A Great MCU Film With One Big Flaw


Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness is a mostly terrific return to the magical misadventures of Stephen Strange and friends, though I’ve spent the last day or so pondering whether the film’s primary conflict really works.

While the movie is incredibly entertaining and full of fun twists and turns, one character’s arc left me feeling a bit unsatisfied. There’s also something of a disconnect between Spider-Man: No Way Home and Multiverse that left me feeling a bit letdown.

Still, these are ultimately small quibbles with a movie I mostly enjoyed a great deal. Let’s take a look at the good, the bad and the scary of Doctor Strange 2.

Spoilers follow.

The premise of the film is fairly straightforward as far as superhero movies go.

A young teenager, America Chavez (Xochitl Gómez) is on the run from demons who want to kill her and take her very special superpower: The ability to traverse the multiverse.

Chavez makes her way to Earth-616, the version of our planet that exists within the fiction of the MCU, pursued by a giant octopus demon. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Wong (Benedict Wong) save her before she’s devoured.

After some convincing, America explains what’s going on, and how she was just recently trying to get to a magical spell book—the Darkhold’s counterpart, the Book of Vishanti—accompanied by a different version of Doctor Strange who ultimately ended up turning on her, attempting to take her power rather than let it fall into the talons of the demon that was pursuing them. That version of Strange is dead now.

Strange and Wong send her to the magical fortress of Kamar-Taj in order to protect her from the demons. They also discover that the demon pursuing Chavez was summoned via witchcraft, so Strange pays a visit to an old friend: Wanda Maximoff. He thinks she might be able to help, but he’s very, very mistaken.

Wanda appears to be living a normal life in the country, tending to her orchard and her animals. She claims to have left magic behind her and expresses regret for her actions in Westview (if you haven’t seen WandaVision much of this film will not make sense; also, it’s the best MCU live-action show so far so please go watch it!)

Strange tells her it’s okay. Mistakes were made but she set things right.

At this point, viewers should be scratching their heads. We saw Wanda with the Darkhold, an evil magical tome, at the end of WandaVision, clearly pursuing magic with a newfound intensity. She’s clearly lying to Strange about leaving magic behind her, and this becomes even more apparent when she tells him, moments later, to “bring America here” where Wanda can protect her.

When Strange stops in his tracks with a puzzled look on his face, Wanda says, “You didn’t tell me her name, did you?”

Suddenly the orchard gives way to a forest of dead trees, a blood red sky. The illusion vanishes, replaced by death and decay.

This is the big twist. Wanda, it turns out, is the one who has sent demons out to track down America. Wanda, clearly possessed by the Darkhold, is the villain. She tells Strange that he can bring her the girl, or the Scarlett Witch can come and take her by force. He won’t give her up, so Wanda goes to Kamar-Taj and lays waste to it despite the dozens of sorcerers defending it.

It’s a great twist. I certainly wasn’t expecting Scarlett Witch to be the villain, though clearly there were plenty of hints along the way. We should have suspected it when Wanda took Agatha’s evil spell book and began studying it. The trailers for Multiverse masked the fact that Wanda was the bad guy, but not entirely. There were clues.

WandaVision All Over Again

Still, there’s something about the premise here that kind of bugs me. I think it’s perfectly plausible that Wanda would go full villain with the Darkhold, but haven’t we kind of done all of this before? WandaVision spun a mysterious and enthralling tale all about Wanda taking over a small town and its inhabitants in order to create the family she always wanted.

Wanda cast such a masterful spell that even she forgot the truth for awhile, believing that Vision (Paul Bettany) was still alive. Conjuring two children from thin air. Creating a false reality from the sitcoms she watched as a kid. She bent the fabric of reality, took over the minds of thousands of people, and wrapped her entire illusion in a powerful force field that was almost impossible to penetrate.

By the end, Wanda has realized that what she did was wrong, and that at least some of what she did was influenced and manipulated by Agatha Harkness (Kathryn Hahn) another powerful witch who used Wanda’s own illusion against her.

The problem I have with Wanda in Multiverse is simply that it feels like we’re retreading the exact same ground. Wanda went way, way over the top and crossed a ton of moral and ethical lines to bring Vision back from the dead. She ultimately had to reckon with these transgressions, let go of the ghost, and leave Westview—and her fake family—for good.

Fast forward to Multiverse and that entire arc is simply repeated. Wanda is, once again, crossing all sorts of lines in order to get to her real sons—the Billy and Tommy from other universes where they were actually born rather than conjured. Granted, she is being influenced by both her lasting grief and the dark magic of the Darkhold, but that doesn’t really change the narrative recycling that’s going on.

I liked the character arc Wanda had in WandaVision. She starts out as ignorant of what’s actually going on as everyone else. When she learns the truth, she doubles down rather than face just how messed up her actions have been. She refuses to see how the pain she’s causing others matters, but even Vision can tell that what she’s doing is wrong. By the time she finally has her showdown with Agatha, she’s realized that what she’s doing is cruel and immoral and she walks away from it all.

And now, in Multiverse, she goes through this entire arc all over again, except instead of the really fascinating mind control and illusion she employs in Westview, she now sends demons and bolts of red magic down to kill everyone in her path.

Granted, this leads to some great scary moments, and a few surprisingly violent scenes.

