A coworker of mine was invited to see Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness on opening weekend despite the fact that she’d never watched a single Marvel product in her life. While I chuckled for a few minutes and mentally judged the invitee for his selfish chutzpah, another coworker generally on the same pop-culture page as me graciously tried to recap both the first Doctor Strange and Spider-Man: No Way Home in hopes that it might give her the slightest help before being dragged into the 28th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s kind to show someone how to dog-paddle at least a little before they’re shoved into the deep end of the pool by some dude eagerly looking forward to giving her swimming lessons while she’s drowning. Oh, the gleeful countdown he probably kept in his head for days until that heroic moment when he could point at Benedict Cumberbatch onscreen and proudly, loudly whisper to her, “That’s Doctor Strange!”
Meanwhile, I’m unhelpfully daydreaming how this exchange might’ve been twice as entertaining, but only half as helpful, if at all helpful, if coworker #2 had delivered the recap in the style of Ant-Man’s pal Luis. I am arguably an enabler of the problem here.
It was inevitable that the MCU would reach that point, same as happens to any other superhero universe that survives longer than a year, when the canonical continuity is so weighed down with the major events and intricacies of countless preceding stories that it’s next to impossible for any individual chapter to serve as an entrance gate for newcomers. When casual popcorn-film dalliers want a pleasant diversion, they blanch when the “Welcome!” sign nailed to the door is actually a syllabus of homework prerequisites.
But for better or worse, the MCU is not a collection of standalone works with enough exposition deftly woven into them that they can be watched in any order, like the James Bond films or the average 20th-century TV show. The MCU is a potentially never-ending, longform serial, not unlike monthly comics, soap operas, or our own lives, up to the point of cancellation (so to speak). To an extent requiring the audience to consume every single product in order to enjoy every other product is a cold-blooded marketing design, but I appreciate works in which that facet is not the front-facing one. I can acknowledge the naked corporate juggernaut profit machine for what it is and acknowledge sometimes storytellers can navigate within its confines to construct tales more edifying than the average time-killing carnival ride. I decry this sales model in the many Marvel (and DC) comics I refuse to buy while at the same time accepting and engaging with the MCU on its terms. I am large, I contain multitudes, and so on.
(You’ll note my last three movie reviews were about self-contained works, one of which is guaranteed never to have a sequel, two of which were rather modestly budgeted, and none of which will ever sell a single Happy Meal toy…although 3-inch-tall plastic Chibi versions of Nicolas Cage and Pedro Pascal would be quite the prizes.)
Once again a wordy intro has gotten the best of me, but my point is: in context, Doctor Strange ITMOM is a brilliant chapter in America’s favorite costumed soap opera, with an important progression for one major character and a shocking climax for another. It’ll make the most sense to anyone who’s kept apace with the MCU films, absolutely including the Disney+ series Loki and WandaVision, which by company scheme are critical chapters, not bonus features like the shorts Marvel used to do. For families that can’t afford or refuse to indulge in every streaming service ever, that sucks.
If you’ve collected every issue (so to speak) then you arrive at ITMOM fully cognizant of the arduous journey of Elizabeth Olsen’s character, Wanda Maximoff a.k.a. the Scarlet Witch — part super-powered, part sorceress. In Avengers: Age of Ultron she’d lost her homeland of Sokovia along with her entire family, including her dear brother Pietro. She found a new support system in the Avengers in her time of grieving, but that collapsed in Captain America: Civil War when she was forced to fight some of her new friends over bureaucratic paranoia. Some healing of her emotional trauma was allowed when she and Paul Bettany’s android Vision struck up a most unusual romance between films. That idyllic recovery was rent asunder in Avengers: Infinity War when the intergalactic madman Thanos yanked the life-giving gem from Vision’s head, which in human terms equated to literally ripping his heart out. For Wanda it figuratively did the same.
Then Wanda and billions of others died for five years. That didn’t boost anyone’s mental health.
