A dimensional incursion has occurred between the genre of comic book superheroes, and horror has occurred. It began, cinematically, in Moon Knight, with just a hint of it in No Way Home, but now the singularity has happened and I decided that I couldn’t contain it anywhere other than in this textual laboratory.
Have you ever began something with a singular purpose – like a Sacred Timeline – and then through a series of tangents, spin-offs, unfortunate events, and poor life decisions, or varied Choose Your Own Adventures you find yourself in a complicated web where you have to confront all of these things in some kind of existential test filled with dread? This is basically Sam Raimi’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.
I could go into Marvel lore – both comics-wise and cinematically – but let’s be honest, so many others have, and are, already doing so in the different planes of reality. So now, I ask you – my readers – to take after the example of the Infinity Warriors that some of you already are, and remember the Creed:
No Spoilers. Because, after this moment, reading past this point means that all the responsibility falls onto you. You were warned.
When you look past sorcerers, in this world with their martial arts and academic leanings, and witches with their raw power and their own erude learning, what you are left with is a magician. And while Stephen Strange and Wanda Maximoff are sorcerer and witch respectively, it is Sam Raimi that is the magician. And what are magicians excellent at displaying?
It’s a trait that carries over from his work in the horror genre: where you think that the plot is going to go one way, or the story is going to end in another, but something else happens entirely. And in Sam Raimi’s case, it is usually a mad-cap situation that goes down.
The events of the film play behind my third eye’s mind. We see an alternate version of Stephen Strange, called Defender Strange, with one of the few human singularities or cosmological constants in the multiverse – America Chavez whose ability is to travel all realities – fleeing a monster covered in runes and incantations. We think, and we are primed, to believe that he will sacrifice himself to save America’s life by letting the monster attack and kill him. We are led to believe he will send her away as the creature corrupts and changes him into a zombified version of himself: an undead body warped and twisted by an evil spirit to become an antagonist as America gets the mainline Marvel Cinematic Strange to help her escape evil.
Instead, we see them trapped attempting to get the Book of Vishanti in this plane between universes, and Strange decides to drain America of her power: effectively killing her instead of letting the pursuing demon’s master have her power to travel the multiverse instead. This is such a prelude to the critique of Stephen Strange – all the Stephen Stranges throughout the multiverse and the one we know – that will happen throughout the film: taking him to an uncomfortable psychological place.
This is where we see Stephen Strange and his arrogance: his inherent, deep-set need to know best over the needs and consent of others. He can even violate the friendship and trust of anyone at his side if it threatens “the greater good.”
And then, the Stephen Strange we know wakes up: having seen all of this as a nightmare. But we know it wasn’t just a dream. As it turns out, and as America explains later on to him and Wong – the former sorcerer Librarian and current Sorcerer Supreme – there are people powerful enough to dream themselves into their alternate selves in other realities: to get a glimpse of what their lives might have been like if other roads had been taken. It is eerie, and disturbing when you think about what we all dream about, assuming this only applies to “the important,” especially given that America herself never dreams when she sleeps: as she is the only one of her kind in the multiverse.
Think about it. Imagine all those dreams where you die. Or you are still in high school. Or you are losing your apartment.
Or you find yourself falling.
Consider that all of these scenarios happened to you, or are happening to you, in the multiverse. And then take that realization, and apply it to those other selves dreaming of you. This existential dread is just the beginning, and it’s something that Stephen Strange has to face when he looks at the corpse of Defender Strange on the rooftop before him. I mean, holy Gothic horror Batman: looking at your dead double or Doppelgänger after hearing that he betrayed the girl he was friends with would shake your core faith in yourself, I don’t care who you are. Talk about the foreshadowing and ill omens you do not want. Forget having a living harbinger telling you that you are going to fuck something up by messing with it in the horror genre, just look at your own dead body, and think to yourself: I need to seriously reconsider my life.
