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‘Multiverse of Madness’ Is a Shaky Bridge Between Marvel’s Movies and TV Shows

‘Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’ is a milestone in Marvel’s campaign to make its movies and TV series play in the same MCU sandbox, but the handoff from small screen to big screen isn’t smooth

Marvel Studios/Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Spoiler warning

Marvel Studios became the inevitable box office force that it is today thanks in large part to its careful long-term planning and care in crafting an interconnected cinematic universe. Taking a page right out of the comics, the MCU’s individual films allowed audiences to get familiar with and invested in characters as they were introduced in stories with smaller stakes, while crossover events brought the stars of these franchises together in massive spectacles that pitted them against threats of increasing power and scale. After the Infinity Saga that spanned the MCU’s first three phases, Marvel had the opportunity to apply this proven strategy to a different storytelling format: television. The launch of Disney+ challenged the studio not only to continue to create connective tissue between projects, but also to form a bridge between its movies and TV series.

“The MCU will be on your TV screen at home on Disney+ and interconnect with the movies and go back and forth,” Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige said at CCXP in Brazil back in 2019. “It’s exciting to expand the MCU into even bigger and better heights.”

More than a year after the premiere of WandaVision, Marvel Studios’ inaugural TV show, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness became the first film to explicitly build off of events depicted in one of the MCU’s small-screen releases. Even before WandaVision debuted, Marvel revealed that the events of the series would lead into the Doctor Strange sequel. Although the good doctor himself never set foot in Wanda Maximoff’s magically-constructed sitcom world in Westview, the post-credits scene in the season finale established that the Scarlet Witch would return in Multiverse of Madness, along with her ominous book of the damned, the Darkhold. With the movie now out in theaters, we know that the events of WandaVision were crucial to Doctor Strange’s multiversal journey. But just how well the movie serves as a followup to the beloved series is another matter entirely. Multiverse of Madness marks a major milestone in Marvel’s campaign to make its movies and TV series play in the same MCU sandbox, but the shaky way in which WandaVision and the Doctor Strange sequel connect offers our first insight into the challenges the studio faces in porting its proven moviemaking formula to TV.

One of the greatest sources of debate about Multiverse of Madness among fans and critics alike has been whether Wanda’s heel turn to full-fledged villainhood is earned. Wanda’s first scene in Multiverse of Madness provides a window into WandaVision, as a musical allusion to the show’s theme song leads into a tender moment of Wanda tucking her twin boys, Billy and Tommy, into bed. (Billy and Tommy are also portrayed by the actors from the Disney+ series, Julian Hilliard and Jett Klyne, respectively.) But the moment turns out to be a dream that gives way to the reality of a grief-stricken mother still mourning the loss of her children. Doctor Strange then seeks out Wanda to ask for her help against a multiversal threat that’s pursuing newcomer America Chavez, only to realize that Wanda had been studying the Darkhold and that the source of the threat was, in fact, her.

Between this scene and all the exposition provided during the Scarlet Witch’s subsequent assault on Kamar-Taj, all of the relevant plot points that the film pulls from WandaVision are explained: Wanda created children with magic (like all mothers do, as she reminds Strange); she acquired a book of dark magic called the Darkhold (which most mothers don’t do); and she became the Scarlet Witch, a powerful being of mythical proportions prophesied to rule or destroy the world. As such, if you’d skipped the series before seeing the movie, Multiverse of Madness still had you covered with the CliffsNotes. (When Strange first finds Wanda, he even tells her, “I’m not here to talk about Westview,” a direct reference to WandaVision.) But as any student who’s tried to get through English class by using only the summaries of a book could probably tell you, knowing the full story makes a big difference.

Multiverse of Madness sands away the finer details of Wanda’s character arc in WandaVision while still retaining its defining features, in an attempt to both satisfy the fans of the Disney+ series and make the standalone film palatable for those who had never seen it. WandaVision is, at its core, a story about Wanda processing a lifetime of grief, including the death of her brother, Pietro, and the loss of her husband, Vision. At the end of the series, she sacrifices the dream she’s created—where she has a life with her husband and the children they could’ve raised together—because she finally recognizes how much she’s had to hurt the mind-controlled residents of Westview to maintain her fantasy.

