Caution: This post will be full of SPOILERS for Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, so if you haven’t seen it yet, be ye warned.
Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olson) may be the baddest villain the Marvel Cinematic Universe has yet produced. I walked into Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness thinking it would another run-of-the-mill Marvel movie and left thinking, ‘Damn, the Scarlet Witch is awesome.’ Thanos may have done more damage, but Wanda did it with more style.
The point where things turned for me was when Wanda tracked down Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) to the alternate dimension where they had been imprisoned by the Illuminati, an Avengers-like organization stacked with this Earth’s mightiest heroes. Wanda invades their compound, and one by one proceeds to murder them.
“Murder” isn’t a word you often use in connection with the family-friendly MCU, but what other word is there? Wanda uses her reality-altering abilities to tear up the body of Mister Fantasic strip by strip, ending by popping his head. She cuts Captain Carter in half with her own shield, snaps Professor X’s neck and buries Captain Marvel under a ton of rubble. No MCU villain has been anywhere near this brutal.
Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness tricks the audience (and I couldn’t be happier)
That said, in its way, the movie still played safe with the deaths. What was so clever is that it felt as though Wanda was taking out titans of the superhero universe — for example, Professor X was played by Patrick Stewart, who audiences have watched in the role for literally decades, so it feels meaningful when Wanda ices him.
Except this Professor X wasn’t the same one we’d been watching in all those movies; he was a lookalike from an alternate universe. His death doesn’t preclude Marvel from casting him in the role again if it wants. Likewise, it could still bring back John Krasinski as Mister Fantastic, further paying off the dearest wish of fans who wanted to see him in this role. Or it could leave it here; either way, Disney wins. They gave the impression that Wanda was killing major characters when really it wasn’t anyone they couldn’t spare, and fulfilled the wishes of online Marvel fans while they were at it.
The only real death we get in Doctor Strange 2 is Wanda’s; at the end of the movie, she pulls down the dark temple on the walls of which are written the spells she’s using to breach realities, hoping to ensure that no one can follow in her dark path.
But is she really dead? We didn’t see a body, and unless and until we do I’m not convinced of anything. Actually, even if they showed us Wanda’s cold and lifeless body I still wouldn’t believe she was dead; Thanos killed Vision in Avengers: Infinity War and they were able to bring him back twice in WandaVision.
How Marvel cheats Wanda Maximoff
So give or take Wanda, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness didn’t actually kill anyone it couldn’t easily afford to lose. To me, the triumph of the movie isn’t that it raised the stakes of the MCU, but that it successfully appeared to. And I’m okay with that; the whole point of a movie is to trick me into believing that people in costumes prancing in front of a camera are playing out a real-life drama. If you successfully trick me, you win.
But Doctor Strange 2 sometimes gets sloppy with its sleight of hand. While I loved watching Wanda work her dark magic, I had a hard time believing she would do it in the first place.
The last time we saw her in WandaVision, she was fleeing Westview, where she’d inadvertently enslaved the entire population as part of her grief-induced mental breakdown. Wanda went to a very dark place in that show, and she did things unbecoming of a superhero, but there’s a big difference between that (Doctor Strange essentially sweeps the entire thing under the rug) and purposeful murders of the kind she commits in Multiverse of Madness. How did she get here?
Well, the movie would have us believe that she was so desperate to reunite with the children she conjured into existence back in Westview that she didn’t care how many people she had to kill to make it happen, which I have a hard time swallowing; what of Wanda that we’ve seen would suggest that she’s that aggressively amoral?
The movie seems to know this, because it adds in the caveat that Wanda has only gotten so hardcore because she’s been messing with a book of dark magic called the Darkhold, which is known to corrupt the user. This is Marvel Studios throwing its hands up in the air. It knows it can’t get Wanda to convincingly kill people by developing her character, at least not in the time allotted, so it says, ‘Eh, the magic book rotted her brain, what’s for lunch?’ and washes its hands of things.
If I’m being honest, the script for Doctor Strange 2 is pretty bad. Wanda’s character arc is jerked around because they need a villain, Doctor Strange is barely developed beyond a weak runner about whether he’s happy, and newcomer American Chavez is a bland teenaged sidekick sent straight over from Disney’s warehouse of stock characters. It’s pretty lame all around.
But you know what? I didn’t care while I was watching it, because director Sam Raimi brought such verve to the horror-tinged action scenes in the back half. I think Multiverse of Madness is an example of the power of a good director to save a mediocre script. It might not be a great movie, but it is an entertaining one, and that’s more than half the battle.