess everything just about evens out on both sides but I can’t help but feel like the story was lacking a little. It would have been nice to see Spidey in Metropolis, more interactions between the two in and out of costume, and the two having to deal with their counterpart’s villains in a more interesting way than flailing around on a space station but there’s an appeal to Superman vs. The Amazing Spider-Man, if only because of the comic’s rarity and the chance to see these two heroes, and worlds, collide for a change so it’s probably worth seeking out for the sheer spectacle of it if nothing else.
Rating: 3 out of 5.
Have you ever read Superman vs. The Amazing Spider-Man? If so, what did you think to it? Do you own a copy of the original comic or do you remember reading it when it was first published? Were you also disappointed that the comic didn’t make better use of its concept, supporting characters, and villains or were you happy with the story we got? Which of the two heroes, and publishers, was/is your preference? Do you enjoy all comic books and superheroes equally or are you one of those toxic fans who actively hates other characters and companies? Would you like to see DC and Marvel collaborate again in the future and, if so, what stories would you like to see? Whatever your thoughts on Superman vs. The Amazing Spider-Man, and comic book crossovers of this kind, drop a comment down below and check back next Sunday for the final instalment of Multiverse Madness.
In September 1961, DC Comics published a little story called “Flash of Two Worlds” (Fox, et al), a landmark story that featured in The Flash #123 and brought together two generations of the Flash: the Golden Age Jay Garrick and the Silver Age Barry Allen. In the process, DC Comics created the concept of the multiverse, the idea that DC Comics continuity was comprised of an infinite number of parallel universes that allowed any and all stories and characters to exist and, more importantly, interact and I’ve been celebrating this ground-breaking concept every Sunday of this month!
Released: 25 February 2020 Director: Sam Liu Distributor: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Budget: Unknown Stars: Jason Isaacs, Amy Acker, Diedrich Bader, Vanessa Marshall, Roger Craig Smith, and Paul Williams
The Plot: In an alternate timeline, Krypton’s last son crash-lands in Cold War-era Russia and Superman (Isaacs) is raised to be the figurehead of Joseph Stalin’s (William Salyers) Communist campaign. In response, Lex Luthor (Bader) devises a plan to neutralise and destroy the Soviet Superman while a renegade terrorist known as Batman (Smith) and the alien cyborg Brainiac (Williams) both plot to overthrow the superpowered tyrant.
The Background: Having met with considerable success with their animated ventures, such as Batman: The Animated Series (1992 to 1999), Warner Bros. Animation began producing a number of direct-to-video animated features based upon existing and popular comic book storylines but Superman: Red Son was a bit of a change of pace as the last few animated features had been part of a shared universe. Red Son was based on the three-issue miniseries of the same name written by Mark Millar in 2003, a story that was part of DC’s “Elseworlds” imprint. A surprisingly dense text, it was a popular and poignant “What If” scenario published by DC Comics for its deconstruction of Superman’s ideals. Similarly, the adaptation received generally positive reviews and sold quite well on home media. Having never gotten around to reading the original comic and, although I’ve been aware of it and the premise for some time, this was actually my first time properly experiencing this alternate take on Superman.
The Review: These days, the “Evil Superman” story has been pretty much done to death; it was a big part of the Injustice franchise (NetherRealm Studios/Various, 2013 to 2017), movies like Brightburn (Yarovesky, 2019) have explored the concept further, and even Henry Cavill’s version of the character has walked the line more than once, particularly in the questionable “Knightmare” scenario present in the DC Extended Universe films. Interestingly, Red Son takes Superman’s core values of “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” and simply transposes them into Soviet Russia; as a boy, Superman fears hurting others with his powers and hides them from the world as a result but, after showing them to Svetlana (Winter Ave Zoli), is encouraged to “give them to the State” in order to put them to the best use (i.e. for the betterment of their Communist superiors).