In Multiverse of Madness, however, the impetus of Wanda’s grief and motivations is narrowed to the loss of her children, as the film leans into her newfound motherhood as the primary source of the rage that fuels her multiversal killing spree. Despite having already given up the chance to pretend to have it all, an apparent sign of acceptance and healing, she levels up from mass kidnapping to mass murder, doing whatever it takes to reunite with her children and ensure their safety forever—even if it means killing the teenaged America Chavez in the process. And while the corruption caused by the Darkhold can share some of the blame, hanging Wanda’s descent into madness on an evil, powerful object erases her own autonomy and complexities as a character. It’s in the execution of Wanda’s transformation where Multiverse of Madness fails the character, as the reductive twist pushes her dangerously close to the tired trope of a powerful, yet emotional woman losing control of her powers, like Jean Grey becoming the Dark Phoenix in multiple uninspired X-Men films across two trilogies or Khaleesi becoming the Mad Queen in the rushed, disastrous final season of Game of Thrones.

There’s also the matter of Vision’s absence from Multiverse of Madness. The late Avenger, who was Wanda’s colead in WandaVision, is mentioned in passing a couple of times in the film, but considering his importance to the series, it’s odd that he doesn’t make an appearance alongside their children, even if only in a family photo. (Odder still is the fact that White Vision, whose memories are fully restored in the finale of WandaVision, is somewhere in the world, yet Wanda seemingly hasn’t made any effort to find him.) It could be that the death of Vision is an unalterable, absolute point that remains constant in Wanda’s life in every universe, but if so, the film doesn’t so much as take a moment to explain that.

It’s a missed opportunity to either showcase the possibilities of the multiverse with a cameo from Paul Bettany’s Vision—or at least, through his absence, help establish the rules of the multiverse to prevent the concept from being muddled by Marvel’s various multiverse-centric projects. The fact that Wanda has all but given up on reuniting with her husband, even with the power of her Chaos Magic at her disposal, does a disservice to a core component of her character while lessening the significance of WandaVision. (As the actress portraying the Scarlet Witch, Elizabeth Olsen, sees it, the movie didn’t need to answer any questions about Vision: “We liked the idea of her being on her own. The idea really is that the most important thing once you become a mother in the world are your children.”)

It is perhaps telling, then, that the director of Multiverse of Madness, the great Sam Raimi, had not seen all of WandaVision before helming his first Marvel movie since 2007’s Spider-Man 3, having been shown only the “key moments of some episodes” that he had been told were relevant to their story. In fairness to Raimi, though, forming a bridge between WandaVision and Multiverse of Madness is less his job than it is that of the movie’s scribe, Michael Waldron, who also served as the head writer of Loki. And Waldron, on the other hand, did his homework. “Having watched and experienced and studied WandaVision, I felt like she was at the point, in possession of the Darkhold, where she was ready to break bad,” Waldron explained to Variety. “She had reached that point that she reaches in comics, and that we could believably pull it off.

“My interpretation of WandaVision is that she confronts her grief and she lets go of the people she has under her control, but I don’t think she necessarily resolves her grief in that show, and I don’t think she resolves her anger,” Waldron continued. “Maybe she’s able to say goodbye to Vision, but I think she’s really just fallen in love with those kids. I think that all of those hanging threads are the things that the Darkhold preys on when she gets the Darkhold from Agatha.”

As Waldron tells it, the effect the Darkhold has on those who dare to read it plays an important role in Wanda’s drastic descent. The seed of that idea was planted at the end of WandaVision, but it sprouted off-screen between the events of the TV series and the movie. Olsen, the Marvel veteran, just wanted to ensure that her character in Multiverse of Madness honored Wanda’s journey in WandaVision without retreading its course. Notwithstanding the significance of the Darkhold, that meant the focus had to shift to Wanda’s boys. “There were just beats that I felt like were almost too similar, as opposed to reflective,” Olsen told Variety when she was asked about whether she felt the need for a connection between the two projects. “I just wanted everything to feel like some version of an advancement, even if the advancement is someone feeling a different reaction to the pain and loss. We also haven’t seen her have a reaction to what happened in Westview. Even if we watched her go through trauma and loss, we haven’t seen her go through the loss of the children.”

