[Warning: This story contains spoilers for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.]
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness makes it crystal clear that Marvel Studios is now very much in the Multiverse business.
Following last year’s Loki premiere season on Disney+ and Spider-Man: No Way HomeSam Raimi’s Multiverse of Madness is not only the third Marvel release to concern itself with the idea of an infinite number of alternate realities of familiar characters — it literally gives the Multiverse title billing.
And things aren’t going to change anytime soon, with another season of Loki and the feature film, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, on the way, Not to mention, as Multiverse of Madness makes clear via the Illuminati, there’s likely even more in our future.
So now there’s an obvious question to be asked: Just how much Multiverse is too much Multiverse?
Meticulously introduced in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the very nature of the Multiverse allows for filmmakers to explore alternate ideas and takes on concepts and characters already established elsewhere.
Following rules laid down in both 2019’s Avengers: Endgame and the aforementioned first season of LokiMarvel’s Multiverse has ramped up to fold in earlier incarnations of Sony’s spider-man franchise (with enormous box office success) and now, characters previously annexed under 20th Century Studios. Multiverse of Madness features the first official Marvel Studios appearance of a member from both Fantastic Four and X-Men, albeit versions from parallel Earths.
So far, so good! The Multiverse has inarguably made the MCU more robust, more inclusive, and further packed with storytelling potential. That said, as comic fans are all too aware, there comes a point where exploring a fictional Multiverse can slip from an exciting game of “What If…?” into something lackadaisical.
It’s one thing to use the Multiverse to introduce new elements for audiences and creators alike to enjoy and play with — but the availability of any number of realities ready for plunder has, historically, also offered far too easy access for shock tactics used to elicit easy responses from comic audiences.
It could be argued by some, Multiverse of Madness shows that Marvel may be already bumping into this due to the following: Audiences witness the death of a Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), a Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), a Reed Richards (John Krasinski), and a version of WandaVision‘s Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) — but none of them are “our” version of each character. So, while their deaths tread on the emotional connection audiences have with those characters, they’re essentially meaningless; the regular versions are still ready to appear in the MCU moving forward.
Future movies could go further, reintroducing Iron Man, Black Widow, Captain America or other MCU characters who’ve died in earlier stories by simply explaining them away as parallel Earth versions who get to cross over into “our” Earth for as long a stay as their popularity allows. (Indeed, America Chavez has already established the potential for permanently moving between realities by the end of Multiverse of Madness.)
Should it get to that extent, the MCU Multiverse arguably threatens to undercut any sense of permanence or credibility in storytelling in a wider sense. After all, why should audiences get upset about a character’s death if another version can show up at any moment? “In my view, the general rule of thumb is that each of these alternate worlds should be treated as its own potential franchise rather than squandered as disposable cannon fodder for the nineteenth nervous re-run of Crisis on Infinite Earths,” as famed comic book writer Grant Morrison wrote recently. They should know, having spent a considerable time building out DC’s comic book Multiverse, not least in the 2014 miniseries The Multiversity.
just like that Multiverse of Madness may make some comic fans uneasy about possible Multiverse concept misuse, it also wisely lays the groundwork for an exit strategy in the future. The term “incursion” is used more than once in Multiverse of Madness by those warning Doctor Strange that his travels across reality have dangerous consequences. Again, this is a signpost for comic book fans in the know, as “incursion” has a very specific meaning in Marvel mythology, courtesy of a storyline that ran across a number of different series starting almost exactly 10 years ago.
In a thread that ran through 2012’s Avengers, New Avengersand led into the best-selling miniseries titled secret wars, writer Jonathan Hickman introduced the concept of Multiversal incursions: an eight-hour window where two Earths from different realities can co-exist without cosmic forces tearing both realities apart. In order to save their reality, the other Earth needs to be destroyed before the end of the eight hours. As the story approaches its climax, the Avengers have been forced to decimate countless other Earths as the Multiverse has shrunk to just two Earths, and then… well, to say any more would be to spoil the story.
Marvel Studios adopting the Hickman Secret Wars incursion concept has two immediate benefits. It not only provides an epic storyline to replace the Thanos/infinity Stones thread that wound up in end game – one that offers another threat to reality itself, but also a threat to the heroes’ morality as they have to decide whether to destroy other Earths in order to survive, thereby upping the ante significantly. But, perhaps, more importantly, it provides an endpoint to the Multiverse, should Marvel want (or need one) by that point.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness does, in many respects, look like the beginning of a vast Multiversal storyline for Marvel Studios — but, it possibly marks the beginning of the end, as well.