As a result, the Soviet Superman isn’t initially evil in the way a lot of alternate versions of Superman are; he begins as a humble Communist patriot who is simply acting in the best interests of his country, which is basically what the mainstream Superman does more often than not. At first, the Soviet Superman basically acts as a nuclear deterrent to the rest of the world, ensuring the strength, superiority, and prosperity of Soviet Russia in a similar way to how Jon Osterman/Doctor Manhattan acted for the United States in Watchmen (Moore, et al, 1986 to 1987). This Superman is uncomfortable in the spotlight and sees himself as a “servant of the State”, a man simply doing his part in ensuring Russia’s success, and is quick to attribute his feats to the betterment of the country rather than simply his actions.
Similarly, he doesn’t hesitate to act to intervene when Metropolis is threatened by a falling satellite, expressing that the citizens of the United States aren’t his enemy or those of his government, and yet he is sceptical and distrustful of the press, such as Lois Lane-Luthor (Acker). In this version of the DC Universe, Lois is still a reporter but is married to Luthor; Lois’s ideals clash with those of Superman’s, with each of them disapproving of the actions and methods of each other’s governments. Clearly intrigued by Superman, it is Lois who opens his eyes to the horrendous actions of Stalin, which have left his beloved Svetlana dead after being imprisoned in a hellish gulag for knowing his true identity.
Disgusted at the torture and treatment of the prisoners, and enraged at Svetlana’s death, Superman frees the inmates and brutally kills Stalin, usurping his authority in the process and beginning his own totalitarian regime. Just as she encouraged him to give his powers to the country, Svetlana’s dying words motivate Superman to be the strongest of the strong and to ensure that the Russian people are never again oppressed. Just as Luthor hoped, this causes Superman to become a significant threat as he easily ends the Korean War and demolishes the Berlin Wall, accepting collateral damage and loss of life to safeguard the majority and spreading a message of peace through aggressive intervention. Luthor’s machinations speed up his vendetta against Superman, which sees his him cloning a bizarre version of Superman using genetic material from this landing craft.
This “Superior Man” (Travis Willingham) resembles the traditional Superman in many ways, save for a “US” symbol on his chest, and has been programmed with complete subservience to his country (and to Luthor), however he’s little more than a blank slate. Luthor unveils Superior Man in a very public display and wastes no time in sending him to confront Superman, leading to a massive brawl between the two through the streets of Moscow. Horrified at the devastation and loss of life their conflict causes, Superman quickly diverts the battle away from innocent lives (interesting that the Soviet version of Superman is more concerned with safeguarding innocent lives than Snyder’s Superman in his debut film…), but the clone soon degenerates into a monstrosity and, finally, painfully dissolves when Luthor purposely overloads him with more power to test Superman’s limits and psychologically unnerve his superpowered opponent.
The Nitty-Gritty: Superman: Red Son isn’t anything massively new when it comes to animation since it appears very similar to other DC animated movies and draws heavy aesthetic influence from Paul Dini and Bruce Timm’s animated works. The story continuously jumps through time, showing characters aging and noticeably changing (Luthor starts off quite athletic and with a full head of hair but soon grows pudgy and balding while Superman’s costume becomes darker and more adorned with military insignias and accessories as his campaign escalates), which covers a lot of ground very quickly in order to establish that these events take place over a long period of time and slowly shows the expansion of Superman’s Communist strength.
As with many alternate world stories and animated features, Red Son includes several cameos and additional characters, recast and changed by their place in this parallel world. This Superman forges a powerful alliance with Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Marshall), who admires his accomplishments and his commitment to his ideals of unity through strength; their relationship is built out of a mutual desire to change the world for the better with their powers and resources rather than a romantic liaison since Diana is a lesbian in this world. In time, however, Diana comes to question Superman’s methods when he turns insurgents into little more than zombies. Similarly, Superman faces opposition from the Soviet Batman, here little more than a terrorist who openly opposes Superman’s regime after suffering in the same gulag as Svetlana and losing all faith the superpowered Premier. As with many alternate versions of Batman, the Soviet Batman is perfectly happy to kill, blowing up a museum dedicated to Superman’s accomplishments and killing numerous innocents in the process. Batman has also inspired several followers, who all wear his symbol and willingly follow his orders, which causes them to be subjected to brainwashing by Superman’s reprogrammed Brainiac technology. After many years of striking against Superman, Batman eventually overwhelms Wonder Woman and subdues her with her own Lasso of Truth in order to lure Superman into a trap. Using artificial red sunlight supplied by Luthor, Batman weakens Superman and mercilessly beats him into submission as payback for his part in the death of his parents and to liberate Russia from his oppressive rule. Ultimately, though, Wonder Woman breaks free from her binds and restores Superman’s powers, though Batman choose suicide over being subjected to Superman’s brainwashing and the whole ordeal causes Diana to walk away from man’s world.
