In this cycle of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the souls of the damned binary view of diversity threaten “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” despite obvious efforts to make up for the fiasco that was “Doctor Strange.” If you’ve seen the animated Disney+ series “What If…” and “WandaVision,” you’ll have some idea how Multiverse mayhem will work. It’s less fun, less whimsical and much less poignant than the three Spider-man film “Spider-man: No Way Home” and has less stylized nostalgia than “WandaVision.”
Doctor Strange (2016)
For those who don’t remember the 2016 film that introduced and served as the origin story of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Stephen Strange, here’s a refresher. The Doctor Strange story is basically that of a White man learns the mystic martial arts of Tibet (East Asia) and becomes a superhero with the implication that the inferior “Orientals” could not use their ancient arts to their fullest potential.
The film begins in Nepal (Kathmandu) in South Asia, where the secret learning place Kamar-Taj and its great library is located. Here the villain is Kaecilius who is Danish according to the Marvel Cinematic Universe Wiki which is likely because Mikkelsen, who played him, is Danish. Kaecilius wants to steal some of the magical texts and liberate these secrets mystical arts for use outside of the influence of his teacher, the Ancient One.
Strange who was an egotistical neurosurgeon living in New York City was in a car crash and that has left his hands permanently damaged so he can no longer operate. He meets a paraplegic, Jonathan Pangborn (Benjamin Bratt), who regained the use of his legs from his studies at Kamar-Taj. Strange goes to Kamar-Taj where he meets Mordo and the Ancient One. Both Mordo and Strange study under Wong and learn to make circles of golden light and open portals. Strange learns about other dimensions and that three buildings called Sanctums in New York, London and Hong Kong protect the Earth from threats from these other dimensions.
Despite warnings from both Mordo and Wong, Strange learns to bend time using the Eye of Agamotto. Strange saves the world after being advised by the Ancient One as she is dying that he will have to use forbidden powers to defeat Kaecilius. When Mordo learns that both the Ancient One and Strange used the forbidden Dark Dimension, he becomes disillusioned and leaves Kamar-Taj. Yet while Strange stays at the New York City Sanctum to study under Wong, Mordo looks up Pangborn and takes the magic he used to walk.
Karl Mordo, originally Baron Karl Mordo, who was supposedly from Transylvania (Romania) was transformed through the diversity-verse into a Black man, played by London-born Chiwetel Ejiofor whose parents are Nigerian. Similarly, remember that Nick Fury was changed to Samuel L. Jackson in the MCU and, more recently in the MCU Spider-man series, MJ is portrayed by African American actress Zendaya.
Despite taking place in Nepal or Tibet, the Ancient One was played by Tilda Swinton. In the original Marvel Comics, the Ancient One was born in the fictional city of Lang Kah, Tibet. Swinton considers herself Scottish. The casting, which was heavily criticized, made this film very Black and White for something that centers on a school and library in Tibet or Nepal.
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On the plus side of diversity, Benjamin Bratt (as Jonathan Pangborn) is Latino and Quechua on his mother’s side. Benedict Wong is British Hong Kong Chinese. Linda Duan appears as Tina Minoru.
To be fair, Wong’s role and status was improved in the MCU. In his original incarnation Wong was Doctor Strange’s manservant. In the 2016 film, Wong was Kamar-Taj’s librarian (as the previous one was killed by Kaecilius).
Wong appears in “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Avengers: Endgame,” during which he survives the Blip and because Strange does not, Wong becomes the Sorcerer Supreme. Wong also appears in “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” as one of the combatants in the underground fight club run by Shang-Chi’s sister. Wong fights against Emil Blondksy/Abomination although they leave together. Wong befriends Shang-Chi and Katy, singing karaoke with them at the end of the film.
Wong appears in “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” warning Strange to be careful about casting a spell to help Peter Parker.
Wong also appears in the “What if…?” TV series in “What if…Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands” and “What If…Zombies?!”
