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Warning: This post contains big spoilers for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
When your superhero name is Doctor Strange, you're accustomed to seeing some pretty strange things ... especially when your latest adventure plunges you into a multiverse of madness. But some moviegoers have come away from Marvel Studios's newest blockbuster seeing red over the film's fright factor. Even as Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness — directed by horror maestro, Sam Raimi — dominated the box office during its opening weekend, a vocal contingent of viewers have argued that the movie should have been stamped with an R-rating instead of PG-13.
To be fair, it's not like they weren't warned. "It’s certainly the darkest and scariest, in comparison to the others," Doctor Strange himself, Benedict Cumberbatch, remarked to Yahoo Entertainment about how the film compares to past Marvel adventures — none of which featured such freaky sights as an alien cyclops having its lone eye popped out or an entire team of heroes dying in gruesome ways at the hands of villain-turned-hero-turned villain Wanda Maximoff, aka the Scarlet Witch (Elisabeth Olsen).
There should definitely be a Rated R version for Doctor Strange 2 or it should’ve just been Rated R in general
— Ventelle (@Ventelle15) May 10, 2022
I don't know that I'd call #DoctorStrange a "horror" movie. I will say it has some incredibly graphic moments that really hammer home how much of a joke our rating system is. If this weren't a tentpole blockbuster from the biggest studio in the world, it'd definitely be rated R. https://t.co/LIvyfhabTK
— DJ Wooldridge (@djtalkstrash) May 6, 2022
Im honestly surprised #DoctorStrange is PG-13 and not rated R. There are some scenes and moments where I was like god damn
— diego (@digovii) May 6, 2022
But Multiverse of Madness screenwriter Michael Waldron stands by all of those moments. "I love the level of scares," he tells Yahoo Entertainment. "I mean, I don't want anybody to see the movie and be upset by it, you know? So hopefully parents have resources to know what they're seeing before they bring their kids in. But I think that there are hopefully some 10-year-old kids sneaking in to see this movie right now that are going to be making classic films in 15 years because of it. It's good to see a movie that feels a little bit dangerous when you're young."
And Waldron reveals that he and Raimi had even more dangerous scares up their sleeves that didn't make the final cut. For example, one early draft of the screenplay featured a more substantial role for Dr. Nicodemus West, the surgeon who operated on Stephen Strange following his life-altering accident and later followed the good doctor into the mystic arts. Played in Multiverse of Madness by character actor Michael Stuhlbarg, Dr. West was initially going to appear in both the main Marvel universe of Earth-616 as well as on Earth-838, the alternate realm that Dr. Strange visits with his multiversal traveling companion America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez).
"Dr. West was alive in that universe and worked at Illuminati headquarters," Waldron says, referring to the collective of heroes — including Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), Reed Richards (John Krasinski), Captain Carter (Hayley Atwell), Black Bolt (Anson Mount) and Captain Marvel (Lashana Lynch) — that monitors their super-powered brethren on Earth-838. But he wasn't alive for long: the plan was for West to perish alongside the rest of the Illuminati when a furious Wanda invaded the place. And Waldron and Raimi had a special fate planned for him.
"He died like Samuel L. Jackson in Jurassic Park — not like in Deep Blue Sea, although that would have been amazing," Waldron reveals, calling back the current Nick Fury's exit from Steven Spielberg's 1993 dino-blockbuster. In that film, Jackson played engineer John Arnold, who is killed by a velociraptor offscreen and leaves a severed arm behind for Laura Dern's Ellie Sattler to find. The actor has since revealed that he was supposed to have an on-camera death, but a hurricane destroyed the movie's Hawaiian sets before he could shoot the scene.
In this particular draft of Multiverse of Madness, Dr. West would also have met his end off-camera and left a body part behind for America, Doctor Strange and the Earth-838 version of his former flame Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) to find while fleeing the Scarlet Witch. "Basically, they backed into an elevator and Dr. West's head rolled out," Waldron says, laughing. "So we were going there from the beginning." Asked why the severed head scare was ultimately chopped, Waldron cites scheduling conflicts with Stuhlbarg, who only appears in one early scene in the theatrical version. "It just didn't work out schedule-wise."