Finally, Luthor’s ongoing efforts to bring down Superman lead to him not only becoming President of the United States and repositioning the United States as a prosperous democracy, but also discovering Abin Sur’s crashed spaceship and bequeathing the power ring on his finger to Captain Hal Jordan (Sasha Roiz) to create an alternative version of the Green Lantern Corps. Although not wishing to go to war with the United States, or to simply remove Luthor from power, Superman is forced into action when the Green Lantern Corps attack; although saved by Diana, he refuses to listen to her pleas for peace and loses her trust and friendship forever when Themyscira closes its borders to the rest of the world. Although Brainiac’s invasion of the world is limited to a brief montage, its influence on the story is significant; defeated and reprogrammed by Superman, Brainiac not only subtly influences Superman’s methods and gives him the technology necessary to better enforce his rule, but has also been secretly plotting to take over the world through Superman’s increasingly aggressive methods. This comes to a head in the finale, where Brainiac’s machinations lead Superman to the White House and the world to the brink of all-out war. Thanks to Lois, Superman realises the error of his ways and even works alongside Luthor (in a version of his signature mech suit) to battle Brainiac on the White House lawn; Luthor’s technology even ends up playing a pivotal role in disabling Brainiac’s forcefields and allowing Superman to destroy the machine, faking his death in the process and retreating to a simple, unassuming life to allow humanity to make their own destiny…and their own mistakes.
The Summary: Superman: Red Son is an entertaining glimpse into an alternate version of Superman, one whose ideals of patriotism and justice are skewed by his Communist beliefs and upbringing. Initially a propaganda tool used to showcase the might of the Soviets, Superman evolves into a surprisingly layered dictator, one who laments and avoids the taking of innocent lives but is willing to aggressively expand his empire through force, if necessary. In time, his regime enforces a notable peace through the expansion of Communist ideals, which makes him colder and more inhumane in his efforts as he subjects those who defy him to lobotomies and yet still believes that his methods are more humane than those of Stalin. Superman is positioned as the enemy of the free world, particularly Democratic nations such as the United States, which seeks to liberate the Soviet nations from his oppressive rule but, as with Superman’s methods, Luthor’s aren’t exactly benevolent. One thing I found particularly interesting was that Superman doesn’t have another name; renouncing whatever name he had as a boy and becoming a symbol of Communist power and ideology, he’s also far more separated from humanity because of the emphasis on his alien nature, which is skewed by Communist beliefs. It’s an interesting take on the character and helps to make the story stand out and showcase the surprising amount of depth to Superman, who retains his trademark desire to only do good and help others but this desire is distorted by his totalitarian ways.
Rating: 3 out of 5.
What did you think to Superman: Red Son? How would you rank it against the other DC animated features and how do you think it holds up against its source material? Are you a fan of the Soviet Superman concept? What other alternate scenario would you like to see Superman thrust into some day? What is your favourite alternative take on Superman and what are your thoughts on the “Evil Superman” trope in comic books and other media? Whatever your thoughts on Superman: Red Son and other parallel versions of iconic characters, go ahead and leave them down below.
