Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness has one huge thing going for it: three female characters play vital roles in the story and plot: America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), Wanda Maximoff / Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). The characterization of those women, however, is not much of a triumph — they fall into the categories of the damsel in distress, the evil witch, and the love interest. Watching this film, you would think you were back in the 1980s when women on screen were tropes rather than people. It’s not a good look for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is over a decade old and has nearly 30 films under its belt.
We probably should have guessed that something was amiss when America Chavez appeared in the opening sequence. She’s helpless, and her only hope is a variant of Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). When he turns on her, America is at his mercy till her reality-hopping powers activate and send her to Earth-616. The character in the film is very different from the one in the comics, and she’s specifically written as being much younger and less experienced than her comic book counterpart, which is a huge disservice to the character. Gomez does her best with the material she’s given, but America is a child in peril and barely grows beyond that.
America being stripped of all her comic book powers (super-strength, flight, and super-speed) and having little control over her multiverse portal abilities turns this formidable character into little more than a screaming MacGuffin. This idea that the new generation of female MCU superheroes must begin their lives as meddlesome ingénues is a complete misreading of the comic book characters and borders on tokenism (Hailee SteinfeldKate Bishop suffered a similar fate in Hawkeye). Yes, we have a queer Latina superhero in the franchise, but she does absolutely nothing throughout Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and even her spotlight moment comes off as more comical than empowering. It’s all right that America’s queerness isn’t established in her first introduction, because defining women by their romantic interests is a reductive trope, but she has little personality other than being a precocious and irreverent youngster with zero control over her powers. We have seen characters like that for time immemorial. America Chavez was not written to be that character. Not until now, anyway.
The most egregious sin of the film is the characterization of Wanda. This is not Wanda – this is a caricature. Director Sam Raimi leans into the horror aesthetic that Wanda was introduced with in Avengers: Age of Ultron, but the character has expanded so much since then. Little of that evolution is prevalent in the film, and that may be because Raimi never watched all of WandaVision, the show that informs the Wanda who appears in this film. Raimi took the essence of Wanda’s suffering but none of her growth.
Wanda was first introduced as a villain, but even then, her anger toward the Avengers was fueled by the actions of Tony Stark / Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), and she and her brother Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) were being manipulated by Hydra. Marvel’s writers continued to make her the bad guy by writing in a fatal error of judgment when she tried to save Steve Rogers / Captain America (Chris Evans) in Captain America: Civil War and accidentally bombed a building, killing innocent civilians. Even though Wanda was remorseful after that incident, she was imprisoned by her own team for it.
Wanda was never an out-and-out evil character, because her actions, no matter how devastating they may be, always stem from a place of pain. Before the events of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Wanda’s most horrifying act had been willfully enslaving the people of Westview. Following her grief over the death of her beloved Vision (Paul Bettany), Wanda had a massive breakdown and accidentally created a happy reality for herself. The denizens of Westview were collateral damage. The whole of WandaVision dealt with Wanda’s grief and the consequences of her actions. She was written as sympathetic because Vision was the only family she had left, and she had to kill him herself to save the universe, only for her actions to be undone, so she could watch him be killed again. And then his synthezoid body was desecrated by the intelligence agency SWORD Her actions aren’t forgivable, but she suffered for it by losing the family she created.
None of that journey sees fruition in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Wanda is seemingly corrupted by the Darkhold and is pure evil. While the workings of the Darkhold are in line with its introduction in Agents of SHIELD, the book’s effects are inconsistent. Why were the Runaways and Agatha Harkness (Kathryn Hahn) unaffected, but Wanda and Earth-838 Stephen are corrupted, and Stephen manifests the Eye of Agamotto? Without this basic understanding of the Darkhold’s, well, dark hold on its users, it is difficult to differentiate between its evil and Wanda’s evil.
Wanda wants to reunite with her children and, having discovered that she can possess a variant in the multiverse, Wanda chooses murder to get her way. She plans to steal America’s power, killing her to get what she wants. When has Wanda ever been so morally absent? Even if one is to make the argument that this is the Darkhold speaking and not Wanda, diegetically Wanda is the evil witch who decimates Kamar-Taj, tortures Sorcerer Supreme Wong (Benedict Wong), terrorizes and attempts to kill America, kills Earth-838’s Illuminati and let’s not even begin with the lifelong trauma that Earth-838’s Wanda and her children will have to live with because of Wanda invading their home.