In a spoiler-filled conversation, Waldron shared other behind-the-scenes stories from the making of Multiverse of Madness, including his pitch for a cameo by a certain high-flying movie star and why Charlize Theron is definitely here to stay in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Because of the star-wattage required to light up the Illuminati sequence, it's no surprise that's the portion of the film that took the longest to come together. "That scene was an ever-evolving thing, and we waited to lock it until everybody said yes," Waldron remembers. Patrick Stewart was one such lynchpin, and the Star Trek icon has admitted that he wrestled with whether or not to return as Professor X following his farewell to the character in 2017's Logan. "This is the end for me ... I’m not going to come back," Stewart promised Yahoo Entertainment upon the release of that film. "This is so perfect a closure to what we’ve been doing."
Waldron says that Raimi and Marvel Studios head honcho, Kevin Feige, took the lead in convincing Stewart to enter the Marvel multiverse and that other options — including bringing back James McAvoy, who played the younger Xavier in the X-Men prequel trilogy — were never seriously on the table. "I think we never allowed ourselves to think that we wouldn't get everyone we got."
It's worth noting that the Illuminati's roll call differs in Marvel's comic book universe. Tony Stark is among the group's founding members, and Waldron had a novel idea for who could play the Earth-838 version of Iron Man — a choice that dates back to the earliest days of the film's development. "I remember reading Ain't It Cool News and Coming Attractions back in the day, and they all said that Tom Cruise was going to play Iron Man," Waldron remembers. "So at some point, I said, 'Let's get Tom Cruise as Iron Man!'"
The Top Gun star was very much attached to the long-gestating Iron Man movie in the late 1990s, long before Jon Favreau and Robert Downey Jr. entered the frame and built the MCU on Tony's armored back. But his commitments to his other franchise, Mission: Impossible, made recruiting him an impossible mission. "He was already shooting the Mission: Impossible sequels, so I don't think he was ever in the cards," Waldron admits. Fortunately, Atwell — who is also starring in both M:I sequels — found room in her stunt-heavy schedule to suit up as Captain Carter. "We were lucky to get the other star of Mission: Impossible," Waldron says, laughing.
Besides Iron Man, Namor the Sub-Mariner is the other card-carrying comic book member of the Illuminati who doesn't appear in the film, and Waldron admits that he entertained ideas for finding a way to work him into that sequence. But that was before he learned that Marvel already has the aquatic avenger's MCU introduction carefully planned out. "There's other plans in place for him," he teases. "This wasn't going to be the Sub-Mariner's introduction."
A Quiet Death
Memo to future Marvel directors: If you want John Krasinski to make a cameo in your movie as a fan-favorite hero, make sure to write him an amazing death scene. That's how Raimi and Waldron sold the mastermind of Paramount's A Quiet Place franchise on making his fantastical appearance as Reed Richards — the patriarch of Marvel's first super-team, the Fantastic Four. When Wanda attacks the Illuminati, the ever-sensible Mr. Fantastic tries to reason with her, only to have his super-stretchy powers used against him when she stretches him ... to ribbons.
"He was so game for that," Waldron says of how noted horror lover Kransinki felt about his horrifying exit. "That's so cool of an actor and of a filmmaker of his caliber to come in, originate a character like that, and then be willing to be violently murdered on camera! That really does take a level of vulnerability from a leading man that I admire. In the short time that we had to collaborate together, we had a blast."
Waldron also admits that Marvel fans gave the Multiverse of Madness team the idea of taking the offer to Krasinski in the first place. The Office star has previously admitted that he botched his Captain America audition — a role that later went to Chris Evans — and he and his real-life wife, Emily Blunt (who nearly played Black Widow), have been fancast as Reed and Sue Storm ever since. "The fans got it right," Waldron says. "It works pretty damn well. And it's fun to make their dream come true and then turn it into a nightmare!"
Of course, there's a good chance that another version of Krasinki's Mr. Fantastic exists somewhere out there in the multiverse. But Waldron says that fans shouldn't take his Earth-838 cameo as casting confirmation for the upcoming Fantastic Four movie, which is currently searching for a new director after Spider-Man: No Way Home helmer, Jon Watts, departed the project. "You guys are going to have to wait and find out."
Charlize goes Gaga
Speaking of fancasting, there's a rumor currently making the rounds online that Lady Gaga was Marvel's first choice to play Clea — the sorceress who makes her appearance in a mid-credits scene in the form of Charlize Theron — but the singer-actress turned the part down. "I love that — I kind of want to fan those flames," Waldron says with a laugh, before gently putting the rumors to rest. "We got Charlize Theron and at least in my mind, there was never anybody else. That was dream casting that we somehow landed."
