A Review of “Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness”

Image of Dr. Strange toy, used under Creative Commons

These are different times.

As much as I love superhero mythologies and as much as I could talk about them forever, it seems out of step that it’s taking me this long to write a review about a movie that opened nearly a month ago. Before the world broke, I wrote about these films on opening weekend because we had scheduled everything else around seeing them. For the last two years, it’s been rare for me to sit in a theatre (the last time was Back Widow), and writing out my thoughts has seemed…less important. So, seeing this in person was a mark of returning normalcy. Given how late I am in writing this, though, I’m not going to avoid spoilers.

First off, let me say that there are some prerequisites for this film. If you’ve been following the Disney + series, and have seen Spider-Man: No Way Home, you should be good. In case you haven’t though, you should (in order) watch WandaVision, What If?, Loki, and Spider-Man. Otherwise, this might not make much sense to you, because the last time you saw Wanda Maximoff, she would not have been the villain.

Yes, you read that correctly.

What slapped me in the face for this movie is that everything that you thought you knew from the trailer is turned on its head in the first 15 minutes. Dr. Strange made some difficult decisions in order to defeat Thanos, and those choices introduced even more loss for Wanda. We saw her grief overtake her in WandaVision, walked through that grief with her, and when we last saw Wanda, she was growing into her own abilities by entertaining the Darkhold. Remember that Wanda is a Scarlet Witch, a wielder of chaos magic, and, as such, has become an incredibly powerful being almost overnight. Also remember that the Darkhold corrupts those who read it. Here we discover that she has learned of the multiverse, and is searching for a way to bring her children into the universe we know as canonical in the MCU (numbered 616). Moreso than when we left the end of WandaVision, we discover the Scarlet Witch quite literally mad with grief.

As an aside, I think a good deal of inspiration for this plot was taken from the Avengers: Disassembled story arc, if you’re familiar with the source material.

For the geeks among us, we also find that the MCU is differentiating heavily between sorcery and witchcraft. Wong confirms that a Scarlet Witch is a being of unspeakable power, who can re-write reality at will. In Avengers: Disassembled, Dr. Strange points out that Wanda, as a mutant, had an enormous amount of magical power thrust onto her without ever learning the discipline necessary to control it. Of course, we haven’t been able to have mutants in the MCU until now because lawyers, but it provides interesting context.

That said, what Marvel seems to be doing here is finding a creative way to bring in not only popular previous films (i.e.: other Spider-Man incarnations), but also to explain why we haven’t had mutants to begin with now that the legal walls in the real world seem to be coming down (hence, we see Charles Xavier in this film). There are simply different universes in the multiverse, and we now know that there can be potential incursions from one to the other due not only to the magic wielded in this movie, but also by the actions of Kang in the Loki series. I think the viewers stand to see a lot more variety due to this.

The visual effects in this movie are nothing short of spectacular, particularly the initial action sequence in which Dr. Strange is fighting a monster rampaging through the city, as well as later jumping between universes. Also, introducing Professor X and Mr. Fantastic into the MCU was accomplished so unexpectedly and almost with a backward wave that the viewer is left in a sort of stunned silence. I want to re-watch the movie now because I’m certain I missed something important here as I was processing what I had just seen.

What I found to be the most thought-provoking part of the story of this second installment of Dr. Strange is watching how other heroes interact with Stephen Strange. As he makes continued, apparently callous decisions in an effort to preserve countless lives across universes (similar to what we saw in Spider-Man: No Way Home), his actions have enormous consequences on his fellow heroes. While Peter Parker rejects this outright and fights to save as many people as he can in the previous film, Wanda turns inward, propelled by grief, holding Dr. Strange responsible for the death of Vision and the loss of her children, and lashing out with violence.

Speaking of violence, there’s a good deal of it in this movie…more than in previous Marvel films, which, while not enough to be off-putting, was enough that I noticed. I haven’t found Disney to be interested in gore in any way, but some scenes of this movie manage to get close.

There are definitely things that I dislike about the film, though, and one of them is the ending. Dr. Strange turns to dark magic, in fact to the Darkhold, using necromancy to win the battle in the end. And, while Wanda ultimately sees the error of her choices and chooses to sacrifice herself for the greater good as a hero, I’m concerned by watching heroes cross the line into dark choices and leaving the audience with the impression that this is a heroic decision. I found this part of the plot disappointing, as Dr. Strange defies the nature of a hero. I also feel like Wanda’s sacrifice happened so quickly that it’s almost missed. I didn’t truly unpack the emotional ramifications of that scene until days later, and, while few characters really die in the comics, I still grieve over the end of a tragic character we’ve grown to sympathize with so deeply.

Overall, I was impressed by Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, even though I wish the ending had been handled better. This takes the story in the only direction it could truly go as the MCU continues to reinvent itself after the Snap, and we see the character development here that keeps us returning to these movies. This is definitely a movie worth seeing, and I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Image attribution: Luka Zou under Creative Commons.

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