With Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, we enter a new stage of the MCU. We’re getting the point where it’s no longer enough just to keep up with the two dozen films in the superfranchise to date — now, you’d better have a Disney+ subscription and enough time on your hands to sit through the Marvel Studios TV miniseries offerings. See, we had been lead to believe that this latest film would be a sequel to the first Doctor Strange, or perhaps a follow-up to the cataclysmic events of Spider-Man: No Way Home. But no, it turns out that the previous multiversal disaster is barely ever mentioned and this is a sequel to “Wandavision”, of all things.
For those just tuning in, Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) took some time off after the events of Avengers: Endgame to lose her freaking mind. After a lifetime of childhood trauma, compounded by the loss of brother Pietro and life partner Vision, not to mention losing five years of her life to the Blip, Wanda let her powers go haywire and she took over the town of Westview. The entire town was reshaped into a picture-perfect sitcom so that Wanda could live out a make-believe life of domestic bliss with the loved ones she lost. She and Vision even had a pair of adorable twin sons (Billy and Tommy, played once again by Julian Hilliard and Jett Klyne) who never really existed outside the confines of this bizarre spell.
Acclaimed as the show was, this whole premise attracted no shortage of controversy. After all, Wanda enslaved a whole town full of unwitting civilians to be extras in her perfect little fantasy, and the show gave her a pass for it. Well, guess what? The bill has finally come due.
At the end of the miniseries, Wanda took up the mantle of the Scarlet Witch, a being of such immense power that she was prophesied to destroy the entire world. Wanda then proceeded to take a powerful book of magic called the Darkhold and went to study it in self-imposed exile. But it turns out the Darkhold is a book of ultimate darkness and it has a corrupting influence. What’s worse, Wanda’s studies have uncovered a number of alternate universes in which Billy and Tommy really do exist. Put it all together with Wanda’s prior history of recklessly reshaping reality and destroying lives to cope with her own grief, and Wanda is now on a personal mission to take her place as Billy and Tommy’s mother in some other reality, even if she has to tear apart the entire multiverse in the process.
Hmm, if only there was some character who might’ve given us some warning that the Scarlet Witch might be responsible for some great and terrible apocalypse. Yes, the miniseries wanted us to think that Wanda was the hero, but it was indeed Agatha all along.
Anyway, Wanda’s efforts have led to the discovery of America Chavez (a charming newcomer named Xochitl Gomez), a young woman with the unique ability to form portals between universes. Trouble is, America isn’t fully in control of her powers, and her portals only seem to form when she’s in mortal peril. Yet Wanda is powerful enough that she can suck out America’s soul and take those universe-hopping powers, thus putting the entire Multiverse at risk.
The one bit of good news in all of this is that because there’s a book of ultimate darkness, of course there has to be a book of ultimate light. That would be the Book of Vishanti, a mythical artifact that could counter the Darkhold. And it’s hidden somewhere in the Multiverse. So now America needs some way of finding it and getting to it before Wanda does.
Incidentally, you might be wondering why our characters have to use the Book of Vishanti, and why they couldn’t use some alternate universe’s Infinity Stones instead. This is never addressed in the film. However, it’s established comic book lore that while every universe has its own iteration of the Stones, they all share a crucial flaw: None of the Stones are operable outside their home dimension. So they probably wouldn’t be any use against this particular multiversal threat anyway.
Oh, and there’s no mention of the Vision duplicate who flew off to places unknown at the end of “Wandavision”. Though he was only an imperfect copy of the android Wanda fell in love with, so again, it’s unlikely he would’ve been much help anyway. I digress.
Getting back to America Chavez, she of course goes to the one person in any universe who might be of assistance: Dr. Stephen Strange, played once again by Benedict Cumberbatch. We open at the wedding of Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), and Stephen has to be the awkward guy who attends the wedding of his ex-girlfriend. Thus we have Strange’s personal connection to the overarching themes of wondering what might have been, wishing we could go back and make different choices, asking what it would take to make us truly happy, and so on.
Oh, and it bears remembering that Dr. Strange had previously aided Thanos by giving up the Time Stone at a pivotal moment, to say nothing of his sketchy time/space shenanigans in the battle with Dormammu. The point being that Stephen and Wanda both have a lot of regrets and a lot to answer for, and they both have a shared history as Avengers, so the conflict between them registers as intensely personal.
The film was marketed as a huge multiverse-spanning epic with cameos and callbacks on the scale of No Way Home. That’s not what we get. I’m sorry to say that this probably won’t be the linchpin that gets the Mutants and the defunct ABC/Netflix shows into the greater cinematic continuity.
First of all, the film labels the Benedict Cumberbatch Dr. Strange’s universe as Earth-616. This is incorrect. “Earth-616” is the designation for the canonical Marvel comics continuity, that’s why the number “616” has been a nerdy secret handshake for so many years. In fact, the comics and various tie-in materials have labeled the canonical MCU continuity as “Earth-199999”. It’s beyond me why the filmmakers — or this one particular character in the film — could’ve made that mistake. But I digress.
(Reminder: Our own non-fictional world has been definitively labelled as “Earth-1218”. Every scrap of media with the Marvel branding and its own continuity has its own number. Broadly and technically speaking, literally everything is a canonical part of the Marvel multiverse.)
