Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.
Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his story continues in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Though the sequel travels across the multiverse with Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), it continues to build upon what was introduced in the first Doctor Strange from 2016. Both of Stephen’s rivals, Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Dr. West (Michael Stuhlbarg), are back, as well as his former lover, Rachel McAdams as Dr. Christine Palmer.
More often than not, Marvel tends to drop the ball with their heroes and their love interests. It’s treated as background information, showcasing that the hero is desirable. Such was the case in the first Doctor Strange movie, except he does not get the girl, and he still does not in this movie. Instead of pushing this story beat to the side, the sequel goes out of its way to make this lost relationship between Stephen and Christine an emotional throughline, weaving their love for each other in ways that lets them grow and eventually move on. Doctor Strange 2 may travel to different corners of the multiverse, but Stephen’s connection to Christine grounds the madness.
One of the weaker elements of the first Doctor Strange movie is Stephen’s relationship with Christine. As an ER doctor at the same hospital, she trusts his expertise as a surgeon to help with her patients; but on a personal-level, her previous relationship with him inspired her not to date her coworkers, a policy she calls the “Strange policy.” While she tries to support him after he loses his ability to use his hands, he lashes out and pushes her away; this communicates to the audience that he viewed his relationship with her as insignificant. Bear in mind, they were not even seeing each other at the time; she cared about him enough to be a person he needed.
When he training to become a master of the mystic arts, there are slight hints to his feelings towards her when he looks at the watch she gave him, now broken; it’s actually one of the last of his possessions that he fights off thugs in order to protect it. Later when he attacked and dying, he portals to his former hospital and finds her. While she treats his wounds, Strange apologizes for his past behavior. They later have a tender moment after the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) dies, and they say goodbye. As the first Doctor Strange movie ends, Stephen puts on the broken watch from Christine; inscribed on the back reads this message from her, “Time will tell how much I love you.” However, time is not in Christine’s favor as she remains unmentioned for the rest of the Infinity Saga. It would seem she would fade into the background as just another unimportant MCU love interest.
It’s not until the What If…? series that Christine makes a profound comeback in an alternate universe. In Episode 4, “What If… Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands?” it’s Christine who dies in the car accident that injures 616-Strange’s hands, which motivates him to study the mystic arts and try to prevent her death. His refusal to accept her death as an absolute point in time leads him down a dark path. Strange Supreme destroys his own universe, along with Christine. With Cumberbatch and McAdams voicing the animated versions of their characters, there’s an extra layer of angst and sorrow, fighting for what could’ve been. It also teases that there’s more to this dynamic than was previously acknowledged in the movies.
This brings us to Multiverse of Madness. At the beginning of the movie, Doctor Strange attends Christine’s wedding. What seemed to brush off his cloak in the first Doctor Strange The movie now weighs him down in regret. Before the ceremony, Dr. West reminds him that he did not get the girl, twisting the knife on an already tough day. Even Wong (Benedict Wong) is shocked that he actually went to the wedding, knowing how crushing it was for him. Around every turn he can’t help getting another reminder that he and Christine aren’t together. He looks at her and there’s a heartbreak in his eyes. When Strange and Christine talk at the reception, she asks him if he’s happy. He lies and says that he is. Strange does profess that he regrets that they weren’t able to work it out, but does not yet have the courage to tell Christine that he loves her. He is not ready to face that reality, which thankfully for him, Gargantos’ attack in New York lets him avoid it for a bit longer.
This reluctance to let Christine go is symbolized in the watch. As a gift from Christine, the watch has sentimental value, representing her and his connection to her. Christine’s message of love to him is hidden from the world; touching his skin, it’s a reflection of how he does not share his feelings with others but cares for certain people, namely Christine, very deeply. When the watch is broken in the first Doctor Strange movie, time stops moving forward; it’s left in the same moment in time when he was a broken man at the end of his rope and he still had a chance with Christine. He leaves it broken as a tether to reality, a reminder of who he was and the life that he could’ve had. Now that Christine has moved on, the broken watch is a symbol of his current arrested development.
Unfortunately for him, Doctor Strange is doomed to strike out with Christine Palmer in every universe, a fact that follows him throughout the movie. Doctor Strange is doomed to strike out with Christine Palmer in every universe, a fact that follows him throughout the movie. During his trip with America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) across the multiverse, they encounter a machine that lets them look back on memories. Of all the memories for it to retrieve for Stephen, it pulls up his memory of Christine giving him the watch. It’s treated like an Inside Out core memory for Stephen– something he cherishes but does not share with the world, because sharing it would mean he’d have to admit it’s not there anymore. America reveals to Strange that her Doctor Strange also messed things up with Christine, citing that he blew it. Stephen’s frustration rises and his sorrow is just under the surface.