The Illuminati

On Earth-838, Strange and Chavez encounter the Illuminati, a group of powerful superheroes that don’t exist in quite the same fashion on Earth-616. The Illuminati are comprised of:

  • Sorcerer Supreme, Baron Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor)
  • Professor X (Patrick Stewart)
  • Captain Carter (Hayley Atwell)
  • Reed Richards / Mister Fantastic (John Krasinski)
  • Maria Rambeau / Captain Marvel (Lashana Lynch)
  • Black Bolt (Anson Mount)

The Illuminati reveal to Strange that in their war against Thanos, their version of Strange got his hands on the Darkhold and went completely insane. When he realized the damage he caused, it was too late and the other members of the organization he founded were forced to put him down. It looks like they’re going to do the same to Strange when the Scarlett Witch shows up, possessing the body of this world’s Wanda.

She kills almost all of them (only Baron Mordo survives) one by one in pretty gruesome ways, showing just how enormously powerful Scarlett Witch truly is. (Black Bolt’s death was straight out of a horror movie).

When Wanda then pursues Strange, Christine (Rachel McAdams) and America through some underground tunnels, director Sam Raimi (of Evil Dead fame) dials up the fear a few more notches.

And from here things just get weirder and darker and more exciting. Strange meets yet another version of himself—this one possessed by the Darkhold—who he has to fight in a battle of magical musical notes, one of the more clever cinematic magician duels I’ve encountered.

Later, he uses the forbidden ‘dream walking’ spell to inhabit the dead body of one of his alternative selves, leading to a zombie Doctor Strange confrontation with the Scarlett Witch that is completely bonkers.

Love Conquers All

In the end, Chavez figures out that the only way to stop Wanda isn’t by fighting her (the only thing anyone has tried so far) but by giving her what she wants. Finally in control of her powers, Chavez opens a portal back to Earth-838 and the home of Wanda and her two sons. The boys are terrified of the woman before them. They run screaming to their real mother.

Strange had asked Wanda earlier what she intended to do with the real mom of the boys in the other universe and she didn’t have a good answer. When actually confronted with the reality of the situation, even the Darkhold’s evil influence buckles. She’s become a monster, something her own children find terrifying. She pleads and begs but it’s obvious that neither magic nor persuasion can change reality.

Wanda-838 walks up to her, a look of pity and compassion on her face, and says “Don’t worry. They will be loved.”

And so in the end, love saves the day. Wanda returns to her mountain temple and destroys every copy of the Darkhold across the multiverse. She’s “killed” in the crumbling ruins of her mountaintop retreat as it falls. (There’s no way she’s actually dead—even if Wanda-616 is no more, the multiverse gives infinite options for character revival).

This was a good way to wrap things up, though I think the movie overall lacked some of Spider-Man: No Way Home’s basic humanity. In that film, Peter Parker’s (Tom Holland) entire motivation is not to simply fight and defeat the bad guys, but to save them. Here, however, nobody talks about saving Wanda even though she’s clearly possessed by an evil book. And sure, she was also the villain of WandaVision but her motives are, if not pure, then at least born out of love. Tainted but not all evil.

Verdict

All told, I enjoyed this movie a great deal. I enjoyed the darker spin on the MCU, the shocking deaths and more violent, bloody ways that those deaths occurred. This phase of the MCU is shaping up to be one of its best, with more magic and space/time/dimensional travel and just a bit more of each director’s unique mark on each film. The wide array of different TV shows, from What If…? to Moon Knight, on top of the MCU films means there’s a ton of variety and deeper, more layered stories to tell than ever before, which helps balance out the superhero fatigue many viewers are feeling by now.

Say what you will about Eternals, I actually enjoyed that movie and thought that it did something very different from any other MCU film though, like so many movies these days, it ran much too long. Doctor Strange felt very different from any other MCU movie also while also avoiding the long run-time, clocking in at a near-perfect 2 hours and 6 minutes long. It’s definitely worth the price of admission and you should see it on the big screen if you can.

Score: 4/5 Stars

Random Thoughts

  • I’m a little disappointed that the events of Spider-Man: No Way Home didn’t play more directly into this movie. It’s just…strange…that Peter Parker and Doctor Strange screw up a spell that accidentally creates cracks and rifts in the multiverse but somehow this massive magical mishap has essentially zero impact on a movie titled Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness. I don’t get it. Surely they could have stitched the two films together a bit more?
  • I love that John Krasinski was cast as Reed Richards and I genuinely hope that we get him in whatever Fantastic Four project Disney and Marvel are cooking up. I also loved this version of Professor X and his comic book inspired “wheel chair” and the cool way he enters Wanda’s mind.
  • The very end of the movie (before the post-credits scenes, which I discuss in this post) is so great. Strange is all happy and cocksure, leaving the Sanctum Sanctorum for a nice walk around town when he buckles over screaming and a third eye pops out of his forehead, just like the evil Strange in the ruined Earth he visited. I love how abrupt and surprising it was.
  • Perhaps some of the disconnect or retreading of old ground in The Multiverse of Madness is because director Sam Raimi didn’t actually watch the entire run of WandaVision, relying on key moments to help inform his direction—though screenwriter Michael Waldron did. Raimi is a talented director but you’d think it would be a basic requirement to watch one of the most crucial pieces leading up to this story before making the movie.
  • The next Disney+ MCU show is Ms. Marvel (June 8th) which I’m honestly not really looking forward to (I’m still finishing up Moon Knight which I like quite a lot so far, but I’m not sure we need quite so many MCU TV shows back to back). The next MCU feature film is Taika Waititi’s Thor: Love and Thunder (July 8th) which I think looks great. But I love most everything Waititi does, so I’m a little biased.

What did you think of Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness? Let me know on Twitter or Facebook. You should also sign up for my newsletter and follow me here on this blog and on my YouTube channel.



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