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
The film starts with the 20-minutes the press was allowed to preview before the press conference and before we were able to view the full film. We are plunged into a strange universe of floating pieces of architecture and a pony-tailed Doctor Strange (Defender Strange) who is speaking Spanish to the young girl we’ll later learn is America Chavez (Xhochitl Gomez). They’re attempting to reach a luminescent tome, the Book of Vishanti, but they are pursued by a dimensional monster. This Strange decides that America must be sacrificed for the greater good, but that seems to be a miscalculation. Strange abruptly wakes up in his bedroom. Getting dressed, he leaves to attend the wedding of his true love, Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams).
At the wedding:
At the wedding, Strange is seated beside an East Asian American Man and behind a Muslim American woman. Weirdly and rudely, Strange’s former rival and colleague Nicodemus West (Michael Stuhlbarg) sits down with the East Asian man moving aside, so that West can speak with Strange about the cats he lost during the Blip. When I first saw this scene, I thought that Marvel/Disney was going to great lengths to show diversity, including when Christine Palmer marries a Black man. Strange has a brief conversation with Christine (Rachel McAdams) who tells Strange it would have never worked out between them because, “You always had to be the one holding the knife, and I could respect you for it, but I couldn’t love you for it.” Suddenly, there’s a loud disturbance outside and Strange downs his martini and quickly puts on his superhero garb, including the Cloak of Levitation and battles a one-eyed creature Gargantos (and not Shuma-Gorath) is throwing a few things around attempting to capture a girl, the girl from Strange’s nightmares.
Wong arrives to help Strange in his battle and together they determine who this girl is (America Chavez) by asking the obvious: “What did that creature want with you” and “Where are your parents.” They also want to know what her superpowers are the ability to open star-shaped portals between parallel universes (or what the Daniels in “Everything Everywhere all at Once” would call “verse-jumping”). She also has some questions (like does Spider-Man shoot webs out of his butt) and tells them that the one-eyed crabby creature with octopus-like tentacles (but more) is “like a henchman who works for a demon.”
America tells the two that “Dreams are windows into our multiversal selves.” America and a Spanish-speaking Strange from a parallel universe had been seeking the Book of Pure Good, but still the demon triumphed. Strange and Wong realize that this is magic and Strange decides to visit a certain Scarlet Witch. Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) is also dreaming. In her dreams, she has brown hair and two children, but in her waking life, she’s alone. Not even a cat.
With some dark magic, Wanda could have those two kids. When Strange tells her, “Your children aren’t real; you created them,” she replies, “That’s what every mother does.”
Strange and Wong face the Scarlet Witch. She tells him she’s been reasonable, but if you’ve seen “WandaVision,” you know that’s not true. While she has already admitted to some mistakes and that some people were hurt, now she tries to tempt Strange. “If you give me what I want, I will send you to a world where you can be with Christine.”
Strange refuses to surrender America and this world (Earth-616) so Wanda says, “I am not a monster, Stephen. I’m a mother.”
At this point, much like a similar scene in the “Fantastic Beasts: The Secret of Dumbledore,” there’s a lot of death and destruction and despite the location, the main focus is not on any East or Southeast Asian character. Granted Wong, is there, but Wong seems to be every where and that seems like a lazy plot device.
Sara (as yet to be identified Black woman) plays a major role and people are wondering if she’s meant to be Sara Wolfe. Sara Wolfe, in the original Marvel Comics was Native American, and was the love interest of Wong and the secretary of Strange, but she was not Black. Also prominently featured is Rintrah who is from an extra dimensional planet called R’Vaal. Also there are two characters from the 2016 film: Hamir the Hermit (Topo Wresniwiro whose ethnicity I can’t confirm, but seems to be Asian) and Daniel Drumm (Mark Anthony Brighton). The original Drumm was from Port-au-Prince in Haiti who in MC was Doctor Voodoo. Brighton is Black.
This would have seemed like a lovely opportunity to introduce more Asian or Southeast Asian characters, particularly as we’re jumping between parallel universes and we already know about variants from “Loki.”