For all the film’s hype about traveling through multiple universes, we really only see a reality designated “Earth-838” and a post-apocalyptic reality never designated. It’s the 838 universe where we get most of the film’s multiversal shenanigans regarding alternate takes on characters, the Path Not Taken, and so on. It’s a bit of a letdown after all the hype. And in case you’re wondering, it appears that Earth-838 was invented specifically for the film — I can’t find any evidence that this was a previously existing comic or show or anything like that.
I might add that the 838 universe is where we get all the big cameos. Which means that technically speaking, the characters in question still haven’t really made their MCU debuts quite yet. We don’t know where or how they’ll show up, and we don’t know who will be playing the characters when they do. At least, I hope the characters in question will be recast, because Patrick Stewart is clearly well over this and a certain popular fancasting choice didn’t work out AT ALL. Though we did get a couple of delightful return appearances.
I might add that Chiwetel Ejiofor only appears as the 838 version of Mordo, which means the 616 version is still out there somewhere doing who knows what. It’s a fine performance and the filmmakers do their best to make the recurring Strange/Mordo conflict into something memorable, but it’s not a worthy follow-up to the post-credits stinger of the first film. That said, if 616 Mordo felt that there were too many magic users in the world, I’m curious to know how he feels about that after Endgame and this picture took so many out of those ranks.
The bottom line is that the film isn’t worth seeing for any kind of fan service or potential world-building for the greater MCU. It’s worth seeing for Sam Raimi.
The creativity on display is astounding from start to finish. Remember, we’ve got a conflict between two of the most magically powerful characters in the MCU. And that’s not even counting Wong (Benedict Wong), here firmly proving why he deserves respect as the official Sorcerer Supreme. (Remember, Strange had to give up the title because he didn’t exist for five years.) Raimi takes full advantage of these characters and their unpredictable powers, delivering wickedly inventive fight scenes and VFX sequences.
We’ve got a sequence of endless fractals (like we’ve already seen in the first Doctor Strange and No Way Home), but the film is far more notable for utilizing Raimi’s experience with creatures and body horror. Raimi’s signature camera moves and edits are in full effect here, all of which help to sell the film as a horror/action flick. And what might be most impressive of all, the filmmakers contrived a scene in which Dr. Strange has to survive a fight scene without the use of his magic. Freaking brilliant.
And because it’s a Sam Raimi film, of course we get a Danny Elfman score. His work here is awesome. Though I miss Dr. Strange’s signature harpsichord, the character’s theme is still recognizable and Elfman put his own spin on it to marvelous effect. He even tucked in a variation on a Wandavision opening theme, a sweet little touch. But of course the highlight is the action sequence in which Dr. Strange fights with musical notes. That one sequence was worth the cost of admission in itself.
Still, though the horror may be effective and the action scenes may be dazzling, it’s really the smaller personal stuff that makes this film so great. Cumberbatch and Olsen have been playing their respective characters for years by this point, yet the both of them are pushed to make their characters legitimately terrified and horribly vulnerable like they’ve never been at any point in the MCU saga to date. This plot forces Strange to undertake serious personal growth and introspection on a scale we haven’t seen since the first film, and Olsen takes Wanda in a new villainous direction that’s legit fucking terrifying.
In the supporting cast, Gomez turns in a remarkable performance with what she had to work with, even if America’s development arc was undercooked and horribly paced. McAdams actually gets something to do and makes herself a vital part of the proceedings, a welcome change of pace after how useless and forgettable Christine was in the first picture. I don’t know why Michael Stuhlbarg bothered to show up, as he only gets one scene that contributed basically nothing. Hilliard and Klyne are both solid here, as they were in “Wandavision”. Wong — the actor and the character — both continue to distinguish themselves above and beyond the manservant caricature of the comics.
On a final miscellaneous note, we have to talk about the stingers. The end credits stinger is absolutely worth seeing, if only because watching Bruce Campbell torture himself for Sam Raimi is always a winning combination. As for the mid-credits stinger… well, it’s a little disappointing that they brought up a major character from the mythos like that and only bothered to mention her name in the offscreen material. Suffice to say that if you know anything of Dr. Strange from the comics and you’ve been wondering when Clea was going to show up, wonder no more.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness isn’t at all what I expected, and far better for it. For all the grandiose promises of establishing the MCU multiverse and blazing new trails for future entries, the film is actually far more effective for how it develops Dr. Strange and Scarlet Witch. It’s a compelling and heartfelt personal drama about grief and regret, but it also works superbly as a fantasy horror/action film. And considering the film is only two hours long, it really is quite astounding how much the filmmakers were able to cram in.
Alas, there will be comparisons to Everything Everywhere All At Once, as both films were built on a multiversal hook and they’re both out at the same time. Daniels turned in the better film, without a contest. It’s deeper and smarter, more inventive, it goes farther with the premise, and does infinitely more with overwhelmingly less. And of course it can’t be ignored that one film can be enjoyed fresh out of the box while the other presupposes familiarity with a nine-episode miniseries on a paid streaming service (which in turn presupposes a familiarity with over 30 hours of other media). Even so, both films are proud accomplishments well worth seeing.