In September 1961, DC Comics published a little story called “Flash of Two Worlds” (Fox, et al), a landmark story that featured in The Flash #123 and brought together two generations of the Flash: the Golden Age Jay Garrick and the Silver Age Barry Allen. In the process, DC Comics created the concept of the multiverse, the idea that DC Comics continuity was comprised of an infinite number of parallel universes that allowed any and all stories and characters to exist and, more importantly, interact and I’ll be celebrating this ground-breaking concept every Sunday of this month!
Story Title: “Flash of Two Worlds!” Published: September 1961 Writer: Gardner Fox Artist: Carmine Infantino
The Background: In the pages of Showcase #4 (1956), writer Robert Kanigher and artist Carmine Infantino introduced readers to Barry Allen/The Flash, the Fastest Man Alive. However, Barry wasn’t the first character to carry the name of the Flash; back in the 1940s, Jay Garrick operated under the codename before superhero comics saw a decline in popularity due to World War Two. Interestingly, although Jay’s solo Flash title was cancelled in 1948, the character’s last appearance was in 1951, a mere five years before the character was dramatically reimagined for the “Silver Age” of comics. To Barry Allen, Jay Garrick wasn’t some long forgotten hero of a bygone era; he was a mere comic book character, a work of fiction, and, while the idea of parallel versions of DC’s heroes had been previously hinted at, it wasn’t until “Flash of Two Worlds” that DC began to really explore, and expand, the concept. The story led to the discovery of an infinite number of parallel worlds, regular crossovers between teams like the Justice Society of America and the Justice League of America and, of course, epic cosmic crossovers that gave DC the perfect excuse to shake up their continuity. So influential was “Flash of Two Worlds!” that it’s iconic cover art has been parodied and replicated numerous times, and it directly inspired not just one episode of The Flash (2014 to present) but directly led to that series, and the entire “Arrowverse”, exploring the vast complexities of the multiverse.
The Review: “Flash of Two Worlds” begins innocently enough with Barry Allen once again characteristically late for a date with his long-term girlfriend, Iris West. I’ve always been more of a Wally West fan when it comes to the Flash since Barry was long dead by the time I started reading comics but there are a couple of things about Barry’s Flash I always liked and which make him unique, in my eyes, compared to other heroes and characters of the same name. For one thing, he might be the Fastest Man Alive but he was constantly late in his civilian guise, which was the perfect way to keep anyone suspecting his true identity; for another, Barry actually worked for the police department as a forensic scientist and there weren’t a great many superheroes who actually worked within the system.
Like all good superheroes, of course, Barry is currently keeping his dual identity a secret from Iris and is able to use his position with the Central City Police Department to explain that he is “friends” with the Flash. This allows him to arrange for the Scarlet Speedster to make an appearance at Iris’s show for local orphans and also gives the Flash an opportunity to show off the near limitless potential of his superhuman speed but, in the middle of vibrating a rope at super speed, the Flash suddenly vanishes from sight! Though momentarily disorientated, the Flash quickly surmises that he must have vibrated his molecules so fast that he passed through “some sort of space-warp” but, when he attempts to return to the community center, is shocked to discover he’s now in a strange, vaguely familiar place named Keystone City. Recognising the name, Barry confirms his suspicions by looking up Jay Garrick in a telephone book and paying him a visit (as an interesting side note, Garrick’s house number is 5252, which goes a long way to explaining DC’s later obsession with the number fifty-two). Rather than introduce himself and get Jay, and us, up to speed, Barry decides to regale us, and Jay, with Jay’s origin story: while a student at Midwestern University, Jay inhaled fumes of “hardwater” and, somehow, gained super speed and began a career as the Flash.
Jay and his wife, Joan, are shocked at Barry’s expert knowledge of Jay’s history and even more awestruck when Barry explains that he is the Flash of a parallel world. Barry goes on to explain the basic fundamentals of DC’s multiverse: their two worlds exist in the same space and at the same time but are separated by different vibrational frequencies. He theorises that both Earths evolved almost exactly the same but that “destiny must have decreed there’d be a Flash — on each Earth!” It is only after explaining his multiverse theory that Barry brings Jay and Joan up to speed on his origin; during an experiment, he was struck by a errant lightning bolt (a common occurrence, as you well know…) and bathed in a mysterious chemical concoction. The result was the development of his own super speed but he was directly inspired to become the Flash after reading of Jay’s adventures in comic books on his world. Barry even further speculates, ridiculously so, that real-world writer Gardener Fox must have somehow been attuned to Jay’s world to dream up stories of the Golden Age Flash’s adventures.
