This article contains major Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness spoilers. We have a spoiler free review here.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is many things: a trippy reality-bending visual spectacle, a surprisingly grotesque horror film, and a standard superhero sequel that ticks a series of necessary boxes in aid of the larger franchise machine (all topped off by a heaping dose of cameos, callbacks, and general fanservice aimed squarely at the most hardcore of fans). What it is not, however, is the story it was advertised as.
Following the success of WandaVision, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness leans pretty heavily into the idea that this is a continuation of the story of Wanda Maximoff as much as that of Stephen Strange, and its promotional materials certainly imply that what we’re about to watch is a team-up of sorts between the Avengers’ two most magical members. That it’s actually all a total fake-out, and the Scarlet Witch turns out to be the villain of the piece, a woman who spends the entire movie fanatically trying to murder a child in order to claim her powers, should have been an emotionally devastating gut-punch, and maybe it would have been, in a world where WandaVision didn’t exist. (Just kidding, no it wouldn’t. But at least the twist wouldn’t have felt like such an insult.)
Part of the promise inherent in the choice to dismantle the existing Marvel Television universe originally spread across multiple channels and streamers in favor of bringing the entire franchise together under one Disney+ roof was not only that it meant big-name film characters would find their way to the small screen, but that the MCU would become a true universe at last, with each piece building on and informing the others.
But beyond the existence of Wanda’s children, Speed and Wiccan—and Wanda’s badass Scarlet Witch costume—Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness essentially ignores WandaVision entirely. So much so that it often feels like the people involved in making the movie didn’t even watch the show.
Which, as it turns out, they mostly didn’t. According to a Rolling Stone interview, director Sam Raimi “just [saw] key moments of some episodes” that he “was told directly impact our storyline,” a fact which is both disappointing and maddening all at once. Did those key moments…not include the series finale?
Gone is the nuanced understanding of what Wanda has been forced to sacrifice in the name of the greater good, the show’s delicate depiction of grief and the emotional trauma it leaves behind, and its innate understanding that her desire for a family wasn’t about power, it was about peace. In its place is a sort of maternal madness, in which Wanda is essentially only defined by her desire to find some version, any version of her sons.
Equally erased are Wanda’s hard-won steps forward, mentally and emotionally speaking. Yes, in WandaVision she did something terrible in the name of her grief by mind-controlling a town, but she realized it was wrong and chose to undo it herself, with the full knowledge and understanding of the pain it would cause her to have to say goodbye to the family she made. That’s growth. And it’s something Multiverse of Madness conveniently chooses to ignore, essentially telling the exact same story again, just with a higher body count and a lot less personal agency (after all, in the film, Wanda’s also been corrupted by an evil magic book known as the Darkhold, so it’s not even clear how many of her choices are her own).
Instead of seeing a story that continued that journey, that allowed Wanda to move forward, to find a way out of her depression and a new purpose for the life she still has to live, we got one in which Marvel’s best and most nuanced depiction of trauma is abandoned in favor of a fairly generic supervillain origin story, just one with deeply creepy undertones about motherhood and female emotion.
It’s clearly not an accident that her sudden obsession with motherhood reads a lot like a depiction of “female hysteria”, but it is disappointing in the year of our Lord 2022, after decades of commentary on the myriad and various ways that the comics these films are based on have done Wanda dirty in this same specific way. Turning a popular female character’s nuanced emotional state into what is essentially a form of “womb madness” reads like nothing so much as an insult to every female fan sitting in the multiplex.
Yes, it’s true that no person experiences grief in a straight line, and it’s certainly possible that an emotional Wanda might have become dangerously obsessed with the prospect of reclaiming her lost sons. But Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness does zero work to earn that transition or to show us how the Wanda who tearfully bid goodbye to Vision in Westview after realizing the violation she was committing against its citizens suddenly became a zombie terminator willing to rip reality apart in the name of killing another woman’s child.
The excuse that she was being corrupted by dark magic can only go so far—particularly given Strange’s choices to commit many of the same acts he condemns her for at the end of the film—and after all, isn’t that just another way to deny her agency in her own story? So much of WandaVision was explicitly about Wanda acknowledging her own pain, taking responsibility for her own choices, and trying to figure out a way to move forward after everything she’s lost.
But Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness isn’t terribly interested in any of that. Here, there is little nuance, and we’re never allowed to look at Wanda’s pain too closely. The movie starts with Wanda fully committed to her evil plan and we never see her struggle with it. Once again, no one reaches out to her when they learn she’s in a bad way or tries to help her very much (remember how none of her Avenger friends called after Vision died either?). Her corruption is essentially treated as a foregone conclusion, and while alternate universe Professor Xavier has a pithy line about how just because someone loses their way it doesn’t mean they’re lost forever, there’s never any sense he’s talking about Wanda (because in the world of this film, it’s only Strange that apparently deserves endless second chances).
The closest the movie ever comes to acknowledging the complexity of her emotions is the moment she crosses over into Earth-838, where she is ultimately comforted and understood by another version of herself because at least Wanda 838 knows that all she wants in any reality is to have the family she’s so long been denied.
At the end of the day, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is a story we’ve seen before: Wanda, confronted with the reality of her horrific deeds, opts to undo it all, freeing America and destroying the book that helped her. But unlike in WandaVision, there’s no prospect of healing or rehabilitation or a promise of change. No one tries to reach out with compassion toward her or tries to stop her. Instead, she just dies, killing herself in the name of protecting the multiverse from the power of the Darkhold. And while there’s no way that Wanda Maximoff’s story truly ends here—c’mon guys it’s a superhero franchise and she’s basically the most powerful being in existence—she didn’t deserve this movie, which literally buries all the deft narrative work of WandaVision under a mountain of blockbuster big screen hubris.