After those billions were resurrected and the day was saved in Avengers: Endgame, she participated in the meting of justice and/or vengeance, but we saw no sign that she sought therapy or joined a post-Blip support group afterward. Left to her own devices with apparently no help from her friends, between chapters she snapped. Her coping mechanism of choice was to use her dual-wielding powers to conquer an innocent small town, using matter transformation to turn the place into a shiny happy sitcom and mind control to turn its citizens into her helpless supporting cast. She created an imaginary Vision and two imaginary sons from thin air, declared the evils that she had wrought to be Good, and enjoyed the fruits of an overpowered Main Character Syndrome sufferer run amuck. Cue the WandaVision theme song.
Her mass-hostage Truman Show came crashing down around her thanks to separate intrusions from the United States government and an even eviller witch, Kathryn Hahn’s enthusiastically cruel Agatha Harkness. (R.I.P. poor Sparky, NEVER FORGET.) After some heartfelt goading from her Fake Vision, Wanda realized the errors of some of her ways, let the hostage crisis end, and fled the scene. Off-screen she then swung by the neighborhood of the barely canonical Runaways, nabbed the Darkhold (basically Marvel’s Necronomicon with a variant cover) from the personal effects of Elizabeth Hurley’s now-exiled Morgan le Fay, who in turn had retrieved it from the not-much-more-canonical Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and decided to do some independent study. The scene after the WandaVision end credits implied nary a hint of repentance or wellness.
Meanwhile, TV’s Loki introduced the MCU’s multiverse, the concept of infinite Earths across infinite universes, one for every possible version of Marvel. Elsewhere off-screen, in between her Darkhold readings Wanda also did some more TV binge-watching, caught up on Fringe, and found inspiration in the misdeeds of mad scientist Walter Bishop. Her new master plan, then: if her loved ones no longer exist in this universe, then she’d find an alternate universe where they did still exist, kidnap them and make them her own, never mind their feelings on the matter or the feelings of their original loved ones.
That, in sum, is all the baggage Wanda brings with her into Doctor Strange: ITMOM. All of it reads much more cleanly and entertainingly if you imagine me telling you all this in the style of Ant-Man’s pal Luis. Or better yet, the Latin-lover narrator from Jane the Virgin.
Why did I just go to all that trouble? Because sometimes collecting my thoughts in typed form is useful and/or fun. Also, I was irked to get home from the movie, read four different reviews I’d been setting aside all week long, and see a consensus that in their opinions ITMOM failed because, among other nitpicks, in and of itself it invested no time in helping viewers understand Wanda’s aggrieved, murderous motivations. I’d concede that argument. It isn’t a self-contained work, no matter how much its marketers might feign otherwise. I’m not convinced they did make the slightest pretense of that.
So yeah, if you already knew at least 60% of all that backstory, then you already knew what the trailers downplayed: the Scarlet Witch has become a straight-up super-villain and is in fact ITMOM‘s Big Bad. Y’know that trope in sci-fi stories where Our Heroes meet their Mirror Universe counterparts and they’re often evil and laughably dressed? Here, it’s our Wanda who’s the evil Mirror Universe Wanda. And no one’s laughing.
Taking that heel-turn for granted effectively shaved a full hour off its run-time, thus blessedly disrupting the recent pattern of three-hour blockbusters that studios swear had to be that long and consume half a day of your life, once you factor in round-trip travel time and interminable pre-show trailer marathons. Maybe they could’ve inserted a few more scenes of Wanda spouting heavy-handed Chris Claremont exposition rehashing all of the above. Or, heck, let Luis himself do a “Previously on Marvel” recap at the start.
(Bet ya if Wes Anderson decided all his films were in a shared multiverse, critics wouldn’t complain about the narrative shortcuts he’d take in the eventual team-up of every Bill Murray character ever. They’d remember everything about every single one of them and could name whatever New Yorker articles inspired each of them.)
Anyway, with faith in the viewing public’s predictable insatiability and obsessive memory for the material, director Sam Raimi and Loki head writer Michael Waldron (also a Community veteran!) cut to the chase here. Literally, in fact: the opening scene hits the ground in media res with the otherdimensional octopus kaiju Not-Shuma-Gorath chasing after our first Doctor Strange variant and the living MacGuffin, a frightened teen named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez from Netflix’s Baby-Sitters Club) with the power to punch star-shaped portals through dimensions. In comics she’s a confident hero who takes no guff and leaps about the multiverse as she pleases, but her MCU version is much younger and not yet in control. Wanda doesn’t need her to know what she’s doing; she just needs her power. America herself is disposable.
