Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness: When will the MCU get out of its own way?
Spoiler Warning: This article contains spoilers for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, the most recent MCU/Marvel film
It’s rare for me to leave the movie theatre saying I half-liked a film. And yet, that’s sort of the mass of jumbled emotions that Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (which I will shorten to MoM hereafter)conjured. Was the film objectively bad? No. Far, far from it! It was actually quite brilliant. However, despite the really interesting things the film tried pulling off; I couldn’t help but feel that it was being constrained in some way (the reason became apparent later).
But let me backpedal
, to the beginning – for I can’t criticize Doctor Strange without briefly surmising the film.
When Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness opens, we are thrust right into action alongside the film’s titular hero and a (then) unnamed young heroine. The pair is fighting off Cthulhu-esque-looking creatures to reach a glowing turquoise spell book. Late into the fight, Doctor Strange, realizing that they cannot win said fight, turns on his young companion and attempts to steal her power for himself (citing that she is dangerous because she cannot control this power), only to be stabbed and killed. Strange’s young companion escapes through a portal… just as the sequence segues into a shot of a different Doctor Strange (the “main” Strange in the MCU) waking from a nightmare. The previous fight, it seems, was just a dream.
Of course, as the narrative would have it, the previous sequence was not just a dream, but rather our regular Strange glimpsing the actions of an alternative-reality version of himself. As for the young girl who had been with that alternate Strange, well, she quickly pops up in main-Strange’s universe. This girl, who reveals herself to be America Chavez, hurriedly explains that she can travel through the multiverse and that she’s being chased across it by a demon.
Strange and his fellow sorcerer Wong quickly deduce that the demons chasing America are the work of witchcraft (which is distinct from sorcery in the MCU), and turn to one Wanda Maximoff (previously seen in Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame and WandaVision) for help. This is where Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness gets interesting. As things transpire, Wanda is in fact the film’s anti-hero/villain: she’s been chasing after America to steal her power and find a reality that she can inhabit wherein her sons are still alive (Wanda previously conjured herself twin sons in WandaVision).
Wanda ascends into a full on villain in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, killing countless sorcerers (who band together under Strange and Wong’s command to help protect America) and even some superheroes from the multiverse in her quest to access America’s power.
There has been some contention as to Wanda’s character arc, with some fans arguing that MoM upholds her arc from WandaVision brilliantly and others clearly disagreeing.
I’m more inclined to agree that Multiverse of Madness upholds Wanda’s arc from WandaVision – after all, Wanda’s emotional fragility, her need to rely on her role as a mother in order to find a sense of normalcy, and her dabbling in dark magic are all touched upon in WandaVision’s closing episodes.
But why digress so much about Wanda when Doctor Strange is the film’s hero?
Well, the MCU has commonly had a “villain problem”, whereby its villains are lackluster and lack real gravitas. Wanda, with her storied history which spans both decades of comics and nearly a decade of MCU films, corrects this imbalance immediately. Secondly, a good villain is vital to get a plot developing in both a believable and emotionally-stirring manner. In Wanda, a magic wielding superhero turned recalcitrant and cold by a heap-load of trauma, Doctor Strange is essentially facing a mirror of himself gone bad.
In fact, this mirroring is alluded in the film itself. In one universe that the main Strange and America visit, that version of Doctor Strange has been corrupted by the Darkhold (the same book of dark magic that Wanda uses in the main timeline) and sentenced to death. While the main Strange is coming to terms with his own capacity for evil, Wanda continues to chase him and America across the multiverse, locating Strange and America not long after he learns of his alternate self’s discretions. This should be the film’s high point or one of its high points: the middle point where Wanda and Strange finally clash one on one. Instead, it’s crammed full of cameos of superheroes from other Marvel properties, such as the Fantastic Four and X-Men (my cinema cheered when these heroes appeared, indicating how big a deal they are).
In this alternate universe, these cameo heroes form a version of the Avengers known as the Illuminati (seriously, they’re called the Illuminati). After main-Strange arrives in their universe, they vote on his presence in their world and whether or not to help him. The Illuminati’s vote is interrupted by Wanda’s appearance (she’s still tracking main Strange and America). The group promptly leaves to fight Wanda, only for each of them to meet a sticky end at her hands.
Herein lays my gripe with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. The MCU is well known for littering its films with Easter eggs that allude to the forthcoming appearances of other heroes and the Illuminati section, which takes up a good half an hour of the film, showcases this habit being made bigger and bolder than before. But the point of an Easter egg, crucially, is that it’s meant to be a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it part of a film
… not take over the film itself and distract viewers from its plot. The Illuminati’s appearance detracts from the Strange v. Wanda battle, and thus from the many interesting directions that Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness could have taken. Instead, the film goes on to build up to a somewhat stereotypical (if really zany) final third in which Wanda and Steven finally clash. Here, it appears the film has literally gotten in the way of its own progress, using a formulaic plot element (Easter eggs/cameos) to shoehorn in more characters than is necessary.
Ah, wasted opportunities.
This is not to say that Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness has nothing good going for it. It’s definitely operating in the vein of a horror film
, with lots of gory and horror-esque imagery, even if the film never quite seems totally comfortable with this imagery. In one sequence, as Wanda prepares to possess the body of one of her alternate selves, the alternate-Wanda becomes aware that she is in danger and one of her birthday pictures moves to smile menacingly at her as she wanders forlornly through her house. In other scene, Doctor Strange meets an alternate version of himself that has used the Darkhold extensively and thus developed a third eye in the middle of his forehead. Later, Strange utilizes the corpse of one of his alternate selves to fight Wanda and we get an untold number of shots of a zombie-Strange doing magic. As one tumblr user noted, this is a weird film for sure, and it’s in these moments of overt weirdness that Doctor Strange shines brightest, standing as a film that does at times manage to shake loose the MCU’s somewhat tired filmmaking formula.
It’s just far from being well rounded, which is a darn shame, because it possessed all the necessary elements to be so: compelling characters, striking visuals and a passable plot.
Oh, well. Somewhere in our multiverse, the perfect version of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness must surely exist, no?