Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022)

I’m glad I finally watched Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.

I’d read some critics saying that this movie lumbered under the weight of its exposition. I’d heard from fan-friends that they really liked it. I can see the critics’ critique, but I’m pretty firmly in the second camp.

First off, the exposition involved did not surprise me. Marvel has a lot of work to do with introducing its multiverse stories, and MoMadness was their opening cinematic entry for that.

See, Marvel is clearly planning more multiversal cinematic adventures. They’ve been tying multiverse elements into many of their stories lately, leaning into the weirdness even as they use the multiverse to pull together the most poignant story threads they can get their hands on. They’re probably going to slip up and fall on their face at some point—they can’t all be winners—but so far they’ve done pretty well.

Spider-Man: No Way Home worked magnificently on this front. It also featured Dr. Strange, and multiverse shenanigans, but my guess is that Marvel wanted another movie that more fully focused on the multiverse… and which was completely within their owned IP, instead of being in awkward joint custody with Sony. Aside from all that, I think MoMadness is establishing building blocks for the next set of Big Threats and Consequences for the current MCU arc (while No Way Home was more focused on Spider-Man). After Angry Purple Man 1 & 2 and Thanos’ threats to “all life,” Marvel’s writers are probably trying to up the ante for their next big showdown and multiverse threats to existence as we know it are a solid escalation. Threatening existence itself is also a little bit like jumping the shark, but that’s comics baby.

Now, if you didn’t watch the Loki TV series, or weren’t already familiar with a multiverse as a concept, or didn’t know Marvel’s extensive history of playing with multiverse storylines in their comics, I can see how this movie might feel a little off the wall or rushed in its exposition. But as someone who was familiar with all of those things, I had an excellent time. I actually liked the way they leapt from one thing to the next without spending a whole lot of time building up the how and the why. Among other things, it kept the movie moving (heh) and let Sam Raimi shine with the horror elements he knows so well.

I also see Marvel’s embrace of the multiverse as a way for Marvel to play around with extremely weird or unanticipated story and character ideas. When you have infinite parallel-ish existences, you can wring each one for all the emotional content it’s worth, and then only keep the ones that you like most. If a character dies in one storyline, that’s no reason they can’t some back (with some slightly different emotional baggage) in another storyline. Writers can borrow them from another dimension for an afternoon, after all. This way, one character’s experience of their single life can be grown in new directions (giving the audience context for the character’s emotional world) and then rewritten without necessarily discarding all the emotional development.

This, of course, is going to open Marvel up to screwing the pooch even more thoroughly in their next big ensemble movies. I wasn’t a big fan of Angry Purple Man 1 or 2. Much of my distaste for those movies—even when I loved elements of them—came from the way in which they didn’t give time for (or maintain continuity with) the characters’ emotional development in their preceding individual movies. Juggling so many different storylines across multiple universes is only going to make that more difficult.

On the topic of character development though…

I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry about this movie’s choices. Both, maybe? I like what it does for Dr. Strange. Plus, I really like Wanda Maximoff’s journey—and have reservations about it at the same time. Dr. Strange first, because his experience is simpler.

A little context: in many ways, watching Dr. Strange die repeatedly at the end of his first movie was so fun for me because he’s such a prick. And seeing him gradually become less of a prick over the course of that movie feels good. In that moment near the end, as he’s dying repeatedly, no one else can see his sacrifice. No one else sees him suffering through an eternity of painful deaths in order to negotiate with an impossible force. He’s given a chance to grow as a person even as he pulls a really neat (and frankly torturous) trick in order to save the world.

So for me, Dr. Strange movies have this double appeal: I can see an asshole get what’s coming to him, and I can see that same asshat become a (marginally) better person while growing into his role as a hero. What’s not to love?

MoMadness continues that tradition. Dr. Strange learns from his own (and his other selves’) mistakes. This is one of those places where the multiverse concept really shines: it’s possible for someone to recognize things in themselves that they weren’t ready to see, as they are confronted by their other selves. Dr. Strange may be full of himself and a control freak, but he’s not an idiot. Seeing him come to care for others and be there for them (instead of being there for them for himself, because it gives him a chance to play the savior and build a heroic image of himself) is really sweet. I might actually want to watch this movie again just to appreciate the ways in which it delivers on that personal growth.

Sadly, all that growth also makes me dread what may come in the next big cinematic combo event. If it’s anything like the last one, the individual characters will probably be shortchanged and their growth over the previous films won’t make it fully formed into the movie. Or maybe Marvel will surprise me, but I won’t hold my breath.

All of which brings me to Wanda Maximoff / Scarlet Witch.

Her personal arc is awesome, honestly. It retraces some of her development in WandaVision, which is unfortunate but understandable given that the movie doesn’t assume viewers are current with the TV shows. Despite that, I love how the multiverse works in such similar ways for both Wanda and Strange here. Each has a chance to confront the lives and choices of their other selves—and to be confronted by those things in turn, peeling back the lies and illusions they hold dear.

It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, but to get into the weeds I’ll have to share some *SPOILERS* about Scarlet Witch.

I’m not happy about Scarlet Witch (apparently) killing herself. After how Marvel killed off Black Widow, and the very real problem with the poverty of representation in these stories (see also my review of Soul), having Scarlet Witch kill herself too leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It’s a bad look, Marvel.

On the other hand, this time it made sense. Wanda Maximoff was a tortured soul by the end of WandaVision (much as she was at the start of it). This movie established firmly that she was still in a very bad place, and was busy digging deeper into a magic book that the movie explicitly established as being extremely bad news. But where Black Widow died in a way that felt cheap and senseless (and was arguably fridging), this movie gave Scarlet Witch a chance to have a rich (and painful) emotional arc that ended in death.

She pursues her obsession beyond the ends of the Earth, and is ultimately confronted (while reaching closure with herself and with her family in a way that felt brilliant) by the consequences of her choices up to that point. That drive, that confrontation, and that closure were all good. Those scenes with herself and her boys were heart-wrenching. Given all the choices she’d made leading up to those moments, and the way she’d lied to herself while also digging deep into the evil evil magic book of evil, her choosing to kill herself and destroy the physical manifestation of those dangerous spells actually feels meaningful.

It doesn’t resolve the issue of those spells (presumably) existing in other universes in similar locales, but it makes narrative sense. And it doesn’t feel like the writers just offed a female character to give a male one some new emotional trauma. But while this was definitely a better course than Marvel took with Black Widow—I didn’t feel like Wanda was being shortchanged here.—that doesn’t make me excited about the Scarlet Witch dying.

Having said that, I doubt it’ll stick. Given the increasing importance of multiverse-shenanigans, I suspect Wanda will return to a future storyline as a multiverse-self. Alternate-Wanda presumably won’t stick around, but her character won’t simply be gone.

*END SPOILERS*

Okay.

There’s even more I want to talk about.

I’d love to dig into the ways in which MoMadness functions as a horror movie, but at this point it’ll have to be short. You can easily see the ways Sam Raimi digs into his long experience with making horror movies: the movements of pursuers, the deaths, the moments of disquieting revelation, the occasional weird and awful and maybe a little funny gore and body horror. It’s all present.

We’re even treated to Bruce Campbell! His cameo (and his after-credit scene) are delightful, and offer a nod to Raimi’s Evil Dead series that presages some of the horror elements still to come. It’s a good little bit of bonus fun.

But in conclusion, yes, I liked the movie. It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, but it was good. I hope you can enjoy it too.