One Earth-jump later, enter our Strange. As established in No Way Home, during his five-year Blip absence the Sorcerer Supreme title was transferred to Wong (Benedict Wong, great as ever), but he’s nonetheless feeling pretty cocky after enjoying important roles in four other Marvel films since his debut (not to mention the animated What If…?). Sure, all the Marvel heroes participated in the whole Thanos debacle, but Strange’s contribution to saving the day was the biggest, the flashiest, and the most impossible for any other known hero to make. Then in No Way Home we learned that With Great Power Must Come Great Responsibility, but in his mind it now follows that The Greatest Power Should Simply Take ALL the Responsibility. He also learned the hard way never to let an angsty teen dare him into tampering in God’s domain.
Wait, nope: judging by ITMOM he didn’t learn that. As the starter Strange is tagged out and our Strange tags in, he all but thumps his chest while appointing himself America’s guardian before they take a flying leap through the cosmoses. Raimi and the Marvel FX staff treat us and themselves to a short, wacky montage of Our Heroes tumbling through multiple realities, some more recognizable than others, some rendered in different media, at least one sporting a cameo from an established cosmic force previously unseen in the MCU. Beyond that scintillating scene, the remaining realities number curiously fewer for the remainder of the film, which is a boon to the narrative but a letdown to anyone who’s seen Everything Everywhere All at Once, which likewise explored alt-realities but sped through at least triple the number of split-second reality slivers.
The ensuing inter-Earth escapade draws generously from the Raimi classics, thrilling Spider-Man superheroics vaulting side-by-side with Evil Dead frights as the undead and other monsters creep around the edges — some doing Wanda’s bidding, others serving radically different purpose. Raimi and the Necronomicon are old friends, so playing with its knockoff isn’t a stretch and fits right in with his well-documented love for the trippiness of O.G. Strange artist Steve Ditko’s unique imagination. Cinematic tech upgrades also serve him well, particularly in the IMAX 3-D showing we overpaid to attend. The super-sized screen and especially the value-added depth-trickery were major boons in sorting the stray bits of standard MCU CG clutter from each other and making the onscreen messes much more visually discernible. For once I could tell what was actually going on, where all the tossed, tumbling or cascading persons, things or superpowers were in spatial relation to each other. Understanding the magic duels blow-for-blow was loads more fun than simply zoning out till all motion-blurring ceased, my primary response whenever blockbuster fight scenes turn into so much weightless speed-freak tedium (Exhibit A: the No Way Home construction-site mishmash finale).
If you’re online much, then you’ve already had much or all of ITMOM‘s most fandom-forward sequence spoiled for you. While Our Heroes are temporarily out of Wanda’s clutches, they run afoul of a very special supergroup who’ve leapt from the comics to make their MCU debut. Well, a retooled version of them does, anyway. Our family predicted one of the guest stars several days prior (not the one spoiled in the trailers — the most obvious, appropriate, and awesome one). I applauded the logic of one choice; snickered at one inclusion, then retracted my snickering once I realized how vastly improved and more dignified they were this time around; and as for the last one in line…frankly it’s extraordinarily rare for me to verbalize anything while a theater is doing its theatrical thing, but my utterance of “NO WAY!” was perhaps the loudest non-laughter I’ve ever let fly during a movie. It was just…I can’t believe they went there. Raimi and company were clearly out to throw one geek-out party.
Alas, the stunned applause was short-lived as we returned to horrific, deadly serious final battles. Caveats for those with youngsters: some of these moments are firmly not for all ages. When I returned to Twitter after our showing for the first time in a week, the highest-trending relevant topic was loud discussion about exactly where the boundaries of PG-13 really are today. Pretty cool of the MPAA to just move the fence whenever a multinational corporation glares at them hard enough.
