This post contains light spoilers about Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, but nothing more than what we’ve seen in trailers and nine episodes of WandaVision.
The most intriguing thing about the Avengers is also the reason I’ve never really warmed to them: They’re just a group of extraordinarily gifted coworkers. For Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, being super is a job.
The first Avengers movie grafted the idea of conflicting office egos onto a hyperbolic, alien invasion allegory. The team began as an extra-governmental initiative contracted together by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Their split in Civil War was largely about who they worked for. And Marvel’s television series The Falcon and The Winter Soldier included an entire plot built upon the fact that the Avengers weren’t paid, even in spite of Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.) astronomic wealth. How these heroes aren’t on the phone with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) demanding medical insurance and overtime reimbursement is beyond me.
The Avengers are coworkers first and friends by chance.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness’s spin on that idea is the most riveting thing about the flashy but ultimately uneven movie. Directed by horror comedy savant Sam Raimi and written by Michael Waldron, Multiverse of Madness suggests that despite saving the world multiple times, and enduring all kinds of triumphs and trauma together, these people don’t really care about each other outside of those world-ending events.
Individually, they have their own lives. They don’t think about each other. They don’t call or text or check-in. They aren’t family. And nothing makes that more abundantly clear than when one of them loses their way.
From its first beat, Multiverse of Madness requires its audience to know everything that happened to Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) in WandaVision — including everything she did.
In that nine-episode Disney+ show, Wanda, in response to the grief of losing her android soulmate, Vision (Paul Bettany), altered the fabric of reality and gave herself a pair of twin sons while mentally enslaving an entire town of people. Think: “gaslight, gatekeep, girlboss,” but with telekinesis and chaos magic.
Eventually, thanks to a fight with an ancient witch named Agatha Harkness (Kathryn Hahn) coupled with her memories of Vision, and because she is a genuinely good person at heart, Wanda realizes that mind-controlling New Jersey townies is not morally great and undoes her hex.
But even as she came to that epiphany, Wanda also found the ultimate temptation in an ancient evil book called the Darkhold (in the show’s post-credits scene).
In Marvel mythos, the Darkhold gives its owner cataclysmic magical power, but is tethered to a Faustian deal: the book corrupts its possessor’s soul, rotting them from the inside out. Unable to resist, Wanda becomes consumed with an immolating desire to be with her conjured children. (You can tell she’s getting more evil because she gets intricate headgear, like she sports in the comic books.)
Anyone who’s familiar with X-Men comics or the horrendous end of every X-Men cinematic trilogy will roll their eyes as Multiverse of Madness plops Wanda into the shopworn comic book trope of a red-headed woman feeling immense feelings that put the entire world at risk. The pleas for sanity, the gut-wrenching point of no return, the way culpability and justice are inevitable — there’s nothing fresh here.
In the present day Marvel universe, a mysterious and evil force is chasing an extra-dimensional being named America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) through the multiverse and, luckily, into the path of Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). Chavez explains that she’s the only being who has the power to travel through the multiverse, which also explains why big evil is obsessed with her.
Strange consults Wanda, and it becomes clear that the evil chasing America and Wanda are one and the same. It’s a surprise to Strange, but not to anyone who has seen WandaVision.
One might assume that the second-most powerful sorcerer in the world, whose duty is to protect the universe from magical threats, would check on a teammate who mentally enslaved an entire town, magicked two babies out of thin air, and got a power upgrade via Marvel’s version of the Necronomicon. But that assumption would be a mistake.
The lack of interaction between Strange and Wanda could be seen as a weakness in the script or another Marvel plot hole. Lots of cataclysmic stuff happens in the MCU, like the celestial birth in Eternals or the soul-sucking, face-hugging demons in Shang-Chi, but there always seems to be a coincidental and alarming lack of Avengers present whenever these bad things happen. Yet, it’s more provocative if you consider their lack of connection deliberate — that despite saving humanity over and over, Strange fails to see the humanity in his teammate.
Since her first appearance in Age of Ultron, Wanda has always looked to the Avengers as a chosen family — mainly because she has lost everyone close to her by the time she joins the group.
She took up residence at the Avengers HQ. She forged a father-daughter bond with Hawkeye when Ultron attacked, and he helped her escape from house arrest in Civil War. Wanda also found love with Vision, whom she tragically had to kill as part of a futile plan to stop Thanos in Infinity War. When the Avengers defeated Thanos in Endgame, Vision and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) are the only two Avengers who aren’t resurrected.
Speaking of Natasha, it’s striking too how she and Wanda are two Avengers who really see the team as their friends and family. This happens occasionally with some characters throughout Marvel storytelling, like Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Tony Stark or the Guardians of the Galaxy, but rarely do we see individual characters think of the entire Avengers team as a family unit. (Both Wanda and Natasha are also women who have red hair, have issues with having children, and in a bit of clumsy, insensitive writing, juxtapose their maternal status with the word “monster.”)
It was also Natasha who kept some semblance of the Avengers up and running after Thanos’s snap, and kept searching for any clue that would bring her friends back. Natasha sacrificed herself for the Soul Stone to bring back her Avengers teammates and their loved ones, only to have many of those same teammates mourn her death by wondering out loud how little they knew about her.
After Thanos was finally vanquished, the Avengers (sans Natasha) disbanded and so did Wanda’s makeshift family. No one — not Hawkeye; not Okoye or Shuri, who Wanda briefly befriended in Wakanda; not Falcon or Bucky, with whom she fought alongside in Civil War; not any of the female Avengers with whom she teamed up with in that “she’s got help” Endgame moment — checked in with her.
It’s hard to distinguish whether this dynamic is an indictment of Wanda for expecting too much from her teammates, or of her teammates for not caring enough about her. Maybe the indecision is the point, and how deeply you feel (or don’t feel) for Wanda is reflective of your own ideas about what being part of a team means, and friendship factors into that equation. The same goes for Strange’s behavior toward his teammate.
While Strange is there to protect the multiverse, he’s absent when Wanda needs his help the most. He also isn’t particularly invested in researching any solutions that involve saving Wanda’s soul from the Darkhold. And throughout the movie he, for some inexplicable reason, constantly reminds Wanda that she’s technically not a mom. The strategy of berating a woman who’s grieving her lost children and whose soul is being devoured by an ancient evil with a comically insensitive combination of words seems like a particularly cruel one.
Strange’s lack of tact isn’t out of character. His comic book history and his first movie are punctuated with moments of arrogance, coldness, and unintentionally mean and paternalistic relationships with women. He will do anything to get the job done and defeating Wanda at all costs, in Strange’s eyes, has become the job.
Multiverse of Madness becomes an exhibit of how Doctor Strange and his Avengers teammates are very good at saving the world, but rotten at saving each other. Heroes can do good things without kindness. This is how the Avengers function and have always functioned. And maybe the tragedy, then, isn’t that no one was there to help Wanda, but rather that Wanda expected anything more from a group of world-saving coworkers.