Sam Raimi’s tweak to the nose of fan service culture is also a smart thematic fulcrum.
(Note: This piece contains a multitude of spoilers for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness — just, acres of ‘em.)
(. . .And also for Amazon’s Invincible.)
Deep in the second act of Sam Raimi’s triumphant return to the big screen, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness seems to take a rather odd detour. After a jarring (for Stephen Strange) leap between universes, Strange and his partner-by-necessity, America Chavez, wind up in a seemingly benign universe where the threat of Thanos the Mad Titan was ended by that universe’s late Doctor Strange. Both are hoping to find protection for Chavez now that Wanda Maximoff has decided to kill the universe-hopping teenager so she can take Chavez’s powers and find a way back to her magic children (the movie assumes you either watched WandaVision or that you have Wikipedia), only to find a different Sorcerer Supreme in residence. After an initially warm greeting from this world’s Mordo, things take a bit of a Cloud City-style hard left and our heroes are taken captive. At first, they’re given a somewhat sensible explanation by the local doctor, Christine Palmer: they present an unprecedented contamination hazard even before you get into the questions of tampering with natural law.
However, even more serious ramifications — and considerably more sinister implications — come into play when Strange is summoned before the local governing body.
This is where the would-be utopia of the self-appointed Universe 838 (our familiar corner of the MCU being dubbed 616, and no, it doesn’t matter) is revealed to be yet another cadre of would-be protectors unilaterally making questionable decisions “for the greater good,” and it turns out about as questionable as you’d expect. It’s revealed that this universe’s Strange walked the forbidden paths revealed by the Necronomicon-esque “Darkhold,” and in doing so caused an “incursion” that destroyed an entire alternate universe. Fearing a similar event may befall their universe, the same people who killed the 838 Strange for his transgressions now hold the lives of our heroes in their hands.
Ok, swap Iron Man for Captain Carter, Strange for Mordo, and Namor for Maria Rambeau’s Captain Marvel, but yes — and not only do Anson Mount and Haley Atwell reprise their roles as Black Bolt and Captain Carter, respectively, but long-time fan-cast subject John Krasinski swaggers in as Reed Richards and Patrick Stewart himself enters to the 1990s X-men: The Animated Series’ theme. Between the inclusion of fan-favorite actors from previous outings, either from spinoffs like Marvel’s What if…? or even from separate, once competing superhero films franchises, the sequence is a quick reversal that’s then positioned like an algorithmically-perfected fan service sequence so deliberately reverse-engineered that it makes the entirety of the third act of Spider-Man: No Way Home seem positively restrained in comparison.
Then this happens.
In a PG-13 kinda way—and I mean actual PG-13, not “we added a couple extra swears to a PG movie from the late ‘90s” PG-13.
Now, I thought the deliberate deflation of an “it’s all my favorite people” roll call was funny enough to warrant its inclusion, but this scene is actually accomplishing a lot more than just letting Elizabeth Olsen shred harder than a Led Zeppelin needle drop in Asgard. In addition to offering another definitive answer to the “Why don’t you just call the Avengers?” question gestured to earlier in the film (answer: because they’d die!), at least three major story hooks hang on this sequence.
The first cements the Illuminati as being every bit as full of hot air as their supposed utopia. The 838 universe looks nice on first blush, but is revealed to be little more than some colorful leaves camouflaging a much more Paul Verhoven-looking dystopia (what, you thought the “Pizza Poppa always gets paid” misdirect was a one-off gag?), and these well-meaning dinguses are real good at ignoring a huge problem, even when someone tells them about it to their faces. The fact that Richards brushes off Wanda as a threat only for her to dreamwalk into their sanctum isn’t what you’d call subtle, but the film even gives Richards time to be condescending to Wanda in person just in case you didn’t catch it. Just as the Darkhold shows Wanda alternate universes where she’s happy with her children, Strange is confronted with version after version of himself that fell to ruin, dragging his friends or entire universes down after him because he just had to be one “holding the knife” or who “knew best” because it was “the only way.”
The sequence is also a smart second act blow out that continues the trend of the big turning point set pieces getting smaller as the film goes on. Raimi gets his “what if the finale of Army of Darkness but with the Wicked Witch from Oz who went super saiyan?” sequence out of the way early on with the siege of Karmar-Taj. The attack on the Illuminati base allows him to get even more uncomfortably up close and personal and also narrows the focus on the crucial supporting cast, very effectively putting the audience in Christine and Chavez’s shoes as Wanda T-1000s her way towards them.
Finally, much like the sequence from Invincible that I already drew parallels to, the scene feels like a violation, but without actually setting the entirety of the MCU table on fire. Seeing Wanda bisect Carter with her own shield or snap Xavier’s neck feels profane—and it should, given that her actions are directed explicitly at murdering someone who may be the only “version” of herself across the vastness of the multiverse. That needs to feel wrong and upsetting, but it also slyly humanizes the film’s villain even more. Wanda spends a good portion of the first act insisting that she’s playing nice and holding back, even as she sends demons after Chavez or blasts the walls of Kamar-Taj to rubble, and this scene proves that she wasn’t lying. Here, Raimi enables the Scarlet Witch to demonstrate precisely how violently unreasonable she’s willing to be in pursuit of her own happiness.
Once again, it’s not an accident that Strange’s climactic “I learned stuff” moment allows someone else to be the active party and deliberately re-frames what his own version of “happiness” should be.