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,
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.
Steve Ditko and Stan Lee’s bizarre creation, Dr. Strange, has undoubtedly become one of Marvel’s most pivotal figureheads since his unimpressive debut and has had a storied history with adaptation. After an ill-fated lie-action film in the seventies, a number of animated ventures, and a long period of Development Hell, Marvel’s Master of the Mystic Arts finally made his big-screen debut as part of the MCU to both universal praise and incredible financial success. Development of a sequel began in 2016, with director Scott Derrickson eager to incorporate the villain Nightmare and really delve into Dr. Strange’s weirder aspects. MCU producer and figurehead Kevin Feige saw Dr. Strange as the linchpin on the MCU’s fourth phase, which would expand upon the multiversal aspects of their successful franchise, while Derrickson initially aimed to introduce more horror elements to the sequel. This caused some creative differences between the two parties, and led to Derrickson stepping down and Sam Raimi being brought in as the director and injecting his own blend of horror to the script after delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic. After attempting to introduce the character in previous MCU projects, Feige finally found an avenue to bring in America Chavez, and the script was rewritten to both play to Raimi’s strengths as a director and to further expand on Wanda Maximoff’s (Olsen) character growth from WandaVision (Shakman, 2021). Seeking to infuse a horror vibe to the MCU and explore the consequences of dabbling in black magic and the multiverse, the film also ended up including a number of cameo appearances from iconic actors and fan casted characters to tease towards even bigger things for the MCU. Despite the film not seeing a release in LGTBQ+-intolerant countries, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness amassed a worldwide gross of $955.8 million and was met by widely positive reviews; critics praised its harrowing tale of grief and desperation, the unique horror slant, and the visual spectacle on offer, though some found it to be a bit formulaic and bloated at times.
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.
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…
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.
What did you think to Doctor Strange in 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 Strange in 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!