After coasting his way through No Way Home as a nominative adult killjoy, like the grumpy dean of some hero college, Cumberbatch is challenged far more here — not just with variations on himself, but with Strange’s oddly specific lesson that’s uncommon to see tackled in ordinary popcorn films: the idea that With Great Power Should Also Come Great Delegation Because No One Can or Should Do Everything Themselves. For once the team-up isn’t just Marvel marketing overdrive; it’s a character-building exercise. In a humbling step for him, his egotistical self has to realize when it’s okay to let others bear some of that Great Responsibility. Eventually he also stops stepping on his costars’ lines, which means he’s capable of learning manners, too.
That’s as opposed to Wanda, who’s lost all hold on “responsibility” as she abuses her god-mode upgrade from Great Power to Absolute Power, and lives out what that does to a person. She forgets how well that went for Thanos. The end results may be rough going for ride-or-die Scarlet Witch fans who hoped that at least one Marvel heroine could maintain an unscathed MCU presence (here’s hoping next year’s The Marvels or the next few Disney+ shows will balance those scales), but Raimi’s efficiently exciting return to Spider-Man 2 levels of emotionally charged superheroism deliver something unexpected altogether that some of us had wished for but never thought would happen.
Raimi’s grand finale of a magic trick begins with The Turn (hey, look, same old MCU quippy explodo comfort zone!) and continues through The Pledge (Strange does the zappy-zappy, but also wild CG plus jaw-dropping fan-service!) only to yank away the carpet for The Prestige: Multiverse of Madness becomes, in its own peculiar yet dead-on way, a far more accurate riff on the Dark Phoenix Saga than either crappy X-film managed.
In those cases, each respective director conned themselves into believing one of Marvel’s all-time greatest comic epics, a storyline that took three years to build and pay off and break fandom hearts, could be crammed into a two-hour time frame. The full force of a story like that could only truly be accomplished through the long game of serialized storytelling. Props to Elizabeth Olsen for giving 125% to make it all work, to rather intense and terrifying effect as the grand finale approaches and no holds are barred.
(It might’ve added a little more gravitas if Raimi had made room to add the Vision’s new form that debuted at the end of WandaVision, whose whereabouts remain unknown as of this writing but whose reactions would’ve been invaluable. Start placing your bets on which MCU showcase he’ll pop into next.)
Meanwhile in the customary MCC film breakdowns:
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Returning faces from the first Doctor Strange include Rachel McAdams as Strange’s ex Christine, who’s promoted several ranks above Concerned Girlfriend to rewarding effect when Strange isn’t hogging her glory along with everyone else’s; his old boss Michael Stuhlbarg, who has one scene to remind us how much the Blip sucked for ordinary folks; and Chiwetel Ejiofor as a slightly new take on his old rival Mordo.
While still setting aside the Illuminati, returnees from other MCU chapters include Julian Hilliard and Jett Klyne as the WandaVision sons Billy and Tommy. Raimi fans can rest assured his old pal Bruce Campbell has a cameo, this time as a street vendor proudly pushing a Pizza Poppa cart and staunchly not giving out freebies to superheroes.
But wait! There’s more!
How about those end credits? To answer the burning question that MCC is always happy to verify: yes, there are indeed scenes during and after the Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness end credits. For those who tuned out prematurely and really want to know, and didn’t already click elsewhere…
[…insert space for courtesy spoiler alert in case anyone needs to abandon ship and would rather wait to fast-forward to the end of the eventual Disney+ premiere…]
…during the credits: a three-eyed Strange, weirdly at peace with his Darkhold side effect, is interrupted in his brisk walk by a white-haired, purple-garbed sorceress who appears from nowhere, upset that his multiversal shenanigans have sparked yet another incursion into an unsuspecting Earth. He triple-blinks before agreeing to tag along as she uses a magic sword to slice a portal to elsewhere, and away they go. Most likely this is Clea, who back in the day was Strange’s very first disciple, who came into her own in later years. And with that, we welcome Academy Award Winner Charlize Theron to the Marvel Cinematic Universe!
Meanwhile after the end credits: three weeks later on Earth-838, Pizza Poppa franchisee Bruce Campbell remains helpless before the might of his own bewitched hand, still punching away at him as a fun callback for Evil Dead fans who’ve seen those two fighting before. Then suddenly it stops. With joyous relief he realizes Strange’s cruel spell has passed and shouts at us, “IT’S OVER!”