Jay is intrigued at the concept and in awe of Barry’s fourth dimensional Flash ring; he reveals that, despite no longer having the endurance of his prime years, he’s as fast as ever and in the midst of mounting a dramatic comeback thanks to a series of mysterious robberies that have been happening all over town. Ever the helpful chap, Barry offers to assist and the two solidify their partnership and newfound friendship with a hearty handshake. It’s then revealed to the reader that the perpetrators of these crimes are three of Jay’s most notorious rogues: Isaac Bowin/The Fiddler, Clifford DeVoe/The Thinker, and Richard Swift/The Shade. All three have a personal grudge against Jay for apprehending them “more than a dozen years” ago and, since their release (or escape, it’s not made entirely clear which), each has refined their abilities and gimmicks to take their revenge (the Thinker’s “thinking cap” allows him to cause anything he thinks of to happen within fifty yards of himself, the Fiddler’s Stradivarius violin allows him to generate destructive sound waves, and the Shade can conjure absolute darkness with his special cane).
In the process of their revenge, the three villains are also indulging in elaborate crimes to bring themselves notoriety, fortune, and, presumably, to attract the attention of the Flash and the two Flashes immediately divide their efforts in order to uncover the culprits behind these crimes. The Thinker heads to the home of millionaire Edward Jarvis to steal the priceless Neptune Cup; he uses his thinking cap to persuade Jarvis’s guard dogs to lure the Flash into his trap and is easily able to manipulate Jarvis into handing the treasure over to him. When the Jay conveniently races by, the dogs literally follow the Thinker’s command by talking in English! Jay rushes into the house to confront the Thinker but is shocked to find that the villain continuously eludes his grasp; driving himself to near exhaustion in the effort, Jay laments what he believes to be a by-product of his advanced age but it turns out he’s only half right. The Thinker has been conjuring “mental mirages” to distract and tire out the Flash and, with Jay too weak to pursue him, is easily able to slip away with his prize as Jay blacks out from fatigue. Why the Thinker didn’t use his special cap to control Jay like he did Jarvis is beyond me, though…
Meanwhile, at the waterfront, Barry investigates a strange black fog surrounding a private yacht and is drawn into a confrontation with the Shade. Thanks to the Shade’s ability to summon thick, pitch blackness, Barry is unable to stop the villain from stealing especially rare and extortionately expensive “historical curios”. When he spots the Shade making his escape in a speedboat, Barry gives chase by running over water but is easily knocked off balance by the Shade’s darkness and returns to Garrick’s house humbled but no less disheartened. Galvanised by their individual failures, the two Flashes decide to team up to stop the villainous duo but, in the process, find the Fiddler (on his Fiddle Car, no less!) causing panic and destruction in downtown Keystone City. This finally provides context for the issue’s memorable front cover as the two Flashes race to save a man from being crushed from a falling girder.
Thanks to the Fiddler’s outrageous vehicle, the Flashes are easily able to track him down to the Keystone City Museum, where the villain is in the process of stealing the “European crown jewels”. Despite the partnership of the two Flashes, the Fiddler is easily able to subdue them with his magical music, much to the shock of his fellow villains, who rushed over to assist as soon as they figured out that there were now two Flashes. The Fiddler rubs salt in the wound by compelling the Flashes to steal the jewels for him and plans to cover their escape by freezing the Flashes solid for twenty-four hours. Somehow, though, the spell doesn’t work and the Flashes break free; in the blink of an eye, Jay sends the Shade spinning like a top, Barry handcuffs the Fiddler, and the two Flashes disassemble the Thinker’s thinking cap to subdue and summarily defeat the three villains. The Flashes then reveal that they escaped the Fiddler’s spell through a convenient and obtuse loophole (he never specified that they shouldn’t try to escape and they placed tiny gems not their ears to distort the effects of his fiddle). With the villains defeated, Barry and Jay part ways amicably, with Jay admiring Barry’s ability to vibrate between dimensions and vowing to learn the secret of dimensional travel to visit Barry’s world in the near future. Barry is so ecstatic to return home that he doesn’t even mind getting an ear-bashing from Iris for leaving her, and the orphans, in the lurch and the issue ends with Barry breaking the fourth wall to encourage readers to write in with their appreciation of the story and the Golden Age Flash.
