A Family Friendly “Haunted” House
Doctor Strange 2 was supposed to be Marvel’s first horror movie. The original director, Scott Derrickson, said at a convention they were “…going to make the first scary MCU film.” In January 2020 Scott Derrickson left the project due to “creative differences” with Marvel. Sam Raimi was brought in as a replacement. The news of Sam Raimi assuaged fears. That was until the president of Marvel Studios, Kevin Feige, came out and said that Doctor Strange 2 would not be a horror movie but it would be a scary MCU movie. Now Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is out and the world (including me) had time to digest this spooky movie.
Spoilers for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
Doctor Strange 2: The Strangening, centered on Doctor Strange helping America Chavez flee creepy Wanda Maxiomoff aka the Scarlet Witch. Doctor Strange 2: 51st Christine Palamers focused on Strange feeling real down about his exe’s wedding but realizes that there are other multiverse versions of Christine for him to love. Doctor Strange 2: The Others was about meeting the alternate Avengers, aka the very public Illuminati, and learning that Marvel can stuff whatever cameos and dumb casting choice they want in a movie. Also, there are incursions that will destroy universes but that will be important for later (Avengers 4 or whatever the number is). All three of these movies are edited into Doctor Strange: MoM.
The movie was a collage of possibilities. It was impressive that they could have made literally anything with the good parts but instead chose to throw in every choice possible. They stuffed the movie so much, that it is a wonder it didn’t burst out of the screen.
For the Illuminati they could have made an effective superhero movie about hard choices. In the Illuminati universe Doctor Strange was corrupted by an evil book, The Darkhold, and he asked the Illuminati to kill them. They kept that a secret from the public. But that was not their downfall. That plotline led nowhere. Their demise was an unrelated Wanda attack.
DS: MoM also tried to tell a romantic story between Christine Palmer and Doctor Strange. Which fundamentally did not work because of the appalling lack of chemistry between Racheal McAdams and Benedict Cumberbatch. Their relationship was more anti-horny than the sex scene in The Eternals. A multiverse version of Christine joined Strange on his journey halfway through the movie. Strange declared, “I love you. I love you in every Universe,” at the end of the movie. The delivery was as weak as the romance. The only thing these two did together was walk around a dead universe and at one point, she protected his body as he performed a ritual. The friction of their relationship was entirely built on him always being in control but not letting others take control. He finally did let go but it felt hollow. There was zero attraction between them. The romance felt like a contractual obligation to have Rachael McAdams be in one more movie but not any more because Clea (a love interest in the comics) showed up at the end credits.
Now for the final form of the movie, the horror. The best parts of the movie were the “scary” ones. Black Bolt tried to use his voice power but couldn’t because Wanda sealed his mouth closed. In another scene Strange, America, and Christine stood in front of a sealed door. Wanda bangs on the door. Then for the first time the movie sat back and let the tension build. Suddenly, she appeared in front of them as a jumpscare. Those were good moments, not because I was actually scared, but the ideas were fun to entertain.
Marvel struck gold with Wanda as the monster of the movie. She was an established character that all MCU fans have an opinion on. Everyone who watched WanadaVision either thinks of her as a victim or villain. Her powers had been vague enough that she could break rules and thwart the heroes without feeling the need for explanation. There was even a great theme of a mother’s love becoming possessive that would have worked with Doctor Strange’s need to be in control. The blueprints were there for a scary fun time.
What held back the movie was the lack of pacing. Pacing is critical to horror movies. Right before the monster strikes it is important to build tension. The right soundscape builds anticipation with discordant notes. If the music is distressing it sets off alarm bells in the brain. Something will happen. The implementation of silence is also effective. If a character is walking through a silent hallway that means something will happen during the walk. Could the monster attack in the middle or the end? Could it be a joke moment that deflates the tension, only to ramp it up later? The range of possibilities creates terror. Cinematography is used to hide the monster. The monster could be hiding around the corner of the wall or maybe behind an open door. But the camera keeps focused and hides the point of attack. A good jumpscare comes from taking the time to slow down and build tension.
Marvel movies can’t slow down. Wanda popped out of a mirror, contorting her body but it was quick so the movie could move onto the Illuminati. This made her contortion look really fast and funny. These movies are so full of content and set ups for future movies that they cannot linger. This kneecapped any tension building because there is no time to build and release.
Another aspect of horror (especially Sam Raimi horror) is gnarly deaths. In the “Wanda kills the Illuminati speedrun” scene, I watched Wanda rip through five people. Each death was, on paper, horrific. Black Blot got brain blasted. Mr. Fantastic was shredded as if he was paper. Wanda bisected Captain Carter with her own shield. Professor Xavier got his neck snapped while inside Wanda’s mind. Captain Marvel was…crushed by a big statue. The first issue with this scene was that I didn’t care about any of these characters. The Illuminati were introduced minutes before and all they did was establish the fact that they don’t trust any Doctor Strange. Of course since it was Marvel, they assumed I already cared about these characters. It was a weird assumption because the multiverse means these characters should be different or at least important to the story. But they were not. Jim Office as Mr. Fantastic was only there to hype up the future Fantastic Four movie. Which was boring when he could have been used as a foil for Strange. Reed Richards is arrogant and controlling. He could have been another cautionary tale in this story of heroes turned monstrous. Instead, they all die and we move on never mentioning them again.
All of this points to a failure of imagination. There was no way this could have been a scary movie. The goal was to sell tickets and build hype for the next Marvel thing. It is impossible to cram seven cameo characters in a slow paced horror flick. The cameos are future cash cows. When capital is on the line, why would Disney experiment with the formula? Instead they can make almost one billion dollars for a movie that is loved by their fans. The monopolization of entertainment media continues.
- This version of America Chavez was the most boring take I could possibly think of. I am noticing a pattern with the younger superheroes. Everyone of them are plucky super fans of the heroes they are with. Or in Chavez’s case, she started training as a sorcerer for some reason. Also, I am 90% sure her Pride Flag pin was CGI on so Disney could say, “we love the gays”.
- “I’m not a monster, I’m a mother” was such a great line. I was the only one who laughed out loud in my theatre.
- The music fight scene was a neat idea but because the soundtrack was typical superhero noise it was boring. I don’t care about the notes of a generic horn piece.
- Wanda being “killed” because she saw the error of her ways and decided to have rocks fall on her was cheap and unearned. New idea: good guys beat her. Rocks fall down and crush her. Ending scene is her hand shooting out of rocks. Perfect unkillable monster moment.
- I am sure that in 10 years the Haunted Mansion will become a Doctor Strange ride.
Bonus: The Doctor’s Orders
Celebration Cinema had a cocktail to celebrate Doctor Strange called The Doctor’s Orders. Just now realizing that Doctor Strange did zero doctor stuff in the movie. It had ginger beer in it that masked how horrible the Avatar 2 trailer was.