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It’s been a year and I still don’t know if Doctor Strange 2 was bad

Multiverse of Madness is the most frustrating MCU movie, because the best thing about it is also the worst thing. And it's clear Marvel has a character issue.

Elisabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff in Doctor Strange 2 Multiverse of Madness

I came out of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness sure of only one thing: I couldn’t even begin to answer if I liked it or not. It’s the quintessential example of how much of a tangled web the MCU has become, and a spellbinding mixed bag.

I felt conflicted over its decisions and how it toyed with characters I — and this is a mistake many fans make — felt I had stock in and knew what was best for.

When Sam Raimi was announced as the director, there was excitement in the air about what the Evil Dead filmmaker could bring to the Marvel Cinematic Universe years after making Spider-Man 2, one of the best superhero movies ever made.

Benedict Cumberbatch in Doctor Strange 2

In reality, Raimi didn’t bring the ingenuity of his horror movies or pathos from the soaring heights of his Spidey flicks to Doctor Strange, instead doing what we should have seen coming from a million miles (or universes) away. Raimi’s approach gave it a one-shot quality that came from leaning hard into the silliness, freedom, and cheese of some of the weirdest Doctor Strange comic books.

And much was made of the screenwriter Michael Waldron’s admission that — despite engaging with the Disney Plus show in his script — he did not watch or have detailed knowledge of WandaVision, and probably just Googled “WandaVision finale recap” months into production. This is tricky to talk about without sounding like an entitled baby, but I’ll try.

After all, we’re so deep into this fictional universe it feels ridiculous to ask filmmakers to watch all of the previous material. Unfortunately, I took a bit of offense anyway. A writer who directly grapples with characters, ideas, and developments that WandaVision carefully guided into existence — more often than not doing them a disservice — openly saying they didn’t receive context from it struck me as shortsighted.

Elisabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff in WandaVision

Creators are playing with characters the audience has known for over a decade. In theory, this shouldn’t create problems — ‘quality art should stand on its own’, etc., but in reality, it can. Because the MCU operates like a movie patchwork, and its building blocks cannot be separated, a fan knows when something doesn’t mesh with what’s been established.

This has never been more apparent than in Multiverse of Madness’ depiction of Wanda Maximoff (mother to many, but mostly to her magical sons). The fact WandaVision did such a good job of making her a fan favorite by deftly portraying her grief and subsequent behavior probably didn’t make the job of working with her any easier, but it’s intriguing how the Disney Plus series’ quality impacted MoM’s reception.

It’s also important to note how this disconnect contributed to MoM’s lack of sensical progression from the end of WandaVision to Wanda’s villainous turn. You can draw a line from how sudden, extreme, and out of character she seems as she hunts a child and embraces her destiny as an evil ruler back to the fact the screenwriter didn’t absorb the nuances of WandaVision’s character work in the same way we did.

Not everyone feels there were holes in her portrayal, but it does seem the audience most partial to the Scarlet Witch were the ones most burned by this movie’s hardcore take. A quick YouTube search of its title brings up more than a few video essays.

Marvel functions unlike any other IP in the movie industry. The crux is the connective tissue. But now there’s so much backstory to wade through, Disney is passing a pen around to writers who either don’t have interest, or time, to watch everything before stitching a limb to this Frankenstein’s monster.

The twist, though, is even though I felt this MoM (incredible acronym, all things considered) version of Wanda was reminiscent of some of the shallowest moments from comic books — Wanda having emotional breakdowns is often used as a crutch for large crossover events and she’s usually shortchanged — it’s hard to be mad because, honestly, this movie goes so hard and Elizabeth Olsen is at her absolute best.

Elisabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

While many were angry about The Illuminati making such noise only to be wiped out immediately, I found it gleeful to see the Easter egg culture that the movie had marketed itself on get blown away in favor of simple chaos. She’s the best part of the movie.

Almost all of the fun horror sequences involve her black fingertips, creepy powers, and flirtation with darkness. Olsen is the standout performer. About an hour in, it’s reasonable to conclude that the only reason this isn’t a Scarlet Witch movie is that she doesn’t have her own vertical established.

Yet, it doesn’t feel like Wanda. The last time we saw her, she was remorseful and subtle, and this movie hops, skips, and jumps to an unstoppable Marvel villain using an evil book as a shortcut. It felt cheap and jarring, even if the results are delightfully camp and brutal.

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Among whines about ‘overpowered’ female characters, MoM unchains Wanda as WandaVision did, allowing her to use the breadth of her powers, among the most consequential in any superhero’s arsenal. Watching her wipe out sorcerers, choke America Chavez, and haunt her variant, I oscillated between joy and hesitation toward making her irredeemable.

It makes sense, then, that the film’s climax kills her off, or at least benches her for the foreseeable future. Considering the studio is in the process of casting older Billy and Tommy, we may have one of the variants from another universe be our next Wanda. That, or her kids will take the reins, and one of the best MCU characters will be sidelined.

I hate that! I don’t want the suburban mom version of her (no offense to them, the real superheroes). As compassionate and lovely as that scene is where she is comforted by that variant, I would much rather have the character we’ve seen evolve stick around, even if she can never again be an Avenger. That’s consequence, baby, and good stories have it.

Elizabeth Olsen as The Scarlet Witch in Doctor Strange 2

The variant idea is amusing, but it runs the risk of making convenient swaps and deaths with no stakes a problem. We may not have to be devastated about Wanda being killed off because we can grab another one off the shelf. Except, our Wanda is different from that Wanda, and I’m not a fan of clean slates in a franchise that has demanded paying attention to elaboration over 32 movies.

The frustrating things about MoM — its failure to convince us it knows the ins and outs of its characters, the ham-fisted turning of Wanda into a hysterical woman, and the gratuitousness, are the very things that, in retrospect, make it stand out as a thrill ride.

So, how do we have satisfying overarching character development but still make movies where creatives can let their freak flags fly and cause a stir? Is it possible that the MCU has backed itself into such a corner that we can’t even enjoy one of the most powerful fictional characters turning John Krasinki’s Reed Richards into spaghetti? I very much want to enjoy that with no strings attached. It can only get more complicated from here, I’m afraid.

For more on our favorite heroes and villains, check out the new movies coming with our Marvel’s Phase 5 explained.