Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness
I place Doctor Strange In the Multiverse of Madness squarely in the middle of Marvel’s MCU films. It is much better than Thor: The Dark World, but not as tight as The Avengers, as epic as End Game, nor as funny as Thor: Ragnarök. I wanted more multiverse and more madness. I wanted to have my mind careen off surfaces until I not only entered a multiverse where the denizens were paint, but where my mind verged on becoming paint. Sony’s Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse did that. It juggled reality without ever completely landing.
The Multiverse of Madness promisingly roamed but landed with a bit of a thud. Even though dimension jumping continued the novelty, the jumps ended. The vast array of possibilities settled in. It was very quantum. Once we observed a universe the possibilities collapsed around it. Universe 838 grounded the end of the film when it didn’t need to. Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) could easily have decided that 838 was too much of a struggle and perhaps she could have looked elsewhere, perhaps in a future where she died and the boys were recently orphaned, eliminating the moral dilemma of killing the 838 in-universe Wanda in favor of her, the 616 Wanda.
In Infinity War, Doctor Strange looked across the future, which would all have been multiverses, and decided in his universe to invoke an act that led to a favorable outcome. It was only one in 14,000,605, but he found it, and he found it pretty quickly (at least relative to normal time). One would think with the Darkhold that Wanda could have glimpsed into the future to see if there was a future and a set of choices that made real sense, not Wanda-logic sense, to reunite her with her children.
But rather than rationality, screenwriter Michael Waldron plunged Wanda into a Darkhold-reinforced psychosis where her only goal was to replace another Wanda so she could again be a loving and loved mother. And, incidentally, nothing, literally, nothing, would get into her way—not America Chavez, not the Illuminati, not Wong, not Doctor Strange, not even the destruction of the Darkhold and the sacrifice of sorceress Sara (Sheila Atim).
And Sam Rami took this descent into darkness as permission to craft the most genuinely shocking Marvel movie to date, though with a few exceptions, it wasn’t all that bloody or gory.
So halfway through the review, I haven’t mentioned Doctor Strange much. That is because at its heart, despite its title, this is a Wanda Maximoff story, not a Doctor Strange story. Sure, Doctor Strange faces his own demons, mostly around his unrequited relationship with Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), which also drove What If Doctor Strange into a massive magical hissy fit.
And yes, Doctor Strange does come away as a humbler Doctor Strange, at least through a few frames of titles until he once again leaps into the unknown with little thought as Clea appears, tears open the Dark Dimension, and invites him to come fix something again (which he gleefully accepts, with all three eyes). For as smart as he is, Strange doesn’t ask many questions about anything before he goes all in.
Did I like Doctor Strange? The opening sequence is incredible. The CGI looked a little 90s shinny, but it went by so fast that I could live with that. The hubris of the strange Strange was on full display. Xochitl Gomez’s America Chavez was immediately captivating even though I knew nothing about her. I saw it twice, once in standard and once in IMAX. IMAX was better, and 3D might be even better, but the prices of tickets as we edge out of the Covid pandemic threaten to edge people out of multiple showings and the more sophisticated formats.
But for our Doctor Strange (at least mine, I apologize if I am assuming my Doctor Strange is your Doctor Strange) the cold open was a dream. As we find out not too much later, our dreams are all real someplace, which has its own implications for the MCU in the future. The MCU may no longer have real meaning as realities become very fluid. And that’s a big deal for a thing people thought was being constructed with some forethought.
And then the wedding (um), the lie about happiness, and the mysterious attack below that quickly becomes the rescue of America Chavez.
Rami takes out the creature with a lamppost, its huge eye crashing to the ground as a bloody mess. And then the twist. It’s Wanda. The opening, this attack, are all Wanda seeking America’s powers.
Wong and Strange whisk America off to Kamar-Taj which can’t hold its own against Wanda’s onslaught. In a funny bit of internal commentary, America deftly observes that Strange just told Wanda, the woman trying to kill her, exactly where she is.
So Wanda goes on the offensive as the sorcerers try to protect her in vain.
Wanda breaks through from her mirror trap with stop-motion jerkiness proved perhaps the most frightening of the effects.
Most of the film flows through the unrelenting push by Wanda to get all the obstacles to motherhood out of her way. Unfortunately, I didn’t believe the Wanda of catharsis at the end of WandaVision was capable of being evil or unaware.
Wanda kept repeating she didn’t hurt people, she wasn’t a monster—even as she killed women and children, sorcerers, and, well, whole universes based on the implications of multiversal incursion. All after seemingly learning from failures in Westview. That her only path was by killing an orphan with the power to move through dimensions.
Would it have not made more sense for Wanda to negotiate with America to a) help her understand her powers and b) find a safe multiverse where Wanda’s arrival is complimented rather than destroyed. Somewhere in the infinite multiverse, such a place must exist, but Wanda stopped looking after the happenstance, and that’s what it was, of the world where America and Strange land (838).
