[Editor’s note: The following post contains spoilers for “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.”]
More like the Marvel Cinematic Multiverse. As the ever-expanding cinematic franchise has grown over the past 15 years (to date: 28 films, 17 TV series, plus many more in development), such rapid evolution has required some big swings. While the first three “phases” of Marvel’s moviemaking all led up to a massive showdown with iconic baddie Thanos, with that battle behind them, it’s time for things to get a bit weirder and woolier.
Enter: the multiverse. While the concept of the multiverse — to wit, a hypothetical group of multiple universes with some similarities and some very big differences — has been part of MCU storytelling throughout recent offerings (see: “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” the “Loki” series), Sam Raimi’s “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” goes whole hog on the idea. It’s right there in the title!
The new film, released last week, sees Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and a variety of compatriots (including returning stars Benedict Wong and Rachel McAdams, plus newbie Xochitl Gomez) tripping through various universes in order to stop Wanda AKA Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) from carrying out a nefarious (but also heartbreaking) plan that would see her taking up residence in a whole other universe (a bad thing). Along the way, Strange and his pals encounter other versions of themselves, their loved ones, their entire world.
They also meet some classic Marvel characters — including tweaked versions of some superheroes we already “know” in the context of the MCU, plus a few fan favorites who have only been rumored to be entering the franchise — which implies the existence of such stars throughout a variety of different universes. It’s a little brain-bending, sure, but it’s also the best way Marvel can open up a series that seemed to get a bit too small by the end of that Thanos-centric battle.
For “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” screenwriter (and “Loki” creator) Michael Waldron, it’s also the best way to get a little nutty. The nuttiest part of all: that introduction of a group of Marvel all-stars referred to as “The Illuminati” in an alternate universe Strange visits while on his quest to save the entire multiverse.
Courtesy of Marvel Studios
“It felt like a way to really explore the madness of the multiverse,” Waldron told IndieWire during a recent interview. “It felt like the biggest swing I could possibly take in my first draft and almost the sort of thing of like, ‘Alright, first draft, you can really fire all your bullets and they’ll tell you to pull back and then shockingly, maybe it makes its way in the movie.'”
[One more time: Spoilers ahead for “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.”]
When Strange and new pal America Chavez (Bravo) arrive on another Earth (for those really keeping track, the Earth we know best in the current MCU is “Earth-616,” a lot of the action of the new film takes place on “Earth-838”), the sorcerer is surprised to run into his old foe Baron Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Bigger surprise: in this universe, they’re great pals. Or are they?
Soon, Strange is forced to contend with a major influx of information, like that his Earth-838 counterpart is dead, hailed as a hero, and Mordo is now in charge. Not so fast! Mordo knows what this Strange is up to, and sadly, it reminds him of what really happened with his version of Strange, who also skipped through the multiverse and caused some real trouble. Yes, he’s dead, but he didn’t die a hero in battle, he was put down (somewhat willingly) by Earth-838’s version of The Avengers: The Illuminati.
The Illuminati includes some familiar-ish faces, like Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), who is introduced as Captain Carter (think of her as the Captain America of this universe), and Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), who is this universe’s Captain Marvel. Also on the scene: Reed Richards AKA Mister Fantastic (played by John Krasinski, who fans have long wanted cast in the role as the Fantastic Four leader), Black Bolt (Anson Mount as the Inhuman leader), and oh! yup, that’s X-Men icon Patrick Stewart, revisiting his beloved role as Professor X. It’s a murderer’s row, a combination of twists on current stars, new faves, and long-desired casting.
For Waldron, the lineup was a dream come true. “I would say they certainly represent the pie in the sky members,” he said. “I don’t even think in my wildest dreams, even in that first draft, where it’s like, do the craziest stuff possible, did I think we’d be able to do what we ended up doing in the movie. I think what we actually pulled off is crazier than what seemed possible.”
Courtesy of Marvel Studios
Was there anyone he wanted to include in The Illuminati but couldn’t? Waldron admitted, yes, though the reasons why some of those characters didn’t pan out are multi-faceted.
We “couldn’t [include them] or we decided for other reasons to go in different directions, [there was] actor availability,” Waldron said. “It’s all about, what’s the right alchemy of that team? That’s a tricky scene to write, because you have to kind of build in the history and dynamics of that Illuminati team in a relatively short amount of time and keep it interesting for the audience, but ultimately focused on Strange. It’s like, what’s the most compelling version of this team that’s true to who they are in the comics, but also represents a group of folks the fans would be excited to see?”
And while it was “thrilling” for Waldron to introduce characters that fans have long wanted to see (like Mister Fantastic) or to bring back old favorites (like Professor X), Waldron also enjoyed what came after that intro.
“You want to give them what they want and then maybe take it away,” he said. “And you want to try to deliver on expectations and also subvert expectations, if that’s possible. That feels like an exciting challenge in a movie as big as this one. That’s at least what we were trying to do.”
Speaking of “take it away,” boy, does he ever. Soon after Strange gets hip to what’s going on, Scarlet Witch arrives on the scene and handily dispatches this universe’s most formidable array of superheroes. She blows up Black Bolt’s head, turns Mister Fantastic into ribbons, smashes Captain Marvel with a statue, slices Captain Carter with her own shield, and snaps Professor X’s neck. Well, then!
“I wrote gruesome deaths because Sam Raimi was directing and I shocked Sam,” Waldron said. “Sam was like, ‘Can we do this?,’ and I was like, ‘You can. Because it’s you, I think we can.’ I felt a lot of freedom to go crazy in this movie because it was Sam, and because I know what he’s so great at and he would do it so well. I just gave him the building blocks and some of the specifics of how that stuff goes down, [but it] was straight out of his twisted mind.”
The deaths are shocking both in their existence (they killed Professor X?) and because they’re a fair bit bloodier than we’ve come to expect from Marvel films. And while the first act or so of “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” doesn’t quite hit those notes, that makes it feel even more shocking when they come. That was by design, Waldron said.
“It was always kind of designed that way, that like the first half or so, maybe is a little bit more of a traditional Marvel movie, and then the movie goes off the rails, as great horror movies maybe tend to,” Waldron said. “We tried to deliver on the shock, some of the camp, and some of the stuff that Sam is just so great at. I just became a student of his filmmaking and really learned so much from him and tried to give him something he could succeed with, he and our great cast.”
And while the film is rated PG-13 for “intense sequences of violence and action, frightening images, and some language,” a vocal coterie of fans and journalists have taken to the internet to decry how gruesome, gory, and scary it is. Waldron is pragmatic on all of that.
“I guess everybody has their own barometer for what’s OK and what they want to show their kids and everything, and I guess it’s up to us to be educated on what it is,” he said. “I know that I’m glad that I saw stuff that was scary and everything as a little kid. My mom showed me ‘Terminator 2’ when I was five. That’s probably why I’m a writer. That stuff that seems like it rides the line of whether or not it’s OK to watch it or not as a little kid, those are the movies that stay with you.”
Waldron added with a laugh, “It would be my hope that there’s some 10-year-olds out there watching this when maybe they shouldn’t, or they’re having to sneak to watch it. Those kids are probably going to grow up and make some awesome movies that we’re all going to enjoy several years from now.”
“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” is now playing in theaters.