“You break the rules and become a hero. I do it and become the enemy. That doesn't seem fair.” – Wanda Maximoff
That quote by Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) in her first scene in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is the center of my argument against the MCU’s latest feature film. Directed by Sam Raimi, it follows Maximoff’s efforts to return to the life we saw her living in the second half of WandaVision with her kids and her conflict with Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) for said efforts. So it's essentially a film about how Wanda process grief. And yet, the film is set in Dr. Strange's universe, with him in the pivotal role. Yet, his role is pivotal only in the sense of somewhat being the protagonist and having his name in the film. The central character who goes through the most changes and puts things into motion is Wanda. So the name of the film itself is an example of how the woman's story is for some reason being told from another man's perspective. It’s like saying Wanda does warrant a series on Disney+ but as far as theatrical releases go, even if it’s about her and Dr. Strange just happens to be there, he deserves to serve as the agency for her development and deserves to be the protagonist of her story. I’m terribly disappointed in MCU for the direction of the narrative in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.
For anyone yet to see the film, what follows contains MAJOR SPOILERS for both WandaVision and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.
To start off, Wanda’s first contact with any of her co-Avengers since Avengers: Endgame is with Dr. Strange now, after the whole affair at Westview. And that too just because Dr. Strange needs her help. And he does the most man thing to do - reminds her that her children weren't real and she should stop her crusade to replace a Wanda from another universe so she can spend time with that Wanda's children. Now, Wanda’s jibe at Strange, which is quoted at the beginning of the article can be interpreted as a critique of the way toxic masculinity always turns the narrative on its head when a woman is involved. However, there is no question about morality presented. It’s through Wanda that we’re given an in-depth look at how a mother grieves the loss of her children, but its expression isn’t seen as grey. It’s clear that her modus operandi of dealing with losing her children must be condemned. Her actions could have apocalyptic consequences and we shouldn’t be seeing her as a grieving mother but as a possessed villainess or Witch to play along with her alter-ego name. So while the quote from Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness with which I started the article acknowledges the double standards set by the patriarchy, the film itself has double standards.
Why I say it has double standards is because Dr. Strange wasn’t seen as the villain and neither was Spider-man in Spider-man: No Way Home. While your best friends not getting into their dream college for no fault of theirs is heartbreaking for a career-focused student, using forbidden sorcery to deal with that is treated as a desperate measure but not a villainous act. After the spell is messed up and multiversal consequences happen, it’s seen as an unfortunate fallout of an honest but misdirected attempt but Peter is clearly not treated as an antagonist. And yet, Wanda’s use of forbidden magic to deal with the loss of her children is not to be condoned. The opening quote of this article is essentially self-explanatory but I want to argue that this obvious lack of consideration for Wanda insinuates it’s not just her co-Avengers, but her writers who aren’t really concerned about her and dehumanize her for having magical powers. She’s supposed to be in control as an adult with powers that can have catastrophic effects, even in a period of extreme emotional turmoil for her, and especially without any genuine support, which I might add Peter Parker had a lot of. She clearly needs a rest from the world but no one's offering her an alternative to the desperate efforts she's making to deal with her grief while blaming her for not being dysfunctional.
In fact, this isn’t just a sexist matter. Stress leaves are a real thing. And for good reason. Expecting and demanding full functionality during a time when someone is emotionally or physically compromised is a consequence of Capitalism. There are also mental health resources available to anyone who feels unable to function at their usual level on a daily basis. And despite featuring a therapy arc on The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, MCU decided not to give Wanda an arc about that. It’s like everything learned during sensitivity training shouldn’t apply to one of the few meaningful female characters in the universe. She is extremely traumatized, with each new traumatizing event piling on the other with barely any time between them, which is universal to almost every MCU character at this point. It feels regressive that Wanda isn't given any means to properly heal from her trauma and develop as a character. What’s worse, as if to give her a feminist narrative, her hunt is just for her kids and no longer for Vision even if keeping Vision alive had been the reason behind everything that happened in WandaVision, since that would apparently imply that Wanda doesn’t need a man in her life to make her feel fulfilled.
It's most disappointing to realize that somehow, despite releasing films with female-centric narratives like Captain Marvel and Black Widow, Wanda isn't given an arc of genuine grief-processing that centralizes around her. She lost her parents as a child, was abducted by HYDRA and experimented on, then lost her brother a few days after finding freedom, formed a healthy relationship with the one character around her who wasn't somewhat intimidated by her powers only to have to kill him, and then lost the kids she conjured as a way of feeling whole. And instead of showing her sympathy, the writers turned Wanda into a murderous monster whose form of mercy is to not just destroy realm after realm. In Hawkeye, Barton gets an actual arc of dealing with the loss of Natasha Romanoff that includes interacting with someone who cares and not turning into a villain. If the message here is that without a support system, grieving people turn into monsters, it’s not really well-delivered and may be flawed as a message itself. If we consider that 13 Reasons Why, though shown as a cautionary tale glorifies suicide, then we should consider having the same opinion about Wanda’s story because not being offered any timely help left her feeling helpless enough to take her own life in the end. And the target age for both 13 Reasons Why and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness are similar.
All that being said, Wanda as a character is incredibly compelling and her story is one that gets my sympathy. I'd react exactly how she did if I was in her shoes, and I honestly do not care if that makes me the villain. She deserves better than being made a villain. She is a people’s hero, by the way, with social media platforms flooding with posts in support of her and fans demanding that she deserves better. She’s a powerful woman who is dealing with loss even if it’s through admittedly problematic means and she’s garnered sympathy from the community. I do not have an issue with exploring how her expression of grief is genuinely damaging, but I have an issue with it not being presented as a morally gray area. We as viewers should be choosing sides but the narrative shouldn’t be crucifying her for not having a healthy outlet for her emotions. Interestingly, the film can be read as a fiercely feminist narrative, especially with the abundance of the female gaze in her presentation in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. However, with the lack of sympathy for her in the storytelling, I feel like the force of that narrative gets disturbingly diluted.
Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead is a cult-classic and there are glimpses here of the mind behind that and the plethora of horror films he's directed. However, it's not a full-fledged horror flick and the storytelling is stuck between two contrasting aesthetics - one with a bright uplifting mood, and the other with a dark, ominous mood. The balance between the two is practically non-existent and the aesthetic choices are eventually confusing and dissatisfying. I’m not inclined to give the film a high rating as it’s not very interesting, especially with a story that’s riddled with plot holes, for example, how come there is no universe where Wanda is dead and her kids alive? But the visuals are simply stunning with a lot of intoxicating and almost psychedelic visual effects that are a treat for the eye. And as much as Disney shamelessly advertised it, one must appreciate the fact that there’s a new Latina character, America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez). We also have the fan-favourite character Wong (Benedict Wong) and an older character from Doctor Strange, Baron Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness happens to be MCU's first film with a lesbian kiss. All these things make us happy here at Incluvie. However, for the obvious objections I have about the weak feminist storyline and the political implications of Wanda’s story, I’m unable to give the film a high Incluvie rating. Feminism becomes more and more complicated as more and more vistas of sensitivity open up, but this is just a job poorly done. So say what you will but the villain of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is definitely a hero for me.