Should you go verse-jumping, America’s advice is:
- Rule #1: You don’t know anything
- Rule #2: Find food
In “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” Strange, in one of the universes (Earth-838), will come before the so-called Illuminati (while Wong and Wanda visit a “tomb” high in the mountains somewhere), and on a score of diversity this is how things stand:
- Black woman (American Captain Marvel)
- White woman (British Captain Carter)
- White man (Black Bolt)
- White man (Reed Richards)
- White man (Charles Xavier)
- Black Man (Baron Mordo)
Some of these will come as no surprise. According to Marvel.com, the original Illuminati in this universe included:
- Tony Stark
- Black Panther
- Doctor Strange
- Black Bolt
- Charles Xavier
- Reed Richards
- Namor the Sub-Mariner
Current members are:
- Doctor Strange
- Black Bolt
- Professor Xavier
- Reed Richards/Mr. Fantastic
- Tony Stark/Iron Man
- Sylvie/Loki Variant
In this film, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” Strange and Mordo will have a “The Defiant Ones” moment (Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier 1958 film).
Whatever the case, obviously for the MCU, there have been some changes made which are easy to explain to a certain extent because we’re in a different but parallel universe during the Illuminati segment. Yet there is still that issue of how diversity shows up in this film. It is almost as if the 20 percent of the world population which is Chinese almost totally disappeared during the Blip (except for Wong) and that the MCU is afraid of having any important decision or event occur without a Black person present. And that’s what makes this film cringe-worthy.
There are other ways that diversity could have been handled such as the including actors from the Eternals such as Gemma Chan as Sersi, Kumail Nanjiani as Kingo, Don Lee as Gilgamesh, Lauren Ridloff as Makkari or Salma Hayek as Ajak (although I still am disgusted that hero in the MCU uses the name of serial rapist Gilgamesh).
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When I was at a screening for “Eternals,” some people mistook Don Lee for Benedict Wong and it is interesting that the casting made the decision to cast similar body types, particularly with this iteration of Spider-man (Tom Holland) having a his buddy Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon).
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Compare Wong and Strange to Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes or Tony Stark/Iron Man and James Rhodes/ War Machine or Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel and her BFF Maria Rambeau.
Since the MCU is broad and deep there were other people outside the Black and White binary that could have been used as Illuminati. From the X-Men film series there’s also Latino Isaac Oscar as En Sabah Nur/Apocalypse or as “Moon Knight.” From “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” there was Michelle Yeoh as Ying Nan, Tony Leung as Wenwu or Fala Chen as Ying Li. There’s also Lyrica Okanao as Nico Minoru, Ariela Barer as Gertrude Yorkes, Allegra Acosta as Molly Hayes Hernandez, or Brittany Ishibashi as Tina Minoru from “Runaways.”
Or a character from a future MCU film could have been used such as Ms. Marvel’s Kamala Khan (Pakistani Canadian Iman Vellani) who will be the focal point of the 2023 “The Marvels.”
As there is a good book in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” — “Book of Vishanti,” there is also a bad book and that is “Darkhold” or “Book of the Damned.” This book has appeared in:
- “WandaVision” (Disney+)
- “Agents of SHIELD” (ABC)
- “Runaways” (Hulu)
The “Book of the Damned” will also appear in this multiverse. Some of what happens between Wong and the Scarlet Witch is cringeworthy because there seems to be a hint of Hinduism. The Lotus position is used and that pose is more related to Hindu, Tantra, Jain and Buddhist traditions than to witchcraft.
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But in 2013, there was already an issue with Olsen being cast because according to “The Atlantic” article, Wanda was both Roma and Jewish.
So besides casting problems, there seems to be an issue of cultural appropriation.
There’s also little intentional humor, but some unintentional humor:
After seeing the preview 20-minute clip, I waited to see if the man who appeared to be East Asian and was originally seated next to Strange would reappear and have an important or prominent role before passing judgment. I did not see him re-appear in an significant way. The scene would have been less award if Nicodemus West had sat behind Strange and the man of East Asian descent would not have had to move. On the diversity side, although “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” introduces a Latina superhero, America Chavez, and Strange does become less egotistical, the decisions made in previous films show a disappointing lack of imagination for people of East Asian descent and that continues outside of the “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.” This diversity binary of Black and White continues to be problematic in the MCU. My husband did also complain about the wedding scene, but gave this film a 3/5 stars. I’m more inclined to a 2/5.
