Is Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness ‘Too Scary?’

There’s a growing criticism among fans that Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is “too scary.” Weird.

Doctor Strange Zombie in Multiverse of Madness
Photo: Marvel Studios

This article contains groovy Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness spoilers.

Criticism of Marvel Studios movies is not a new phenomenon. Despite their pictures generally receiving solid marks from a plurality of critics almost every outing—at least as judged by the simple up/down metric of Rotten Tomatoes—there’s always a loud contingent of detractors whose grievances should be familiar by now: a visual and narrative uniformity; a lack of stylistic variation; an overreliance on blue screen and CGI; and where is the authorial voice?

So seeing the inversion of that around Sam Raimi’s gleefully distinct and stylish Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is kind of wild. Now, the elements which feel decidedly handcrafted by the director’s authorial sensibility— smatterings of Gothic horror, demons, and a faint mean-spiritedness—seem to be the biggest issue for a large segment of viewers.

No less than industry trade Variety published a column this weekend in which a senior editor pondered whether Marvel “cast a spell” over the MPA to convince them not to give Doctor Strange 2 an R-rating due to its onscreen sorcery. The piece goes on to advise most parents to not let their children see the superhero extravaganza. Meanwhile more than one tweet over the weekend has suggested that such an experience as this new Marvel movie could be inflicting a form of trauma on our youth.

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Based on this level of discourse, one might ponder whether Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige somehow let Raimi sneak in sequences of chainsaw mutilation and lascivious trees from his first few Evil Dead films. But having seen Doctor Strange in the Multiverse with my own eyes, the actual truth is more benign.

Despite Feige and Raimi both teasing that their new flick is Marvel’s first “horror movie,” it is more of the studio’s first film with horror seasoning. There are images of the Souls of the Damned here—brought to life with all the same visual depravity as decorations in a Halloween store—and a Zombified Doctor Strange there, one who is treated as friendly and benevolent, not unlike something out of Disney’s own Hocus Pocus.

Really it’s just one sequence that seems to be getting to some adults, and presumably young children, and admittedly it’s a moment where Marvel indulges in uncharacteristically dark imagery: a possessed Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) uses her Scarlet Witch abilities to crush the head of a superhero named Black Bolt (Anson Mount) like a grape. She then splits Captain Carter (Hayley Atwell) in half before finally coming out of a red mist to snap the neck of Professor X (Patrick Stewart) in a jump scare that actually does feel like a bit from Evil Dead II, if more sanitized.

Are these sequences too scary for young children? That is really up to each parent to decide based on their own judgment of a child’s development and sensitivity toward media. Personally, I’d hesitate to suggest children under 10 should see this movie. With that said, the Motion Picture Association (MPA) has already drawn a bright red line around that with the movie’s PG-13 rating, including with the handy-dandy warning that the picture features “intense sequences of violence and action, frightening images, and some language.”

That is a pretty fair description of the film’s content, as well as a decent warning to parents on whether or not they should let children under the age of 13 see Doctor Strange 2. Granted, all Marvel movies have received a PG-13 rating to date, and parents have relied on them to be all-ages entertainment. But that may say more about the current commercial desire by studios who need a PG-13 rating to better sell their kids movies than it does about whether Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness should be rated R and considered unsuitable for even 15 year olds.

In truth, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is not an R-rated film; it’s the exact type of movie the PG-13 rating was invented for in the first place.

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The Original PG-13 Movie with Human Sacrifice

When Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom opened in theaters in 1984, it had a PG rating, just as its predecessor Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) did, as well as every other previous Spielberg movie. But this was a time when the American ratings system—implemented by the then-MPAA—had only three ratings: “PG,” “R,” and “X” (the equivalent of today’s NC-17).

As with Jaws (1975) and Raiders before it, Spielberg intended Temple of Doom to be accessible for a broad all-ages audience, even giving Harrison Ford’s archaeologist hero a young child sidekick named Short Round (Ke Huy Quan). But whether by intent or subconscious, he and producer George Lucas felt emboldened to get a little meaner than even those films. In Temple of Doom’s first scene, Dr. Jones impales a man at a nightclub with a flaming skewer, which Spielberg revels in with pulpish delight. Later in the picture, Jones and Short Round witness no less than a ritualistic human sacrifice where the leader of an Indian cult (Amrish Puri) removes the beating heart of a victim who is then lowered into a pit of fire. A hypnotized Indy later attempts to do the same thing to the movie’s love interest (Kate Capshaw) while Short Round is consigned to child slavery, including with whippings, by the film’s villains. 

Those were bleak elements, bleaker I’d dare say than anything in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. And Spielberg realized this too after he received enough complaints. He thus personally suggested to the MPAA that they create a rating between “PG” and “R.” Two months after Temple of Doom’s release, the picture received the first PG-13 rating, the United States’ semi-equivalent of the “12” in the UK. (It was not until 2002 that the UK launched the 12A, which allowed those under 12 to see those movies if accompanied by a guardian, a la PG-13.)

