Remember Wanda? Well, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is as much of a sequel to WandaVision as it is to the first Doctor Strange movie. Not just because it continues the story of the newly anointed Scarlet Witch, as seen in the genre-spanning Disney+ series. No, Multiverse of Madness is a WandaVision sequel because it one-ups that show’s big bait-and-switch.
If you thought Fake Pietro (Wanda’s brother) was a huge fake-out, prepare yourself for being totally rick-rolled by the Illuminati.
Full spoilers ahead for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Seriously, you’ve been warned.
Prior to the premiere of Multiverse of Madness, Marvel fans were perhaps most excited that the film seemed to be about to introduce the Illuminati, a shadowy group of some of Marvel’s most powerful heroes who dealt with multiversal threats. Moreover, the film version of the group seemed to consist of characters from the animated What If…? series on Disney+, like Captain Carter and Strange Supreme. It also counted Patrick Stewart’s Professor X amongst its members, getting fans excited that the X-Men were finally going to join the MCU. There were rumors that John Krasinski, a popular fan-casting choice for Mr. Fantastic, would appear as well, ushering the Fantastic Four into the MCU. The movie Illuminati, many suspected, were going to be a multiverse-spanning game-changer. In other words, Multiverse of Madness seemed poised to introduce some highly anticipated elements to the MCU canon, and it would make the anthology What If…? series required viewing. Again this is what people thought was going to happen.
Instead, in the actual movie, shortly after their introduction, almost every single member of the Illuminati — Professor X (Stewart), Captain Carter (Hayley Atwell), Mr. Fantastic (Krasinski), Captain Marvel (Lashana Lynch), and Black Bolt (Anson Mount, the most unexpected cameo since the much-maligned Inhumans show has otherwise been memory-holed) — were all brutally murdered by a rampaging Scarlet Witch. The end. Take that Marvel fans!
(Editor’s note: The fact that Anson Mount appears on screen in a movie with the word “Strange” in the title, on the same day his new Star Trek series, Strange New Worlds hits Paramount+ is weird. It’s even weirder that Patrick Stewart, another Star Trek Enterprise captain, ALSO has a new Trek series — Star Trek: Picard Season 2 finale — airing on the day of the Doctor Strange 2 release and shares this scene with Mount. Let’s not even think too hard about how Cumberbatch also planned Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness.)
So, all of that speculation that What If…? would matter in the live-action MCU canon was for nothing. In fact, neither this Captain Carter nor the evil Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) that many assumed was What If…?’s Strange Supreme appeared to be the same characters we saw in the animated series. Captain Carter was simply the 838 Universe’s iteration of the character, and the Strange had his own backstory that was different from the What If…? character. While it was especially cool to see Captain Carter in action (albeit briefly), this was not the What If…? coronation that some hoped for, and we certainly won’t be seeing this Captain Carter again, seeing as she was cut in twain by her own shield.
Expectations that Professor X might be from the Fox-made X-Men movies, thus “canonizing” them in the MCU, were similarly dashed. This was not the same Professor X from those movies confusing continuity. Instead of a wheelchair, he rode in the hoverchair from the ‘90s X-Men cartoon, and there was even a hint of that show’s theme song when he showed up. Technically, his appearance officially introduced the X-Men to the Marvel Cinematic Multiverse, as there are Mutants in Universe 838, but so far, there are still no Mutants in the main Universe 616 continuity.
The decision to hype up the addition of all these characters and feed fan theory fires about the implications for the future of the MCU only to introduce baggage-free versions of the characters then summarily execute them is a brilliant troll. It outdoes both Deadpool 2, which made a huge deal out of The X-Force only to kill ‘em all, and WandaVision’s fakeout.
WandaVision’s troll wasn’t nearly as graphic as Deadpool 2 or Multiverse of Madness’ fakeouts, but it’s similar to the Illuminati rug-pull because it used fan expectation and fan theorizing against them. In the fifth episode of WandaVision, Wanda’s brother Pietro (a.k.a. Quicksilver), who died in Age of Ultron where he was played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, shows up on her doorstep. However, now he’s played by Evan Peters, who played Quicksilver in the Fox X-Men movies. (Prior to Disney’s purchase of Fox, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch were unique in that they were both X-Men and Avengers characters, giving both studios the rights to use them, though the X-Men movies never had their own Scarlet Witch.)
When the episode aired, fans exploded. The X-Men Quicksilver was now canon in the MCU! Except, no, he wasn’t. It turns out that Agatha Harkness had simply “recast” Pietro, and Evan Peters was really playing some dude named Ralph Bohner. The show was exploiting fan knowledge on a meta-level, and it knew exactly what it was doing when it tricked the audience into thinking Peters’ “Pietro” meant a lot more than it did. (It was, for the record, a great prank.)
Multiverse of Madness took this to the next level, teasing a ton of concepts and characters that die-hard fans had galaxy-brained themselves into thinking were imminent only to make them far less important or connected than initially speculated. Then, it exploded their heads, bisected them, snapped their necks, crushed them, and spaghettified them. It’s a shocking, graphic (and fantastic) moment, but it was made all the more impactful because fans and entertainment news sites that cover superhero movies (guilty!) hyped these characters up. There have been years of pleading for the X-Men to join the MCU, tons of posts about how Krasinski would be a perfect Mr. Fantastic, and lots of elevating of the What If…? show. Without all that real-world expectation setting, the subversion wouldn’t work nearly as well.
This does, perhaps, make one wonder if these sorts of bait-and-switches that prey on fandom expectations will age poorly. Somebody who watches Multiverse of Madness for the first time years from now — someone who had no idea Krasinski was ever a highly requested contender for the Mr. Fantastic role — might not care nearly as much when he shows up and dies. For that matter, a “normal” moviegoer who doesn’t follow the MCU rumor mill might be underwhelmed or confused as well.
That’s a valid concern and one that Marvel Studios should probably keep in mind going forward. You can only fool people so many times before they get wise or get mad. And yet, I wouldn’t trade Sam Raimi’s gleeful disembowelment of months of fan theorizing for the world — nay, for the multiverse.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is out in theaters now.