And unlike Krasinski's one-and-done Reed Richards cameo, Waldron can confirm that Theron is definitely returning to the MCU. "This is the beginning of Stephen and Clea's relationship," he says. "Her and Benedict's chemistry is fantastic, so whatever they do next together is going to be a blast." The Mad Max: Fury Road star is clearly on board for her next Marvel chapter, posting a behind-the-scenes photo on Twitter.
In the comics, Clea and Stephen start off as adversaries who become allies and then lovers. The runway is certainly clear for the next Doctor Strange solo movie to follow a similar trajectory, as Multiverse of Madness put a button on Strange's previous romance with Christine, who marries someone else at the beginning of the film. McAdams has said that she wasn't necessarily certain that she'd be returning for the sequel, and Waldron reveals that, prior to his involvement, discussions were had behind the scenes about whether to bring her back or make Clea a bigger part of the film. But once he and Raimi took over from departing director Scott Derrickson — who helmed the first Doctor Strange — they knew there was unfinished business left between Stephen and Christine.
"One of the things that Sam and I felt when we started making the movie on our own was that we needed to bring Christine back," he explains. "It felt like that was the most potent emotional relationship in Dr. Strange's life, and also it's Rachel McAdams! In a movie that was going to be so crazy, I knew it would be really valuable to have a relatable, grounded human presence who can land a joke, which is what Rachel's so good at. She really becomes a nice release valve for the tension in the second half of the movie."
Mordo's big move
While Clea's mid-credits scene in Multiverse of Madness will likely lead directly into the third Doctor Strange movie, the sequel does notably skip over a confrontation that was teased in a bonus scene included at the end of the original Doctor Strange. That abandoned plot thread revolved around Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the mystic arts master who mentors Stephen and then turns against him. The scene in question found Mordo visiting another disillusioned sorcerer, Jonathan Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt), and taking his power for himself, suggesting that the world has "too many sorcerers."
While Ejiofor appears in Multiverse of Madness, he's only seen as the Earth-838 version of Mordo, who does imprison Stephen, but never tries to take his powers like his 616 counterpart. "We talked about that storyline and what Mordo had been up to," Waldron says of why he and Raimi didn't pick up the baton from that post-credits tease. "Ultimately, it didn't seem germane to this story. We were more focused on the alternate universe version of Mordo and it felt more exciting to leave our universe's version's story out there for another day."
Of course, all Marvel writers face the challenge of when and how to integrate story points teased in earlier installments, and Waldron believes that Mordo's vow will inevitably come back into play. "The bill comes due eventually — he's still out there as a foil for Doctor Strange," he notes. "Everything that's come before is fair game, and it's up to your creative team to figure out what's important enough to carry forward and what's not. And more Chiwetel is always a good thing!"
Who's the daddy?
Based on Multiverse of Madness, there are multiple versions of Wanda Maximoff scattered across the multiverse's multiple Earths. But there's apparently only one Vision. Despite playing a huge role in her life — and playing papa to the two kids she's so eager to reunite with — Paul Bettany's synthetic android is almost entirely absent from the Doctor Strange prequel. He's glimpsed once on a TV screen playing WandaVision footage that plays on a loop in Wanda's mind and is otherwise only referred to in passing.
That can't help but raise the question: who fathers Wanda's kids on those other Earths where Vision is never seen? "It's a good question," Waldron says, admitting he doesn't have a firm answer. "I think that's open for interpretation: Is she a single mom? Were they divorced? Did Vision die in battle? I don't know. But she does have her children and that's what matters." Waldron also says that Bettany's absence from Multiverse of Madness can be chalked up to WandaVision functioning as an effective series finale for his character. "We felt that the book had been closed on Vision — at least for now — with the amazing work that [WandaVision showrunner] Jac Schaeffer had done. This is a story about her and her kids."
Some critics have questioned that choice of story, arguing that the movie plays into the tired tropes of the "angry mom" and expressing frustration that Wanda is once again playing the villain. Waldron says that he and Raimi were aware of walking a fine line in their portrayal of the character but ultimately feels that Wanda's anger is "justified," and leaves her exposed to the corrupting influence of the Darkhold — the evil book that infects her mind.
"Wanda's angry about the people that she's lost, and she's angry about the hypocrisies being shouted at her by people who are telling her what she can do and what she can't," Waldron explains. "The truth is the Scarlet Witch is meant to rule or annihilate the cosmos, and that's not what Wanda's trying to do. She just wants her kids, and that's the thing that the Darkhold seizes upon. Those were all the things that we used as our North stars as we were telling the story of the character."
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is playing in theaters now.