And with this foray into the morbid uncanny in mind, let’s look further into some messed up character psychology. We are primed to think there is a Big Bad, some kind of powerful demon or supervillain that sent these monstrosities after an innocent girl like America: to get her power to expand their power throughout the multiverse. So what does Doctor Strange do? Well, he realizes he needs help. He has an entire legion of his fellow brother, sister, and sibling sorcerers in the temple of Kamar-Taj to protect America, but he knows that having a fellow Avenger might help: someone with familiarity with the Mystic Arts.
Wanda Maximoff has had a bad time of it. When you look at the intertextuality or continuity of her between films she had killed the man she loved for nothing, fell into delusion and denial over his death and unconsciously used Chaos Magic to take over an entire town and recreate her lover and make children from nothing, was manipulated by an ancient witch, and then lost all of what she built, and ends up in the possession of the Darkhold: a tome of dark magic that corrupts the essence of the person using it. We’ve seen the Darkhold affect people in Agents of SHIELD: scientists, soldiers, and even an artificial intelligence, and none of it was pleasant. So imagine how horrifying a concept it is for someone of Wanda’s ability to be influenced by this book.
To give you an idea of what the Darkhold is: it was, in the comics, created by followers of an Elder God of Darkness and Chaos named Chthon as a way to leave his mark on the world from which he was banished, and to eventually come back into it. Now, Chthon refers to the earth, but also has very Lovecraftian overtones, and the Darkhold is essentially Marvel’s — and Gerry Conway and Mike Ploog’s — version of the Necronomicon. Nothing good ever comes from possessing a book of forbidden knowledge. And, like the Necronomicon in H.P. Lovecraft’s Mythos, it has copies. And while I am still unsure if Agents of SHIELD is canon, or not a parallel reality to the mainline cinematic universe, that copy was taken by Ghost Rider elsewhere to be destroyed, presumably in hell or some infernal plane like it. Agatha Harkness had another copy, which Wanda had taken from her.
So basically, this book is inspired by Marvel’s equivalent to a Great Old One, who in the comics made Scarlet Witch to conquer the world and multiverse. It is a nice parallel to Alan Moore’s analogue to the Necronomicon in his and Jacen Burrows’ comics work Providence, the Kitab al Hikmah Najmiyya, or The Book of the Wisdom of the Stars with its own prophecy of the Redeemer: a figure will return reality into an inherently non-human chaos. Basically, Wanda is Chthon’s Redeemer even if, like Moore’s Lovecraft depiction, she doesn’t intend to be.
But comics and scholarly geekery, and whether or not Moore was inspired by the Marvel Darkhold or some other Mythos story, we come back to Sam Raimi. If you have watched the Evil Dead Trilogy, you have seen the Necronomicon before. The Naturom Demonto, or the Necronomicon Ex Mortis is a book that details Kandarian funerary rites, prophecies, and passages that allow for the summoning of demons. Mainly in Raimi’s films, whenever this book with a cover of warped human, or demon flesh and made by the Dark Ones, is opened and people stupidly read from it in a cabin within the woods, it summons entities called Kandarian Demons. And these demons are all about possessing people, turning their bodies into living, gibbering, autonomous weapons called Deadites that maim and kill human beings out of amusement. And you can only destroy them by cutting them into little pieces. Generally, once you call on the power of any version of this book: from Lovecraft’s with its rituals to deal with Great Old Ones, Marvel’s Darkhold with its black magics, or Raimi’s Naturom Demonto or Ex Mortis, it never ends well for anybody.
So we have Wanda, whom Strange approaches, in her meadow and her snug little cabin to help guard the life and soul of a young girl. But like any horror film, you see that cabin is cursed by the proximity of the Darkhold and Wanda has only been masking the diseased nature of the land around them by her own magic. It only takes Strange a moment to realize that the human disaster that is Wanda Maximoff has been the one secretly sending those monsters after America: so she can use her powers to travel to the multiverse to be with alternate versions of the sons she lost.