Wanda in the film is wholly defined by her maternal instincts, which is a regressive arc to pin on one of the few female Avengers in the franchise — and it feels like a disturbing throwback to Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow’s (Scarlett Johansson) storyline in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Wanda is a shell of the character she had evolved into in WandaVision. The point of the show was for Wanda to come to terms with her grief and work through it. She had bid farewell to her family, but instead of accepting closure and seeking real help, or at the very least embracing the only other relationship she has, with her mentor Clint Barton / Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Wanda shuts herself off from the world, stewing in her own grief. This is not the way to handle mental health, which the MCU has proven it can tackle with nuance, as seen in Moon Knight. Why is a new male hero afforded such compassion, but Wanda is basically written as “crazy”?
The central conceit of Wanda as an evil villain does not work, which harms the film — a superhero story is only as strong as the villain they’re fighting, and yet Wanda has been built as a hero. She isn’t Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), destined to be brainwashed into the assassin, the Winter Soldier. She was on the path to redemption, all of which is undone by her literally killing innocent people across the multiverse for selfish purposes.
Wanda being reduced to an evil menace undermines all the work she’s done since she joined the franchise. As it stands, Wanda’s characterization is running in place – she makes a mistake, hurts people, gets hurt herself, and repeat. It’s a vicious cycle that we’re not sure has ended yet, even though she’s ostensibly dead and buried under a pile of rocks. The inconsistent writing is down to how Wanda has been written in the comics and unfortunately her most famous story is one of the most problematic ones, “House of M.” Wanda’s characterization in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is an obvious homage to that story, but like the comics before it, does her no justice.
Completing the trifecta of female characters is Christine Palmer, who has a much better arc in this film than in the first Doctor Strange. But then again, the bar for her characterization is so low that anything would be an improvement. Earth-616’s Christine only has a couple of scenes, and they’re on her wedding day. She’s moved on and has found the love of her life, but Stephen is still obsessed with her. He even manages to commandeer a conversation with Christine and make it all about what they had. Reminder: this is during Christine’s wedding to a man who is not Stephen. It’s not the time nor the place for this conversation. Stephen being obsessed with Christine was the central premise of What If … Doctor Strange Lost His Heart Instead of His Hands? and it’s surprising to see it revisited in the film. This is a pattern in MCU properties – as if that one person you loved and lost must be the only one you ever love, irrespective of how they feel about you. Stephen does not pursue her though, which is refreshing but also a sad indictment of how little we expect from male characters written by male writers.
The Christine who has most of the screen time in the film is the Earth-838 variant. She’s a scientist at the Baxter Foundation and ends up helping Stephen and America escape Wanda. While Christine does not have a ton to do, she is capable and holds her own in a fight. Her immense knowledge of the mystical arts, science, and the multiverse makes her a huge asset. Despite being just a love interest, she becomes an integral part of the plot. Moon Knight did something similar by successfully transforming love interest Layla El-Faouly (May Calamawy) into a valuable character in the story. But Christine has relatively little screen time, and it’s not nearly enough to call her a leading lady. She’s firmly still the love interest, and Stephen is mocked for being a hero who didn’t “get the girl.” Stephen also uses Earth-838 Christine as a proxy for sharing his undying love for her, this despite knowing she had to watch her version of Stephen deteriorate into an evil villain. She’s apathetic to Stephen’s declarations of love, which makes the interaction awkward instead of sweet. At least they do not share a chemistry-less smooch!
Christine provides a minor bright spark in a film that sets the MCU’s gender debate back by several decades, but there’s also another sequence that shines as well. When Wanda dreamwalks in Earth-838’s Wanda’s body, she is met by the Illuminati. While it’s frustrating that Reed Richards / Mr. Fantastic (John Krasinski) is in the lead when Captain Carter (Hayley Atwell) is right there, Wanda makes quick work of the male heroes. She gets rid of Black Bolt (Anson Mount) first and then kills Reed — this subverts a common comic book (and pop culture) trope where the female characters are the first to go down in a fight so that the men can take over. Instead, Wanda goes toe-to-toe with Captain Carter and then Captain Marvel (Lashana Lynch). She defeats both of them, but the trio makes the action sequence memorable.
One boss fight and half a character arc aren’t enough to redeem the poor development of the female characters in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. It’s surprising that these characterizations were greenlit, especially since it now seems like Marvel may not really have a plan for what’s next. What’s the point of Wanda becoming a hero and finding her true self if she’s only going to be retraumatized over and over again till she dies? Why keep bringing Christine back when she is not a character on her own? And why is every new female character written from an outdated template instead of as individual people? The MCU has made great strides over the years, but always tends to falter at some hurdle or other, but even then regressive women characters was not a hurdle any of us saw coming.
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