In the MCU it’s hard to compare the level of excitement and anticipation that every single film and even TV series has going for it against others. But Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is certainly up there with some of them.
Following on from the knock-on effects of Spider-Man: No Way Home and WandaVision, Doctor Strange’s second and long overdue sequel opens up a whole can of worms as well as portals to multiple other universes and realities, and of course possibilities for future MCU projects. When the first trailer was teased at the end of the last Spider-Man film, it sent fans of the franchise into overdrive as speculation over who appears in it and what happens conjured up a multitude of theories. A second trailer flipped some of the glimpses of what we saw on their heads, spurning more guesses from fans about what would be real and what would be an illusion.
And what the film actually did was surprise, delight and enchant but also understandably still confuse many. The narratives that had been pushed before its release hinted that Doctor Strange’s biggest threat was himself and that a “friend turned foe” would hinder him. Both ideas pointed to three possibilities and past actions – fighting against an alternate, corrupt incarnation of himself that we saw in the highly-acclaimed animated series What If…?, fellow sorcerer Mordo from the first Doctor Strange film who turned against him making a return, and Wanda Maximoff causing more chaos. All three happened but posed separate yet interconnected threats that made Strange seem way out of his depth.
Helping Strange to try and fix what happened when he inadvertently messed with the multiverse in No Way Home is newcomer to the MCU America Chavez. However, the pairing is “accidental” as America possesses the ability to travel the multiverse, and it is her stumbling into the universe we know that appears to start the problems rather than what Strange had done previously. And hot on their trail is superhero-turned-antiheroine-turned-supervillain Wanda, now calling herself the Scarlet Witch. Consumed by the power of the Darkhold, she is now on a mission to “save” and “be with” her sons who she knows exist in other universes. And absorbing America’s powers just as Magneto tried to do to Rogue in the first X-Men film is the only way she can do that.
Along the way as they run from Wanda to try to find the Book of Vishanti, the Darkhold’s antithesis – which is said to give its user the power they need to vanquish their enemy – they encounter a number of setbacks. These come in the form of “other” Doctor Stranges and protectors of other universes, such as the Illuminati, who appear to be Earth-838’s answer to the Avengers. The Illumanti also appear to replace our Earth’s Kamar-Taj as the gang there – made up of some their Earth’s mightiest heroes – exercise absolute power to defend their reality from the otherworldly and supernatural threats they must face.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is, as its title suggests, full of madness. While the idea of a multiverse is not new, Marvel’s multiverse leads the way in pushing boundaries, stretching the MCU wider and introducing more characters comic book fans will know and love or their parallel versions. And as you’d expect, it’s a strange and Wanda-ful experience, borrowing elements from sci-fi and horror films; the wicked Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda, a.k.a the Scarlet Witch, embodies her villainous self to the fullest, drawing inspiration from The Grudge, The Ring, The Exorcist and even The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. Director Sam Raimi’s vision was also clearly influenced by other supernatural and witch-based films, including The Conjuring, The Craft, The Wretched and The Witch. And it’s no wonder since he has directed a number of supernatural and horror films in the past. It’s a slightly new direction for a Marvel film yet doesn’t deviate too much from the action-packed and sometimes humorous, family-friendly tone they usually go for.
Benedict Cumberbatch as Stephen Strange may be the film’s lead as well as essentially the MCU’s replacement for Iron Man and is certainly a charismatic, almost deadpan comedic and dramatic actor, but let’s be honest – everyone was more excited for and interested in Olsen returning as Maximoff. She continues to bewitch audiences as her emotions and desires fuel her ever-growing power that we always knew were on the brink of making her the most destructive being in not just one universe but across them all. But we all know beneath the fury and the vengeance still lies a shred of humanity. The question always was though, would she squelch that or would that triumph over her recently “evil” ways?
In addition to Cumberbatch and Olsen, Benedict Wong as Wong and Xochitl Gomez as America fulfil their supporting roles as best as they are allowed to. Although Wong is now the Sorcerer Supreme (which we are reminded of several times in hilariously sly digs to Strange), he is still treated and seen as Strange’s inferior and sidekick. Isn’t the Sorcerer Supreme meant to be the one of the most powerful beings or is that only when Strange is?
With regards to Chavez, she is introduced as a novice superhero who needs guidance and is in need of being saved rather than the importance being placed on her to save everyone else. She is reminiscent of Spider-Man’s naivety as a teenager but differs in that she is someone who is unable to control her power and lacks self-esteem. Of course, her comic book counterpart grows to be a superhero force to be reckoned with. Furthermore, she is one of the most prominent LGBTQ+ superheroes in the Marvel comics, who has two mothers and makes it clear she is also a lesbian. In the film, her mothers are seen and mentioned in a fleeting, heartbreaking scene though there are only very subtle hints in her clothing and accessories that point to her own sexuality. While it’s a shame the film won’t be shown in Saudi Arabia due to Disney’s refusal to cut said “lesbian scene”, it’s also a shame Disney and Marvel Studios failed to portray her properly.
Those missteps aside, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (which should really be called Doctor Strange vs. The Scarlet Witch) is another visual, magical Marvel that captures the essence of the mayhem that is now ensuing across the MCU because Doctor Strange and Wanda’s misuse of the arts. Talking of which, the magic battles put those in Fantastic Beasts to shame. It’s not perfect but more imperfect, like the film’s two lead characters themselves. It’s full of dark humour, emotion, twists and turns as well as some scary jumps but the MCU’s direction jumps forward too, setting a precedent that means it can only get darker and even more complex. So this means anything can happen and anybody can appear as Phase Four continues. And yes, the cameos are most definitely well worth the wait…