Doctor Strange 2 Is Fun, Frightening and Possibly Family-Unfriendly
The Marvel Cinematic Universe was born in 2008, when Robert Downey, Jr. first donned the Iron-Man suit and forever changed the game for blockbuster franchises. By now, most of the kids that parents took to the movies to see Iron-Man and every Marvel film thereafter are adults, and a few of them might even be parents themselves. How appropriate, then, that the MCU’s latest, which was released in the U.S. during Mother’s Day weekend, is like a child that’s all grown up. Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness is the MCU’s darkest, most mature film yet and, in many ways, an ode to mothers.
Wandavision on Disney+ was one of the most remarkable and unique television shows ever made and while it’s quite possible to wade through this sequel to 2016’s Doctor Strange without having to watch the series, it gives context to everything that happens. Not only that, Wandavision is such a treat in itself that if you haven’t watched it yet, you are missing out on some truly creative, groundbreaking television. That said, viewers who aren’t updated on the MCU might be caught by surprise when they find out that—minor spoiler—Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) is the main villain of the film.
At the end of Wandavision, Wanda is in grief after losing her made-up family and has gotten hold of the Darkhold (or is it the other way around?), the ultimate book of wicked spells and incantations that has given her some really, really bad ideas. This isn’t the Wanda we knew from Avengers Endgame; Disney needed a mini-series to explain her villainous turn, but the overarching story of the MCU is richer because of it.
Spider-Man: No Way Home tore open the fabric of the multiverse and brought in the Spider-Men from pre-MCU films, and Doctor Strange comes full circle by employing director Sam Raimi, with whom MCU chief architect Kevin Feige worked with as a junior producer in 2002’s Spider-Man.
The maturity of the MCU is on full display with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness by allowing Raimi free rein to infuse his signature horror elements into the film. As much as the film is an ode to mothers, it’s also a pretty scary one that might be too much for younger kids to handle. The MCU feels like it’s growing with its audience, and Disney feels braver than it’s ever been with the inclusion of new character America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a lesbian Latina in the comics whose two moms appear on the big screen. Even though the sequence in the film lasts for less than a minute, it feels like a win for the LGBTQ+ community in the same year that Dumbledore from the Harry Potter universe comes out as canonically gay.
Doctor Strange starts out feeling like every other Marvel film, with the flashy action sequences and effects-laden fight scenes but it’s when the film takes a turn for the macabre and Raimi’s signature style emerges that the film truly comes into its own. And because this is the multiverse, viewers who have seen the animated series What If? on Disney+ will recognize many of the elements and characters that appear. If Spider-Man: No Way Home felt like a lot of fan service, Doctor Strange 2 ups the ante with a full-on field trip across the Multiverse. The low-key background music—appropriately scored by none other than Danny Elfman—accompanying one cameo is so distinct that fans will absolutely go bananas. Raimi fans should also expect a Bruce Campbell cameo because it wouldn’t truly be a Raimi film without one, would it?
More than past MCU films, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness leans heavily on story seeds planted in media outside of the film itself. It’s this transmedia storytelling that is both the MCU’s greatest strength and its glaring weakness. The full experience of the film simply isn’t complete without having watched Wandavision and, to a lesser degree, key episodes of What If? By itself, the film might leave some viewers with questions and arguably even feel somewhat contrived. Augmented with other stories, however, Wanda becomes the MCU’s most sympathetic villain to date; a mother who only wants to be reunited with her children.
The children aren’t real, Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) reminds Wanda. “You created them with magic.”
“That’s what every mother does,” Wanda answers plainly.
It might be the most powerful line in the film, and it encapsulates what Disney has done with the MCU. Disney gave birth to the MCU with magic (and millions of dollars) and 14 years in, it’s growing up beautifully. More and more, MCU films feel like they’re lightly stepping away from calculated, curated homogeneity and into the realm of auteurship. Anti-superhero film sentiments from directors like Francis Ford Coppola and James Cameron start to hold less and less water when directors like Chloe Zhao (Eternals), Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok and the upcoming Thor: Love and Thunder) are allowed to put their stamp on MCU films.
Wanda’s focus on her children isn’t new. It’s a central plot in the comics and her trauma from it as well as her relationship with Vision has led to some reality-shattering moments. To see Wanda’s grief translate to film, with the help of Wandavision, is genuinely heartbreaking. No other character has had the benefit of multiple movies and a mini-series to build them up, so Wanda is the most sympathetic and relatable MCU villain yet.
Make no mistake, though, the Scarlet Witch is absolutely terrifying. There’s a gruesome body count in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness that sets it apart from other MCU films. The MCU was never strictly for kids, no matter what the merchandising says, but Raimi’s bloody touch truly makes it in a league of its own, especially since only Raimi can meld hilarity with the horrific.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a tremendously fun, at times frightening, and possibly family-unfriendly chapter in the MCU that closes the (spell)book on some stories while, expectedly, opening up gateways to others. Perhaps the only legitimate criticism is that it probably should’ve been titled Scarlet Witch in the Multiverse of Madness because Doctor Strange feels like a cameo in his own film. Elizabeth Olsen, who won numerous accolades for her performance in Wandavision, brings her considerable award-winning energy to the film and overshadows everyone. There’s a mid-credits scene that is tied to the MCU and a post-credits stinger that isn’t required viewing (for anyone except diehard Raimi fans).