Welcome to Fix It, our series examining projects we love — save for one tiny change we wish we could make.
In the latest entry into the MCU, Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) fights to save America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) from Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen). America has the incredible power to travel through the multiverse, only she’s unable to control it.
‘Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’ flips off fanservice in the best way possible
One of the movie’s most fun visual sequences occurs when one of America’s uncontrolled multiverse jumps takes her and Stephen through a series of different universes. These include one where everything is animated and one where everything is just… paint. After that montage, Stephen and America find themselves on Earth-838. From there, the movie splits most of its remaining runtime between that universe and the “original” Marvel universe: Earth-616.
Instead of breaking the multiverse wide open, Multiverse of Madness limits itself. What could have been a chance for Marvel to stretch its imagination falls flat, with the exciting possibility of the multiverse reduced to two possibilities: New York, and New York… but with flowers.
The multiverse shouldn’t just be a one-way ticket to cameo town: It should be an exciting and meaningful expansion of the world.
We’re already extremely familiar with Earth-616. We’ve spent over 20 movies and several TV series exploring it. So let’s talk about Earth-838. It’s got a few quirks separating it from Earth-616: Pizza comes in ball form, people go on red and stop on green, everyone wears dark clothing and hats, and everything is covered in flowers, suggesting this New York is some kind of eco-utopia. Oh, and in this universe, they have memory machines that broadcast your recollections to anyone who may be walking by, just in case you’re looking for some handy-dandy exposition dumps.
These things certainly differentiate Earth-838 from Earth-616 visually, but we never find out enough about this universe to understand why these changes may exist, or why they matter at all. It quickly becomes clear that Earth-838 is less a new sandbox to play in it than it is an efficient way to introduce the Illuminati outside of Earth-616 and its canon. The multiverse shouldn’t just be a one-way ticket to cameo town: It should be an exciting and meaningful expansion of the world.
Credit: Marvel Studios 2022
Even when we do learn about changes between Earth-838 and Earth-616, they’re always in relation to the Avengers and their battle against Thanos. There’s a disappointing lack of imagination here, and an inability to look beyond Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. The multiverse is infinite, yet all the movie cares about is what superheroes are like in different universes. Even then, the differences tend to the underwhelming. You’re telling me that all that separates Earth-616’s Doctor Strange from his multiversal counterparts is a ponytail or a longer beard? Come on, we’ve seen Frog Thor and Alligator Loki — we know things can get much weirder. Plus, thanks to Zombie Strange, we know the movie is capable of getting weirder.
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My desire for weirdness and more glimpses of the multiverse no doubt stems from the recent release of Everything Everywhere All At Once, which delves into the concept of the multiverse in a far more satisfying way than Multiverse of Madness. In Everything Everywhere All At Once, action plays out across multiple universes, not just two. Every universe has a distinct feel to it and its own arc. Many are delightfully outlandish: In one universe, people have hot dog fingers. In another, sentient rocks with googly eyes carry out a heartfelt conversation.
Throughout Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, I kept wishing it would engage with the true potential of the multiverse in even one-tenth of the same way that Everything Everywhere All At Once does. Relegating the sheer awesomeness of infinite universes to a quick montage early on simply isn’t enough. If anything, it feels like the movie is just ticking a cursory box to say, “see, there are more universes” before jumping back into its main plot, designed to keep Phase 4 on track.
If done right, the multiverse would have opened up the world of Marvel. Instead, its squandered potential reminds us just how narrow the focus of the MCU is.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is now in theaters.