Doctor Strange in the Madness Multiverse Is Pure Fanfic (Updated)

One scene in Marvel’s latest release, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, will undoubtedly dominate the film’s discussion for weeks. You already know it if you’ve seen the trailer. It’s the scene in which Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) walks up to Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and says, “The Illuminati will see you now.” This isn’t the fabled Illuminati, the secret society known as society’s puppeteers. This is Marvel’s Illuminati, a group of heroes in a different reality than the one seen so far in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it includes a slew of cameos that we won’t spoil here.

Marvel fans have seen numerous versions of this scene. It’s the kind of moment that either sets up 100 more films and shows or serves as a reminder of how much intellectual property Disney owns. Alternatively, both. It’s a narrative device meant to depict superheroes banding together to save the universe (of course), but the scene also serves as a chance to tease, say, the next big reboot or wink at the Disney+ show. What if…? To put it another way, it’s fanfic come to life. (OK, if you’re sensitive to spoilers, you should probably stop reading now.)

Without the multiverse, none of this would be possible. As WIRED pointed out last year, WandaVision opened the door to multiple realities, which meant that not only could one Doctor Strange movie have multiple Doctor Stranges, but Wanda from WandaVision (Elizabeth Olsen) could also try to skip to a timeline where she joins children she never birthed in the main MCU timeline and also pass through one with a very prominent X-Man, who comes from a universe where Magneto is possibly her father.

(Whew!) Much of this, such as Strange’s appearance in Spider-Man: No Way Home, is the result of Disney now owning more Marvel toys than it did two decades ago, after acquiring Fox (previous parent of the Fantastic Four and the X-Men) in 2019 and striking a deal to have Sony’s Spidey movies align with the larger Marvel movie world.

This is what fans fantasize about. Who doesn’t want Professor Charles Xavier to arrive bearing moral authority? Everyone is curious as to who would win if Captain Marvel and Scarlet Witch got into a fight. (A sizable subset would probably also suggest they kiss and make up, but that’s more slashfic.) Disney intends to use all of these franchises now that they have them under their control. Kevin Feige, the CEO of Marvel, has promised as much. Doctor Strange’s encounter with the Illuminati is only the beginning.

However, that isn’t the only way Multiverse of Madness feels like fanfic. It’s also because of the stylistic choices. Madness is easily the most horror-filled of the Marvel films, directed by Sam Raimi, the mastermind behind the 1981 horror classic The Evil Dead who went on to direct the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man films. So it’s also a genre mashup. (There’s also one helluva cameo for Walking Dead fans.) Add in a Danny Elfman score that flirts with Trent Reznor territory, and it all feels like you’re watching a Marvel movie in another universe. This is, of course, the point, and it definitely makes Madness more enjoyable than, say, Eternals.

However, it can have a bit of a kitchen-sink feel to it. (Perhaps the tired tropes Wanda is on the verge of falling into are also in the mix, but that’s another story.)

Fans have been living in a world with many separate multiverses for a long time—they could keep Iron Man and discard the X-Men, and write their own story if they wanted them to meet—crossing them over looks super cool, but it may not be without consequences.

Last year, in that aforementioned WandaVision piece, my former colleague Adam Rogers predicted this as a metacrisis. “Crossovers, and by extension multiverses,” he wrote, “solve storytelling problems specific to large shared stories.” However, if you’re a comics editor, a showrunner, or a movie producer, there will come a time when “you burn it all in a cosmic fire—the metacrisis, where a destructive act destroys a super-shared multiverse, clears away the debris, and readies the narrative field for planting again.” Loki’s season-finale reveal of He Who Remains hinted at this already. This fire, though, will take a lot of beloved storylines with it. It will be necessary; it will be a mess. And it will be up to fans if they want to continue on in this fiction.