PG Is Scary Enough

In retrospect, many of the “PG” films released before Temple of Doom would’ve been given a PG-13 in a different era: Spielberg’s aforementioned Raiders and Jaws, certainly, but surely the cursing, “scary” scenes, and sex jokes in the original Ghostbusters (also 1984) would’ve slapped that with a PG-13 today. And I’m sure more than a few parents (and kids) were unsettled by the tunnel of terror scene in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971), another movie for all-ages that dabbles in horror imagery.

On the flip-side, however, there are many movies even after the invention of the PG-13 that probably should be PG. Because even in the late 1980s and into the ‘90s, a PG rating used to be a bit more robust, allowing space for “darker” themes in films that were still generally considered socially acceptable for children to see.

Groundhog Day (1994) features a foul-mouthed narcissist who discovers he’s in a time-loop and uses it to first seduce women into bed and then (out of desperation) attempts suicide in a variety of darkly humorous set-pieces. That movie is rated PG. Back to the Future (1985) begins with Christopher Lloyd’s lovable Doc Brown being gunned down by terrorists before dealing with story elements about underage drinking and premarital sex in high school. Also PG. And long before Marvel Studios, director Tim Burton built the entire Hot Topic ideal by marrying horror elements into family-friendly entertainment.

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As a young child, when I saw Beetlejuice (1988) on cable television, it scared me in portions despite being a family movie with a “PG” rating. The opening credits are barely over when the movie’s protagonists (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) die tragically in a car crash. They then spend the rest of the movie as ghosts in a not-so-enchanted or Disneyfied afterlife. Rather it’s a netherworld filled with ghoulishly designed corpses and creatures that are often (again) gags about suicides and civil servants. Even the movie’s titular character is a literal demon played by Michael Keaton; the ghost with the most who enjoys killing the living, including an attempt on the father of the film’s other protagonist, a teenage girl named Lydia (Winona Ryder).

That movie both scared me as a child… and thrilled me because it was a benignly “supernatural” world that was less horror than a tongue-in-cheek comedy with Halloween flourishes. As I got older, I learned to appreciate the humor in the lead characters’ death scenes, and how they’re left to die by the dog they swerved to avoid. There’s also a macabre mischief in Beetlejuice having the wedding ring still attached to the finger (and nothing else) of his last wife as he tries to pressure Ryder into marriage (oh yeah, child brides are also a thing in 1988 family movies!).

I can tell similar stories about the first time I saw Jaws, Jurassic Park, or even Ghostbusters. Just as with the horror of seeing Mufasa die in the PG-rated The Lion King, the terror being experienced vicariously in a film was as exciting as it was lightly harrowing. 

Psychological research has long suggested the catharsis from being “scared” by media in a space where the viewer feels safe can actually relieve anxiety or stress instead of inflicting it. Of course child psychology, and what an individual child is capable of handling without feeling genuinely disturbed at their current age, is different. And it’s up to the parent to determine what’s best on their own. Hence the guidance of a PG-13 (or 12A) rating.

The Marvel PG-13

Bringing it back to Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, it is interesting how expectations have changed over the last decade. Ever since Iron Man in 2008, Marvel movies have enjoyed only PG-13 ratings. Some have fairly earned that caution. Others, however, might seem to have it just as much because cultural norms have changed in the 21st century with blockbuster entertainment (save for animated movies) being exclusively PG-13. One of the last major franchised blockbusters in live-action to have a “PG” was Star Wars: Attack of the Clones in 2002, and honestly there is nothing in Ant-Man (2015) or its sequel that is half as edgy as that. Perhaps that’s why the film lets Michael Douglas drop the word “shit” in its final moments, which ensured the picture was PG-13?

Studios have a vested interest in appealing to audience perceptions by earning nominal PG-13 ratings for their four-quadrant movies. And as those types of four-quadrant films become virtually the only family entertainment released by major studios in live-action after the death of mid-budget family films (along with all other movies in that price range), it creates a strange confusion over what is innocuous and what is insidious.

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There is nothing in Multiverse of Madness that’s demonstrably scarier or more violent than Temple of Doom. Frankly, there’s little in it scarier than Raimi’s first superhero movie from 20 years ago, Spider-Man. The violent sequence where Peggy Carter is bisected by a shield? It’s visually tamer than when the Green Goblin is impaled by his own glider in Spider-Man. In both movies, we have an extreme close-up insert shot of the victim realizing they’re about to die, but in Spider-Man Raimi was still allowed to linger on the (minimal) blood on the glider’s blades, and as it pooled around Willem Dafoe’s mouth as we watched him writhe in pain.

No one complained in 2002, because it was demonstrably “scarier” than Attack of the Clones from the same summer, but still on par for children who were raised at home on images of a lawyer being swallowed whole by a Tyrannosaurus rex.

For some reason, expectations have shifted. But in a world where a movie as genuinely violent and oppressive as The Batman gets a PG-13, does Doctor Strange 2 need to be R? Absolutely not.

Folks, we don’t need to be so scared all the time.