The Marvel Cinematic Universe is busier than it’s ever been — to the extent that even the diehard fans need to pause a little and revisit the Marvel lore from the past decade. A new superhero is served to us every month, packed with heavy exposition of laws and new concepts that need Google search before you can get the hang of it. There’s so much happening that it’s exhausting to try and keep up at times. Sigh, where are the simpler days of Iron Man and Black Panther where you could just focus on the story at hand and not be dragged off into confusing alternate universes at a frenzied pace as if Vin Diesel’s at the wheel?
After the explosion of the multiverse in Spider-Man: No Way Home, which was essentially a fan service to bring in all the three Spideys from the different franchises, we’re back with the multiverse in Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness, and it’s exactly what the title promises: It’s madness. The madness and chaos is very much there, as you would expect from a Sam Raimi film. He pulls off all the tricks from the Sam Raimi book to bring out the undead thrills, symphony battles, goofs, and horror jump scares. I won’t deny that I was far more involved in this film, more so than I had been during Spider-Man: No Way Home, owing to the grisly twists and sheer breathlessness of the spectacle. Yet, it’s the feeling when you get off a dizzying rollercoaster ride — you begin to process the film and realise — Marvel’s made a mess out of the multiverse.
The madness of cameos
To paraphrase Spider-Man, with infinite universes comes infinite responsibility. The joy of the concept of the multiverse is to see what would have happened had a particular character made, or not made a particular choice, something that the delightful What If had encapsulated. In the last two films, it’s now a poor excuse for celebrity cameos, just to induce gasps. Yes, we’ll hoot and cheer — but could we have a fleshed-out story please? Instead, we are taken through different universes at debilitating speed and have to watch Strange and America underwater, then become cartoon characters and then find themselves in a world where ‘red’ means go for traffic. That’s as deep as it goes. Oh, and a pizza roll.
In Spider-Man: No Way Home, for some reason, Doctor Strange decided to mess with the timelines and help out a distraught Peter Parker and opened up the Multiverse. Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock, Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin, Sandman, along with several others from the much-cursed Andrew Garfield franchise burst forth. After the first few gasps of excitement, I began to wonder where the story was exactly going. The annoyance was compounded after Peter Parker decided to take the moral high ground and ‘help’ the villains. After that completely blew up in his face, we exchanged another few gasps and hooted as Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire showed up. The three Spideys discussed their love lives with respective MJ’s, fought in a grand scene, and Tobey Maguire almost got skewered, but recovered quickly enough, so no harm done. The cameos were great, but the story was negligible and faltered and the final conclusion made no sense as now no one knows who Peter Parker or Spider-Man is. It’s the old amnesia trick, but Marvel-esque.
In Doctor Strange, we’re dropped right in the middle of chaos, within the first ten minutes itself. It has Defender Strange and multiverse-hopping teenager America Chevez racing towards the Book Of Vishanti as monster tries to ravage them. It’s not the Strange we know, and he dies anyway, just in case we got slightly invested in this character. Back to the Doctor Strange and the world we know, he realises he needs to stop moping for his ex-girlfriend Christine and go save America, as the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) is on a rampage and demands her power so she can fuse with the Wanda Maximoff from another universe. That Wanda is the mother to two children, Tommy and Billy — she possesses a semblance of a happy life that the Scarlet Witch doesn’t have. After several sky-high battles and the destruction of Kamar-Taj, Strange and America hop into hastily sketched out universes and all we find out that in each universe, he and Christine don’t have a happy ending.
And then, we meet the Illuminati — a group of superheroes who become roadkill for Scarlet Witch in seconds. Patrick Stewart’s wise Professor Xavier emerges, only to expound the same logic that he has been repeating throughout the X-Men franchise—helping a person who has gone astray. There’s John Krasinski too, and I’m sorry I couldn’t help but giggle, because I was unable to take him seriously. I suddenly felt as if I was watching a Saturday Night Live sketch. There’s Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter and she battles with Scarlet Witch only to be incinerated too. How can I not believe that her scene was written in just so that we could hear the words, ‘I can do this all day?’ I mean, a couple of minutes after that Wanda annihilates her. I really want to believe that this version of Illuminati was not cast by fans, but the film didn’t do a great job of convincing me otherwise.
In the film’s credits we see Charlize Theron, who takes Doctor Strange on another adventure. Sure, why not. Might as well have introduced Tom Cruise’s Superior Iron Man too.
After the events of WandaVision (You need to watch that first to understand this film), Wanda has embraced her evil persona. She wants America because she sees her as a human portal to a universe where she can be a mother to her children, Tommy and Billie. Laid bare, Wanda has turned evil because she only wants her kids and this consuming desire destroys her from inside and she is ready to murder everyone in her path for this ambition. This is a woman who can bend reality and the mind by the way, and here she is, going insane without her children. It feels like Marvel leaned well into the ‘crazy ex-girlfriend narrative’ and went to town with it.
To be fair, it’s Wanda’s fate in the comics—a woman constantly doing terrible things because she wants her children back. I had hoped that it’s 2022 and we might see something less reductive? If the MCU can cherry-pick other storylines and reinvent male personalities, couldn’t they be a little fairer to Scarlet Witch?
Olsen’s performance is raw and brutal for sure, she does what she can with a character that is so thinly written. Marvel has convinced itself that they can write women well now, and the consolation prizes are Captain Marvel and Black Widow, where women front a film after a decade. However, as Scarlet Witch blazes through the film in a haze of red looking for her children, I was uncomfortably reminded about Black Widow, where the women were sterilized—and it was even more discomfiting when Florence Pugh explained the process in a deadpan manner that was clearly written for laughs.
If this is the fate of the main lead, what can be expected from the tacked-on love interests? Marvel has never bothered much with the love interests of the superheroes—from Pepper Potts to Peggy Carter. Peggy had a little more spunk than Pepper, who remained vaguely on the sidelines except to plead a little or be used as blackmail or to finally tell Iron Man to die peacefully.
However, no one is as bland as Christine Palmer in the Doctor Strange sequel, whose main job is to roll her eyes and to inform Strange that they don’t have a future in any universe. It’s a cruel disservice to Rachel McAdams and her craft. It’s as if Christine was written just so that fans could feel that Strange has a heart. She has little or no emotion towards Strange in this film, who seems to go weak-kneed every time he recalls a memory or sees her. I tried to feel some emotion at Strange’s dialogue, “I have loved you in every universe”, but I realised that I had hardly any investment in the love story or even Christine for that matter.
America Chevez, who by the way is Latina in the comics, is just a very confused and bland teenager, despite the whole film hinging on her powers. We get a glimmer of her backstory—-but like everything else in the film, it all moves too fast.
There is so much potential with the concept of multiverse — so many possibilities — but it all gets mowed like Scarlet Witch’s victims down in the face of crazed fan service.