Wanda is also the second person in that film, after Stephen’s former lover Christine Palmer, to ask him if he is truly happy. And she confronts him with some truth bombs about his hypocrisy in opposing her: about how his own selfishness, and also keeping his own counsel in dealing with the Time Stone cost so many lives while she wants to do is go to her children. We see that her delusion hasn’t abated. She’s simply consumed by the power of the Darkhold and the obsession of her getting her family back: at all costs. And if she has to kill a young girl to do it? Well, the girl is an anomaly and therefore not human, and according to Wanda “she doesn’t count.” I mean, it is not atypical. After all, witches sacrifice children to empower themselves, or accomplish their goals all the time in folklore. Just not superheroes.
So yes. It is safe to say that Wanda the Scarlet Witch has traded reason for madness.
Horror films love to deal with that age-old trope of the road paved with good intentions. And here, too, Stephen avoids answering the question about whether or not he’s happy.
The following fight between Wanda and the sorcerers of Kamar-Taj is nothing short of a deadly one-sided slaughter, with some resonance with Raimi’s own Army of Darkness. Wanda doesn’t resurrect the dead, or summon more demons. She simply preys on the minds of the adepts, and uses her raw power to overcome their traps.
But it becomes clear, as America Chavez’s power is activated by intense fear and she and Doctor Strange are sent throughout the multiverse that the only way to stop a Darkhold-infused Scarlet Witch is to find the Book of the Vishtanti : the Darkhold’s positive opposite empowered by Elder Gods opposed to it.
So the Book of the Vishanti, that can basically create a spell that can instantly accomplish its goal, feels reminiscent of August Derleth’s interpretation of the Cthulhu Mythos: in that he wrote stories where the Elder Gods were good, and the Outer Gods were evil. One can see Marvel, in making their conception of the Darkhold that made it into this film, thinking of Chthon as some kind of equivalent to an Outer God, and the three Vishanti deities as Elder Gods. Certainly, there is some influence there, even if the Vishanti and Chthon are all Elder Gods in Marvel’s mythology.
Yet it is also important to talk about these books, and books of power themselves, in the context of Sam Raimi. Books are important in Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead film series. The Book of Vishanti is supposedly the only one of its kind in the multiverse, much like a text equivalent to America Chavez, whereas the Darkhold has multiple copies in different realities based off the Temple Cthton created on Wundagore Mountain in one plane. In Army of Darkness, Ash Williams is sent back in time due to the events of Evil Dead II, the sequel and revision to the first film, and he has to find the right book – in this case the Necronomicon Ex Mortis – to fight off the scourge of the Deadites and return home to his time. He ends up in a graveyard facing what seems to be three copies of the Necronomicon – two of them being false – and when he finds the right one he fails to speak the magic words (which were inspired from the alien Klaatu’s orders to his robot ally Gort in the 1951 film The Day The Earth Stood Still, which is funny when you consider the presence of the Illuminati’s Ultron Iron Legion). The Necronomicon, in the case of Raimi’s third film in the trilogy, isn’t just the source of chaos in existence, but it has potential solutions as well. However, there is a more direct parallel between the Book of Vishtanti and Raimi when you look at Evil Dead II, the Necronomicon also possesses missing pages that contain a space-time vortex spell, and a prophecy of “the Hero From the Sky” that Annie Knowby, the daughter of Professor Knowby and Henrietta Knowby – who is possessed by a Kandarian Demon and made into a Deadite also referred to a lot of the time as a witch – uses to banish the evil of the book, and accidentally Ash as well. Of course, the Ex Mortis itself is a lot like the Darkhold with its own prophecy of Wanda as the Scarlet Witch.
Of course, there is an interesting parallel in that Ash Williams fails to retrieve the Necronomicon Ex Mortis peacefully in Army of Darkness albeit by his own foolishness, while Stephen Strange and America Chavez also fail to keep the Book of Vishtanti when Wanda obliterates it.
