This article contains spoilers for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.
My favorite character in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness wasn’t on the screen, but in the theater—the person several rows below me who leapt to his feet the moment John Krasinski made his first appearance as the Fantastic Four’s Reed Richards, his fist pumping in the air.
As an adult watching another adult, I cringe at this behavior, but I smile at it, too. I’ll never forget being a teenager at an early screening of the very first Batman, when a room full of people who, like me, had purchased tickets through their local comic-book store, watched the Batwing break through the clouds and hang, for just an instant, in the center of the full moon, forming a perfect replica of the iconic Bat-Signal. The roar that rippled through that theater was like nothing I’d ever heard: a rolling shockwave born not just of excitement, but the sense that after years of condescending camp, comic book movies were at last in the hands of people who got it. If I’m honest, I’ve spent a good chunk of my movie-watching life chasing that high ever since.
In other words, I get the feeling. But I also wonder what emotions Fist-Pump Guy experienced a few minutes after that first burst of exultation, when Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch popped Reed Richards’ head like a grape.
As with most Marvel movies, you can spend much of Multiverse searching in vain for a hint of a distinctive personality—with respect to Robert Downey Jr’s “I am Iron Man,” the MCU’s defining moment was when Kevin Feige fired Ant-Man director Edgar Wright for, essentially, trying to make an Edgar Wright movie. But perhaps because the modern superhero movie wouldn’t exist without Raimi’s original Spider-Man trilogy, he’s been allowed to leave slightly more of a personal mark on this one. When Doctor Strange kills a giant tentacle monster from another dimension by jamming a lamppost through its eyeball, and then rips out the eyeball so you can see the quivering tendons that once held it in place, you can practically hear the director of the Evil Dead trilogy snickering at what he’s getting away with. The MCU’s battles are usually sanitized and weightless, but when the Scarlet Witch lays waste to the citadel of Kamar-Taj, the movie makes sure you know these valiant sorcerers aren’t just getting blipped into dust. They’re dying bloody, excruciating deaths (or at least as bloody and excruciating as a PG-13 rating will allow).
The introduction of Multiverse’s Illuminati, the alternate-world version of the Avengers to whom our Earth’s Doctor Strange ends up turning for help, isn’t just fan service; it’s a fan feast. Here’s Krasinski, whom the internet has been trying for months to get cast as Reed Richards in the MCU’s planned Fantastic Four movie. Here’s Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter, finally taking up the red, white, and blue as the U.K. version of Captain America. Here’s Lashana Lynch’s Maria Rambeau, assuming the mantle of her friend and co-pilot Captain Marvel, and here’s Anson Mount returning as Black Bolt from the short-lived Inhumans TV series. Last but not least, here’s Patrick Stewart’s Professor X, last seen breathing his dying breath in Logan.
The mix of characters yet- and never-to-be is a trifle chaotic; it has the feel of names left on a “Who can we get?” list after all the others have been crossed out. But it does what it’s supposed to do, tossing bits of validation to fans like raw meat to circus lions. Sorry about canceling Inhumans, but we brought back Black Bolt just for you. Bummer about Fantastic Four’s director dropping out because he’s tired of making comic-book movies, but here’s a little Mr. Fantastic to tide you over. It also serves as a not-especially-subtle reminder that because Disney now owns both Marvel and Fox, the latter of which controls the rights to the Fantastic Four and the X-Men, they can now mix and match the franchises as they see fit. Like the scene in Free Guy where Ryan Reynolds wields a lightsaber and Captain America’s shield, or like all of Space Jam 2, it’s corporate synergy draped in fan-culture triumphalism, coaxing fans to yell “We did it!” while one billion-dollar company gobbles up another.
The concept of the multiverse opens up literally infinite possibilities, but where Marvel is concerned, it’s largely just an opportunity to smush together different sets of toys, like letting your Calico Critters play with your Shopkins. (At least Into the Spider-Verse gave us Spider-Ham.) Last year’s Spider-Man: No Way Home meaningfully engaged with the character’s 20-year screen history, including the way the different iterations of Peter Parker stack up against each other, but as far as Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is concerned, these characters don’t have any history. (Marvel would just as soon you not remember the three previous failed attempts at launching a Fantastic Four franchise, if it’s all the same to you.) You’re not even meant to remember as far back as last Christmas, lest you wonder why Doctor Strange is involved in two separate multiversal misadventures that have nothing to do with each other, or notice that he doesn’t even seem to recall the (extremely recent) last time this happened. The movie might as well be jangling its keys and yelling, “Hey kids, Black Bolt!”
That’s what makes the conclusion to the Illuminati’s brief appearance so great. Instead of defending Doctor Strange and his universe-hopping pal America Chavez from the vengeful Scarlet Witch, Earth-818’s mightiest heroes get themselves killed, in short and gruesome order. Black Bolt, whose voice can level a city, gets his mouth sealed up and accidentally explodes his own head from the inside. Reed Richards gets turned into rubbery spaghetti, his body shredding from the toes up until his head goes pop. Captain Marvel has a giant statue dropped on her, and Captain Carter is bisected by her own shield, although Raimi graciously fixes the camera on her top half as it slowly starts to slide away from the bottom. And Professor X? He gets his neck snapped, psychically speaking, which seems to have roughly the same effect on his physical body. Those new characters sure were fun while they lasted, but playtime’s over.
The movie can’t go full Suicide Squad on Marvel’s precious properties. These are alternate-universe versions of the characters, and their fates have no bearing on the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s core reality. What’s more, the confirmation that there are infinite versions of every character scattered throughout the multiverse means that even should one happen to die, say by collapsing the entirety of Mount Wundagore on top of herself and exploding in a flash of scarlet light, a reasonable facsimile can always be retrieved from elsewhere. (There would be complications, of course, but they would be less quantum-physical and more contractual.) Even so, after watching so many gracefully stylized deaths and implausible resurrections, there’s something satisfying about watching a character just eat it, in a way that can’t be retconned or handwaved away. There’s a universe where any character can die, where no hero is safe and every battle has real stakes because there’s no telling which way it will go. Too bad it’s not the one every other Marvel movie is set in.