Following its 2016 predecessor, the long-awaited sequel “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” has shown the ingenuity of its creative team by deftly answering the first film’s casting controversies and issues of oriental exoticism — that left legions of Asian American Marvel fans unimpressed — with a horror-inspired take.
“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” centers Sorcerer Supreme Wong, played by Marvel Cinematic Universe veteran Benedict Wong, and fan favorite America Chavez, a multiverse-jumping teen played by MCU newcomer Xochitl Gomez, in a way that assuredly opens up Phase 4 to worlds and characters of all kinds.
The 2016 film put the “strange” in “Doctor Strange” with its tired, faux-Zen Buddhist pilgrimage storyline. In it, we watch Dr. Stephen Strange, the titular character portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, seek out alternatives to Western medicine in an unmemorable and unimaginative monastery setting called the Kamar-taj. While white characters flavored with vague, Hollywood-treated Tibetan training that imbues both worldly knowledge and ninja skills are nothing new to action movies, the first film further perpetuated this legacy of oriental exoctisicm. (Offscreen, let’s not forget that actress Tilda Swinton dealt with the Ancient One casting controversy by reaching out to comedian Margaret Cho, who had no involvement in the film and had never met Swinton before, for her stamp of approval. Swinton released their email correspondence that revealed a “weird” tone — as if Swinton felt entitled to get a famous Asian American’s approval or blessing over the matter.)
Thus, it was a relief to see how director Sam Raimi — best known for the original Spider-Man trilogy starring Tobey Maguire — handled the magic differently with this sequel. Raimi’s roster of films include beloved supernatural horror and thriller pictures (“Evil Dead” and “Drag Me to Hell”) with cult followings. His skillset in horror provided this latest MCU entry with much less Asian mysticism and superficial aesthetics and much more dark magic grounded by a myriad of settings fit for the multiverse — from icy mountaintops to a haunting dreamscape.
At the film’s press conference, Raimi shared his opinion on returning to superhero films after 15 years, and what’s changed about filmmaking: “As far as the most important thing that changed? I would prefer to answer what didn’t change: You need to have great actors [that] recognize the humanity within themselves. That’s how people connect to these superheroes. These are great actors. They know the characters very well. They have played them for so many years in so many important Marvel movies.”
Raimi’s experience in horror and supernatural genres proved to be a perceptive choice by Marvel Studios, saturating the magic of Steven’s world with a greater feeling of the occult with forbidden spells and paranormal energy through jump scares, creepy visuals, and frenetic music choices, supplied by eminent composer Danny Elfman. Additionally, Michael Waldron, the head writer of the Disney+ series “Loki,” produced a script which harkened back to the similar style of twists and world building seen in that aforementioned series.
“I had the great benefit of inheriting the bulk of these characters,” Waldron remarked. “That’s what centered me creatively — Stephen, Wanda, Wong, [and] obviously America is a new character that Xochitl is originating. In a lot of ways, I was just a steward of these characters on the page. And so, there’s a lot of opportunity to collaborate with these tremendous actors who know them better than I could.”
Actor Benedict Wong, in his fifth appearance as Wong, continues the trajectory of his character from the stereotypical portrayal of a tea-serving, wordless scholar librarian to a dedicated Master of the Mystic Arts — this time Wong is the Sorcerer Supreme with a satisfying bit that reinforces his status over Cumberbatch’s Strange.
“When I first took the job six years ago, we moved away from the old source material, which was old, and we developed and crafted this no-nonsense mid-field general librarian,” Wong said about the now Sorcerer Supreme. “It has continued through five of the movies and is now the no-nonsense Sorcerer Supreme. I love where we are going with this and the character progression. We will see what unfurls in this [film].”
The latest installment positioned the British-Hong Kong actor to boost the film’s storylines by having him directly take on the big bad solo for a hefty chunk of the film — moments that include possibly saying goodbye to the character for good. In contrast to the first “Doctor Strange,” the character of Wong played a much larger role beyond mentorship to Stephen.
Mexican American Xochitl Gomez gave the film — that critics are calling Marvel’s goriest film to date — its much needed warmth and trademark MCU, quippy one-liners. Her earnest portrayal of America Chavez gives audiences much to look forward to, as new allegiances within the MCU potentially form, especially given the long list of anticipated Disney+ MCU series.
“One thing that was so important to me — since as you know this is a very adult movie and it’s very heavy — I wanted to make sure that America still had that youthfulness and fake-it-till-you-make-it resilience. But when you have some crazy stuff happening, it is a little hard,” Gomez said with a laugh, trying not to reveal too much. “What helps is that she is 14, which is younger than she was in any of the comics and that helps in writing a new introduction to her character, which I think Michael Waldron did beautifully.”
On top of that, fans and allies calling for Latinx representation in superhero films may be pleased to see a Spanish-speaking character (an introduction that also brings representation to the LGBTQ+ community that some countries are censoring) play a hugely pivotal role in the creative future of the billion-dollar franchise. Gomez holds her own against industry veterans Cumberbatch, Elizabeth Olsen (who plays Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch), and Wong in a film filled with a number of major Twitter-worthy moments.
“In the multiverse, it is basically a mirror and they meet altered versions of themselves. These actors are so good, they know that they just have to change the slightest aspect of their character’s personality to make an interesting conflict with the altered self,” Raimi said.
For folks hoping for horror and supernatural genre elements to blend into the MCU, “The Multiverse of Madness” certainly delivers on that promise, along with more critically developed depictions of beloved characters of color by the creative team. Overall, more creative imaginings of Wong and Chavez result in a lot more fun for this film series. Expect gore — and thankfully, no whitewashing.
In Marvel Studios’ “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” the MCU unlocks the Multiverse and pushes its boundaries further than ever before. Journey into the unknown with Doctor Strange, who, with the help of mystical allies both old and new, traverses the mind-bending and dangerous alternate realities of the Multiverse to confront a mysterious new adversary. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” releases in U.S. theaters on May 6, 2022.
Last modified: May 12, 2022