Interestingly enough, and speaking of the destruction of books, the burning the Necronomicon Ex Mortis in Raimi’s films also eliminates the Deadites, while the obliteration of the Darkhold – while it also costs the life of the person that damages it, as we see in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness – essentially robs its user of much of its magics: including the ability to dreamwalk.
Dreamwalking is another fascinating element in this film and its mythology. It is a practice, taken from the Darkhold, that allows the user to possess any of their alternate selves through the multiverse. So imagine that while normal dreaming lets you see through the eyes and minds of your alternates at times, dreamwalking gives you the power to control your alternates like puppets: overriding their sense of choice and freewill to do whatever you want. It is a terrifying skill, and one that apparently angers the damned. It isn’t to be used lightly. In fact, Wanda only utilizes this power when she has no other way to reach Stephen Strange and America in the multiverse. And when Stephen Strange ends up using another copy of the Darkhold to dreamwalk back to his own reality, he is accosted by spirits that twitter, taunt, and torment not unlike Kandarian Demons except they are essentially demonic shadows without bodies: the very same he begins to utilize against Wanda before she can absorb America’s power.
But when you get back to the entire plot of the film, it is one great horror misdirection. The hero at the beginning of the film attempts to kill his charge for his conception of the greater good. Another hero has gone mad, and is willing to terrorize murder a young girl to find her created chidren in another realm: committing war and essentially genocide against an entire ancient order to get to her.
Yet I think that what ultimately gets to me is the absolute personal horror in this film.
Not only do you have the fact that fear is the only thing that America Chavez can use to activate her power to travel to, and portals to other realities, and her living with the burden of having accidentally banished both of her mothers to other planes, but it all comes back to Wanda Maximoff and Stephen Strange. Wanda Maximoff continues to make a whole series of moral compromises: from sending monsters after America, to slaughtering an order of sorcerers defending a child, to essentially violating and controlling her alternate counterpart in the Illuminati reality – even abandoning her in the plane between realities without knowing or caring if she has powers to get herself back – all the way to tormenting and potentially killing Wong, and draining the energy out of a young girl as Agatha Harkness tried to her back in WandaVision. It is sad to see a misguided hero become essentially a villain, or at least a seriously corrupted antagonist, and it is only after America Chavez literally gives Wanda a reality check by forcing her to see her alternate and her sons terrified of her that she sees what she has become. This realization, that she is basically a monster, that she looked into the abyss and became the things that used to torture her and use her, that she swore to destroy, that “her children” were afraid of her, breaks her.
And then we have our friend Strange himself, the supposed hero of this film. What we find is what happens when a man who thinks he knows best is pushed to the nth degree in different realities. The Illuminati themselves, created by one version of Doctor Strange, also believe they know what they need to do for the greater good, and overestimate their power: costing the majority of them their lives. Black Bolt and Mr. Fantastic die horrific, grisly deaths for superheroes under the Scarlet Witch between the former having no mouth and he must scream, and the latter being peeled away like a cheese stick: complete with Captain Carter getting cut in half by her own shield, and the Rambeau Captain Marvel crushed by her own statue. Poor Professor Xavier, whom I actually thought would be the worst of the lot, was actually the most compassionate in wanting to free Stephen Strange from their capture of him, and even attempting to remove Wanda from her captured alternate’s mind before she snapped his neck. It’s a strange thing to see when you consider Xavier’s interplay with Wanda in the Marvel Comics when they were sometimes allies, and oftentimes enemies as she was Magneto’s daughter.
The reason I mention the Illuminati’s deaths, most of them not particularly graphic but some of their off-screen and shot angles of demise allowing the imagination to fill in the blanks and make it worse, is that they die because they captured Stephen due to them having killed their own Doctor Strange, and other variants of him. Essentially, what Stephen Strange discovers, and what they reveal to him, is that the Strange of their universe attempted to use the Darkhold’s dreamwalking against Thanos and, as a result, destroyed an entire other universe. He hadn’t told them, or his version of Christine Palmer what he was doing – taking it on himself to “wield the scalpel” – and it cost trillions their lives.