Yes, America was there, so her pursuit continued, but it need not have continued through that universe.
Wanda ultimately comes to her senses after America sets her up so her children reject her, and her 838 self imparts a loving touch on her cheek before reality collapses back on itself. Wanda knew that was one future. I was never sure why that alternative future mattered more than others. With all the passion and anger, why give up on the first failure, there were so many possible children who could come to love her, but they never met her—she never tried. Wanda fails as a maker of quests.
RELATED: WandaVision Easter Egg Hunt
I did not hate Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, but I didn’t love it either. I wanted more of everything. I craved the wild and the wacky and this film only hinted at the wild and it left out the wacky almost entirely. There were beautiful scenes, like the music fight. It needed more of that. A bigger variety of challenges and discontinuities. The evil dead tried to spirit away Strange0 and Dead Strange, and Christine, hit their horror mark, as the spirits became a cloak and Christine proved her ability to defend herself. My biggest personal moment of horror was seeing Halley Atwell’s Captain Carter cut in half.
The multiverse of madness suffers most from its Wanda turn, the turn that transforms her into the film’s villain, the person seeking to steal America’s powers and using demons to do so.
On the second viewing, I nodded off just before the music fight, which says all that needs to be said. I did not sleep during Drag Me to Hell. I did not find the marvelous Doctor Strange as compelling as it should have been. Too many missed opportunities to play to Raimi’s strength. I almost feel like he didn’t fight for the movie that he could have made—or perhaps he did and he lost the fight.
Plot holes and questions
Where was white Vision? Was he still off processing? One would think he would have sensed something through his combined mind, that he has a feeling about the destructive inclinations of Wanda—and at minimum, showed up to negotiate, to protect, perhaps to love. Vision might have reasoned a better way out of Wanda’s obsession than her emotionally overburdened super magic.
The multiverse seemed to have many insincerities. First, the minor change of detail is a boring-verse. Green means stop is just a cliché. They could have been much more inventive, and they were, in the stream of multiverses that they don’t stop in. Perhaps they needed a slight on-off to make the film affordable—or followable. 838 just doesn’t push far enough.
Why, for instance, is Doctor Strange always the same basic character, and why was he always him? Captain America seemingly doesn’t exist in 838. Maria Rambo is Captain Marvel, yet Baron Mordo is still himself, as is Professor X. And then there is Reed Richards, as Mr. Fantastic, who doesn’t have a precursor in the MCU to play off of. And Anson Mount is more Black Bolt in his few moments of screen time than he was in the one season of Inhumans from Marvel Television—but he was still the Black Bolt we know. Where was the equivalent of Spider-Pig or Alligator Loki or Frog Thor for Doctor Strange?
Permission had been granted, but it was squandered on a boring-verse that simple exposition explained, where Pizza Balls were easily understood as, well, Pizza in ball form (are they already selling at Disneyland Resort’s Avengers Campus?)
Could Raimi not have come up with a better role for his friend Pizza Poppa Bruce Campbell? Hitting oneself for 3-weeks is a cruel and unusual spell, and America should not have been OK with it. She was in the wrong. That Pizza Popa scene makes out both Strange and Chavez as being arrogant in the face of the multiverse, even though American had just lectured Strange on recognizing that he knows nothing.
Did the Time Variance Authority’s lack of authority allow the alternative universes to wander unpruned?
And knowing nothing for Strange could have been a big deal. How do we know that magic is universal and that his spells, let alone the theory of magic, work the same way in the 838 or elsewhere? They seem to, but that doesn’t make any sense.
Disney’s Marvel properties have created a rich tapestry for writers and directors to explore, and they usually try to tie things together, but it seems Loki perhaps created a get-out-of-jail-free card that snips away any need for reconciliation. The madness then is Kevin Fiege chanting the Nike slogan: Just Do It!
And with that utterance, relinquishing control so that the MCU opens back into its comics origin where anything goes. Perhaps even character no longer matters…how we thought people behaved can change without reason, and the science of Asgard becomes not a science so advanced that it looks like magic, but actual magic.
I have always gravitated toward the science fiction of Marvel, and not its magical undertones. Between Moon Knight and Doctor Strange Marvel seems to be leaning into magic and away from even the pretense of reason. It may be reading the cards wrong, but I feel the MCU maybe is attempting to align with the Zeitgeist rather than challenging it.
Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness could have been a color bath of experimental concepts, a tone poem or possibilities, a rock anthem to weirdness, but instead, it dips its toes into the river of the unusual, and then pulls back, taking those toes and their associated feet and plants them into the vaguely familiar—which was OK, but by failing at its madness it leaves the audience with a marriage between the MCU and the eerie that it never really consummated.
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- In Theaters