This comes to a head when Strange and America are captured by Mordo and taken to Earth-838’s Illuminati to face punishment for his threats to the multiverse. When he awakes in a cell, he comes face-to-face with the 838-version of Christine, a lead scientist at the Baxter Foundation. He was disappointed to find out that not only this universe’s Strange and Christine could not make it work, but also that 838-Strange died, and she attended the funeral. Upon learning the truth about 838-Strange’s death, Stephen had only one question in mind– did 838-Christine know the truth? It’s apparent that he cares more about her knowing than anything else that’s happening at that moment.
Not only does Stephen wear his heart on his sleeve for Christine in the larger plot story, it’s also in the small moments of Multiverse of Madness that reflects the love Stephen and Christine have for each other. While Strange faces the Illuminati, 838-Christine fixes his Cloak of Levitation. When he’s running away from Scarlet Witch with Christine and America, he’s seen looking over at Christine first, making sure she’s ok and steadying her after she jumps into an alternate universe. On the larger plot side, 838-Stange used the watch Christine gave him as the key to unlock the door where the Book of Vishanti was being kept. In every universe, Stephen treasures this watch, connecting this watch like a key to his heart. Later, he relies on Christine to protect his body as he dreamwalks to face Scarlet Witch back on his Earth. Strange trusts every Christine more than anyone in the multiverse.
With every visit to a new earth in the multiverse, Strange is trying to find a version of himself where he and Christine make their relationship work. He travels to one last Earth with 838-Christine after Scarlet Witch captures America and destroys the Book of Vishanti. It’s here he meets Evil Strange at his manor and offers him a sobering look at himself. Evil Strange taunts him with the same question his Christine asked him at the beginning of the movie— “Are you happy, Stephen?” Evil Strange is the amalgamation of his avoidance, attempting to gain the power of the multiverse and everything he wants, including Christine; he tries to trade the Darkhold for 838-Christine. The most toxic version of Doctor Strange is his most fearful self; from his fear it turned himself into his own type of monster. Strange’s encounter with Evil Strange wakes himself up to see that he can’t have it all. He can not avoid reality and his heartbreak; Despite his love for Christine, Strange has to face the facts and let her go.
In addition to Multiverse of Madness Giving emotional weight to Stephen and Christine’s relationship, the movie also gets the character of Christine Palmer right. Rachel McAdams is routinely underrated for her comedic chops, but she’s also a fine action star– remember when she played Irene Adler in the Guy Ritchie-directed Sherlock Holmes movies? Here in the Doctor Strange sequel, she’s more than the love interest serving Stephen’s emotional growth. Christine acts with her own agency, moving forward in her life by marrying someone else. 838-Christine offers her intellect as part of the Baxter Foundation; she even fights off demons on her own while protecting Strange’s body as he dreamwalks. McAdams pulls double duty for bringing action and empathy to her performance.
Christine Palmer knows who Stephen Strange is. For better or worse, he has to be the one with the knife in his hand. Whether for his ego or for the fate of the world (or both), he will always be the one to make the tough calls. It’s a trait that Christine respects him for and loves him enough to know this type of relationship isn’t meant to be. Christine doesn’t want to be the reason why Strange can’t face his fears and move forward like she has, nor does she want to hold him back from being the hero the multiverse needs.
In every universe, Stephen Strange loves Christine Palmer. As a master of the mystic arts and a defender against Thanos, he gained the world and lost the girl. He regrets messing up his relationship with her every single day. After the Darkhold is destroyed, and he waits to return to his universe, he finally tells a version of Christine what he never said out loud– he loves her, and he gets scared to let anyone close to him. Cumberbatch really brings out Strange’s vulnerability here; Stephen never likes to admit he’s bad at anything, especially something this personal. This confession finally releases him from the prison he kept himself in, and 838-Christine gives him the courage to face a life without her in his universe.
Not all love stories have happy endings, but this one is not without hope. Instead of holding on to the past, Strange finally fixes his broken watch, representing him letting go of the past and accepting reality. It’s a reminder to him that just because he and Christine did not work out that he can not let someone else in and find love again. Though they are apart, they will always love each other. Stephen and Christine have impacted each other across all universes, and now they get the chance to be better for it. What started as a mediocre love interest has transformed into a story of love lost, regret, and the way forward.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is now streaming on Disney + for no extra cost.
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