It is like Defender Strange’s attack on America writ large, and making Stephen Strange see his gamble against Thanos in his reality and allowing him to understand the cost in doing so: even if it was the only way from his perspective with the Time Stone. But it gets worse. Stephen and Christine end up in a dying universe, looking not unlike the fractured reality of The One Who Remains in Loki. It is there that Stephen meets what can be called Sinister Strange, who is mostly mad and failed to save his universe: who has taken it on himself to absorb the power of the Darkhold, and murder his alternates for fun in other universes. Essentially, this Doctor Strange took the burden of his failures, and of doing everything himself, messed up, and hated himself so much he kills himself in other places, over and again. And when Stephen realizes the full extent of this, and duels with him, the other’s death is more like a mercy killing.
Because what Stephen Strange finally confronts in looking at his mirror darkly, is that he is afraid of failure, of being alone, and he drives people away in response by embracing perfectionism. He sees his arrogance, and the price it exacts on himself, and everything around him in other planes. And instead of being able to use the Book of Vishanti and its Light magic, he must use the copy of the Darkhold that destroyed the mind of his counterpart: facing darkness, using Dark Magic and the realms of the damned accomplish what I think is one of the best subversive aspects of this film. He can’t take the easy way to victory. He has to work, and suffer for it.
Stephen Strange manages to dreamwalk into the corpse of Defender Strange while he is trapped in Sinister Strange’s universe, essentially reanimating him, and weaponizing the spirits of the damned attacking him around him to use against Wanda and her own servants. Essentially, to borrow yet another comics franchise analogy with another underhanded sorcerer, he Constantines Wanda before encouraging America to draw on her own determination to use her power, and give the Scarlet Witch her wake up call. In essence, Stephen Strange has to function as his own Kandarian Demon to possess the dead body of his alternate self to defend the girl that this same alternate had once befriended and tried to kill. The Zombie Strange we’ve seen in previews, who had all been typecast as an antagonist, is actually a hero using dark magic to protect a girl’s life, and give her a chance for agency.
Usually, in a Sam Raimi film a spirit possessed or controlled body is a problem, such as with Ash Williams’ or even Ash himself. Ash too had to face down his own doppelgänger in Army of Darkness, a few times over, his own strange little alternate selves and demons in the mill before having to deal with his undead one later. Another interesting parallel to Ash Williams and Stephen Strange is that they both have tremendous pride that can lead them into doing terrible things such Ash not saying the words in the graveyard and unleashing the Army of Darkness, and Stephen Strange believing he can take any problems head on without consulting anyone.
The differences are that while Ash just kills his undead counterpart, and doesn’t seem to learn a damn thing in the films, Stephen Strange does learn to trust the help of others through using his undead double – which is hilarious in retrospect as I was telling him to burn the body under my breath as I thought the Zombie Strange would be the beginning of an undead plague – and lets America Chavez make the decision and judgment call that saves them.
In the end, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness owes a lot to Sam Raimi’s own horror beats and sensibilities, complete with the twist at the end where everything seems resolved until that third eye opens on Stephen’s forehead like his sinister counterpart’s: that surprise, weird, ending that characterizes his Evil Dead work. It is something of a mess at times, and some parts feel more diluted than others, but it definitely succeeds in capturing the weird, the uncanny, and even the zany of Raimi and the world of Doctor Strange. I can totally forgive the insanity and haphazardness at times, especially when you consider you are dealing with madness. It is a story without a villain — save for an evil book that enables terrible behaviour and Monkey’s Paw wishes — but plenty of monsters to face, and antagonisms within the characters themselves. But then you need to ask yourself: at the end, when everything is said and done, and you have a moment, and you think about all the possibilities and your choices, and what you have seen: did you find what you were looking for?
Are you happy?
I think I already know my answer. And maybe one day, I too will stop hitting myself.