All criticisms of Wanda’s arguably abrupt or inconsistent transformation aside, Olsen’s performance as the Scarlet Witch is tremendous: She’s the rare Marvel villain who’s both terrifying and tragic. In the hands of a horror veteran like Raimi, Wanda’s use of mirrors and reflections in Kamar-Taj, along with her complete evisceration of the Illuminati, make for some of the scariest and most gruesome moments the MCU has ever seen—a low bar to clear, of course, but an achievement and refreshing change of pace at the House of Mouse nonetheless. Multiverse of Madness takes full advantage of an already established character who was teetering between the lines of heroism and villainy, and brings her to not only a logical conclusion after she took an entire town hostage in WandaVision—ignoring for the moment that she ultimately released her hostages—but to a place that jibes with her character’s complicated evolution in the comics.

Beyond all the ways that WandaVision influences Multiverse of Madness, the film is also something of a case study for how other TV shows in the MCU may intersect with the marquee spectacles on the big screen. Ahead of the film, there appeared to be myriad ways for the events of multiversal narratives like Loki, What If…?, or even Spider-Man: No Way Home to factor into the Doctor Strange sequel. In the eyes of Marvel’s master planner, Feige, the connections are all there. “There’s always a method to the madness, even in the multiverse,” Feige told at the film’s premiere. “For the fans that know that Loki and Sylvie did something at the end of that series that sort of allowed all of this to be possible. He Who Remains is gone, and that allowed a spell to go wrong in Spider-Man: No Way Home, which leads to the entire Multiverse going quite mad in [Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness].”

While those connections may be evident to Feige, though, they aren’t obvious on the screen. It may be true that Loki’s climax broke the multiverse and paved the road to No Way Home and Multiverse of Madness, but you wouldn’t have missed anything (other than a good TV show and Gator Loki) if you hadn’t seen that series before those films—and connecting No Way Home and Multiverse of Madness more tightly to Loki’s Time Variance Authority likely would’ve made the movies too complicated. Despite Doctor Strange being a major character in No Way Home, the events of the Spider-Man movie are explained away in a classic, self-referential Marvel joke early in Multiverse of Madness. And even with all of the potential ties to What If…? in Multiverse of Madness, including Captain Carter, zombies, and a version of Strange who doomed his entire universe, the animated anthology series has no direct impact on the film other than introducing the variant of Peggy Carter who took the supersoldier serum in Steve Rogers’s stead.

Between the movie’s pandemic-driven production delays, director change, massive rewrites, and release shuffling on Marvel’s Phase 4 slate, there’s no telling how much the relationship between Multiverse of Madness and rest of the MCU changed over time, or how the script morphed amid all the chaos. (At one point in time, Multiverse of Madness was scheduled to be released before WandaVision.) In the end, while all of the previously released streaming stories—arguably including even WandaVision—enrich the viewing experience and world(s) we see in Multiverse of Madness, they are by no means required to understand or enjoy it.

Even before Marvel Studios started making TV shows, the relationship between any given movie and the projects that came before it was subject to change on a case-by-case basis, growing more complicated as Marvel’s web of story lines and characters expanded. Movies like Black Panther have little to do with the rest of the MCU and are all the better for it, while projects such as Avengers: Age of Ultron struggle to stay afloat under the weight of all their connecting parts and the responsibilities they have to set the stage for the next coming attraction. The events of the Infinity Saga set up the premises of WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Loki, What If…?, and Hawkeye, but until Multiverse of Madness, this dynamic was a one-way street that moved from the theater to TV. Now the street has two lanes, but traffic may be backed up in the other direction, in part because the shows require access to Disney+, which creates an additional barrier to entry. Not only does the streaming service require a paid subscription, but audiences in some markets—including some of Marvel’s biggest sources of box office income in Asia—can’t access the service (yet).

Even if the execution left a lot to be desired, the connections between WandaVision and Multiverse of Madness are undeniable, and the film scored one of the greatest MCU villains to date thanks to the foundation that a TV show built. (Though with the future of Wanda in doubt after her apparent death, Marvel may have just burned its best wild card.) As Marvel Studios turns to its streaming home as a place to tell origin stories (as in the recently-concluded Moon Knight), and as Disney+ rolls out in more countries, the MCU’s forays into television may prove to be a vital cog that keeps the Marvel machine running for years to come.