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Friday, May 24, 2024

'Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness' Is Pure Fanfic

One scene in Marvel’s latest offering, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, will surely dominate the conversation about the movie for weeks. If you’ve seen the trailer you already know it. It’s the moment where Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) approaches Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and says, “The Illuminati will see you now.” This isn’t the Illuminati of lore, the secret organization often spoken of as society’s puppeteers. This is Marvel’s Illuminati, a group of heroes in a different reality than the one audiences have seen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe thus far, and it consists of lots of cameos we won’t spoil here.

Marvel fans have seen versions of this moment many times. It’s the kind of moment either meant to set up 100 more films and shows or to remind you just how much intellectual property Disney owns. Or both. It’s a narrative tool meant to illustrate superheroes coming together to save the universe (of course), but the scene is also a chance to tease, say, the next big reboot or wink at the Disney+ show What if … ? Put another way, it’s fanfic made real. (OK, if you’re spoiler-averse, maybe stop reading now.)

None of this would be possible without the multiverse. As WIRED pointed out last year, WandaVision kicked open the door to multiple realities in a way that meant not only could one Doctor Strange movie have multiple Doctor Stranges but also the Wanda from WandaVision (Elizabeth Olsen) could try to skip to a timeline where she joins children she never birthed in the main MCU timeline and also pass through one with a very prominent X-Man, who comes from a universe where Magneto is maybe her father. (Whew!) A lot of this, like Strange’s appearance in Spider-Man: No Way Home, is the result of Disney now owning more of Marvel’s toys than it did two decades ago, having acquired Fox (previous parent of the Fantastic Four and the X-Men) in 2019 and cutting a deal to have Sony’s Spidey movies align with the larger Marvel movie world.

Fans dream of this stuff. Who doesn’t want Professor Charles Xavier to come in with some moral authority? Everyone wonders who would win if Captain Marvel and Scarlet Witch got into a scrap. (A not insignificant subset would also probably suggest they kiss and make up, but that’s more slashfic.) Now that Disney has all these franchises under its spell, they intend to use them. Marvel honcho Kevin Feige has promised as much. Doctor Strange meeting the Illuminati is just the beginning.

But that’s not the only way Multiverse of Madness feels like fanfic. It’s also the stylistic choices. Directed by Sam Raimi, the mastermind behind the 1981 horror classic The Evil Dead who went on to direct the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man movies, Madness is easily the most horror-filled of the Marvel films. So it’s a genre mashup, too. (For Dead fans, it also has one helluva cameo.) Add in a Danny Elfman score that moves delightfully close to Trent Reznor’s territory and it all feels like, well, watching a Marvel movie in another universe. This is the point, of course, and it definitely makes Madness fun in a way that, say, Eternals wasn’t. But it can have a bit of a kitchen-sink feeling. (Perhaps the tired tropes Wanda nearly falls into could also be in this mix, but that's another story.) 

For a while now, fans have lived in a world with many separate multiverses—they could keep Iron Man and discard the X-Men, and write their own story if they wanted them to meet—crossing them over looks super cool, but it may not come without consequences.

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My former colleague Adam Rogers predicted this last year, in that aforementioned WandaVision piece, referring to it as a metacrisis. “Crossovers and by extension multiverses solve storytelling problems specific to big shared stories,” he wrote. But if you’re a comics editor or a showrunner or a movie producer, eventually there comes a time when “you burn it all in a cosmic fire—the metacrisis, where a destructive act destroys a super-shared multiverse, clears away the debris, and readies the narrative field for planting again.” This has already been teased with Loki’s season-finale reveal of He Who Remains. This fire, though, will take a lot of beloved storylines with it. It will be necessary; it will be a mess. And it will be up to fans if they want to continue on in this fiction.

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