The Summary: “Flash of Two Worlds” is a pretty fun, if incredibly random, little tale; the way that Barry just happens to slip between dimensions whilst performing the most minor of tasks is extremely convenient and underwhelming and it definitely feels like Barry could have been undertaking a better, more exciting physical feat. It’s also incredibly opportune that Barry, a forensic scientist, is apparently an expert in dimensional theory; I get that he’s smart and scientifically minded but I would argue that quantum mechanics and multiverse theory is a little outside of the training for a forensic scientist. Like many comics books at the time, the issue also suffers a little by stopping to catch readers up not just on Barry’s origins but Jay’s, too; I get recapping Jay’s origin since he had been absent from DC Comics for about five years but it seemed a bit unnecessary and a waste of time to recap Barry’s in such detail.
Still, the selling point of the issue is the return (or introduction, depending on your experience) of Jay Garrick and the discovery of a parallel world. The logistics of the multiverse are a bit hokey but I can chalk this up to Barry’s conjecture and the concept being in its infancy and it’s still pretty cool to see Jay, now a bit older and more seasoned, teaming up with Barry. I find it interesting that Fox decided not to have to two come to blows or even engage in a race to find out who was better; he had the perfect opportunity to do this when Jay was defeated by the Thinker but declined, preferring to focus on the two Flashes co-operating amicably instead. The villains are an interesting dichotomy; technically, the combined abilities of the Thinker, the Fiddler, and the Shade are quite formidable and the three are shown to be more than a match for both Flashes, both separately and as a group. Indeed, any one of the villains seems capable of subduing the Flashes and this really helps to keep the stakes reasonably believable and high. Sadly, the Flashes are able to defeat all three in no time at all with a pretty laughable plot convenience; it might have been more interesting to have the Thinker control Jay and turn him against Barry and then have the two overcome this and turn the villains’ gimmicks against each other but I get it, the comic is more about the gimmick of the two Flashes meeting and the exploration and re/introduction of Jay and his world over anything else.
While I am a fan of the Flash, like I said I generally prefer Wally and his adventures in the mid-nineties to early 2000s so, as a result, I haven’t really read that much of Barry Allen, especially his early adventures. However, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed “Flash of Two Worlds”; the Flash is such a unique character, one that is, at times, more overpowered than even Clark Kent/Superman, and it’s interesting seeing him balance his dual identity and come up with new ways to use his powers. Flash stories also tend to be much more whimsical and wacky than other superheroes so it’s not too surprising that he was able to pass between dimensional barriers; I could definitely see the all-powerful Superman of the time being capable of such a feat as well but it’s somehow more charming when the Flash does it and seeing him be awestruck at meeting his hero and inspiration and the two generations of heroes immediately getting along is refreshing, despite my belief that the story may have been improved by them coming to blows at least once.
Rating: 3 out of 5.
Have you ever read “Flash of Two Worlds”? If so, what did you think of it? Were you a fan of DC’s decision to introduce the multiverse or do you find the concept daunting and overwhelming? Which of the two Flashes is your favourite; perhaps you prefer a different Flash or speedster, if so who is it and why? What is your favourite Flash story? Which of DC’s infinite parallel worlds is your favourite? How are you celebrating the birth of the DC multiverse today? Whatever your thoughts, drop a comment below and be sure to check back in next Sunday as Multiverse Madness continues!
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