The moral here is “Face your fears” and question “Are you happy?”
It’s wonderful that director Sam Raimi was the producer for Sandra Oh’s recent horror flick, “Umma,” although he directed the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man trilogy, this trip into the multiverse is dark and lacks the humor of the Spider-Man-centric forays. Writer Michael Waldron also was credited as the creator and writer of the “Loki” TV series. That series took an unnecessary and very brief detour to Mongolia in its first episode. While it had strong Black characters (e.g. Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Ravonna Renslayer in six episodes and Wunmi Mosaku as Hunter B-15 in five episodes as well as Jonathan Majors as He Who Remains in one episode), it’s Asian Pacific Islander players were Filipino American Eugene Cordero as Casey and Alvin Chon as Minuteman #10, both in three episodes.
The MCU also hasn’t really delivered a female superhero, unattached to a male superhero (e.g. Ant-Man or Iron Man), who can have a family where as Tony Stark and Clint Barton/Hawkeye can. Black Widow doesn’t have a boyfriend even into our current Phase Four. Yet the main problem at this point of the MCU Phase Four in this specific film is the kind of thinking that led to the Netflix TV series “Iron Fist” (2017-2018) and the 2016 “Doctor Strange.” Diversity in Black and White meant that the Orientalism behind of the original content was ignored in the former and, in the latter, the diversity solution post-whitewashing of the Asian elements was changing the race of some characters to insure there was a prominent Black character featured (Mordo). Wong was elevated from manservant to librarian, but he’s not a super hero and the protagonist is still a White person using training he received in Asia that the only person of Asian descent (Wong) had access to for a longer period of time and didn’t become a superhero. Wong has become the Asian diversity MVP in Phase Four, but remember, one of the Sanctums is based in Hong Kong and “Black Panther” made a foray into South Korea without a single major character of Korea descent and Clint Barton (as the vigilante Ronin) was running around in Tokyo in “Avengers: Endgame,.” Both of those films are Phase Three. These are damning decisions of a Black and White binary view of diversity this entry into Phase Four.
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“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” is the least amusing journey into the multiverse (compared to the two Spider-Man films) and suffers greatly in comparison to the crazy, occasionally perverse and slightly perverted, totally trippy “Everything Everywhere All at Once.”
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Do stay for the mid-credit and post-credit scenes.
“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” premiered on 2 May 2022 in Hollywood and will be released on 6 May 2022.
After the second viewing, I added more to clarify my lead graph above, but the dialogue does use Earth-616 (and Earth-838). My references were correct. Mysterio in the 2019 “Spider-Man: Far from Home” also makes reference to Earth-616. From the ending(s) of “Multiverse of Madness”, one supposes this might lead to something (Earth-199999).
And I did wonder how many seconds between spotting a Black face at Kamar-Taj and how many minutes were devoted to the actions and antics of the Cloak of Levitation and its zombie counterpart, the Cloak of the Souls of the Damned.
If you’re going to feature a secluded place in Asia, there should be more Asian characters with speaking parts and highlighted actions and the lingua franca should not be English (particularly in a film that features Spanish in the first minutes). Otherwise, the prominence of White at Kamar-Taj reminds me of all those tales of lost White civilizations in East Asia or in Africa. If you’re about to say, “but the mummies of Tarim,” see the links below.
With the rise of Black people in the film industry, they seem to have a type of Black privilege as seen in the treatment of South Koreans in “Black Panther” and the highlighted presence in “Multiverse of Madness.” Even a furry green alien like Rintrah is more important than any new Asian face at Kamar-Taj. The toys diversity score for “Multiverse of Madness” is three white people (Doctor Strange, Christine Palmer, Scarlet Witch), one Latina (America Chavez), one Asian person (Wong), two Black people (Mordo and Sara) and one alien Rintrah.