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Dr. Strange: Can the Multiverse Really Work as a Plot Device?

That’s a question Disney's Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness begs us to ask — though but the screenwriters’ answer might be disturbing

Before reviewing the movie in detail, I wound up writing this little prelude regarding the problem with the multiverse plot device in general. It spilled onto the page before I could stop it but then other viewers might be asking some of these same questions.

Disney, or as I like to refer to this hell-spawn of a company, the Mouse, is at it again. Where is the Pied Piper when you need him? There are many bad movies in the world, but very rarely does one deserve the term, cinematic abomination. The last time I used that loathsome title, I was watching Luke Skywalker suck green milk from an alien walrus. What is the common factor between The Last Jedi and Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness? You guessed it! The Mouse — a pestilence destroying our culture’s modern myths one by one.

There are certain types of plots (or tropes, if you prefer) I dislike more than others. These include The Liar Revealed, Time Travel, MacGuffin Chases, and yes, Dear Reader, Multiverse Stories.

As I’ve said many times before, certain rules must be followed in good story telling: consistency in plot and character and the balance between tension and pacing, for example. A good story must also establish stakes using story elements like hard and soft magic systems. If one must, one may resort — albeit sparingly — to gimmicks/tropes such as the Ticking Clock. I discuss these and other story-telling devices in my previous reviews. but you can find YouTube videos that discuss them too, particularly science fiction writer Brandon Sanderson’s lectures. Getting started, here’s the trailer for Dr. Strange:

The problem with the multiverse storyline in general is that it ultimately kills the stakes. Most people are not going to spend a great deal of time pondering whether Jim A and Jim B are different people because, frankly, the reason for their difference is self-evident: Of course, they’re different people. They made different choices. That’s the natural intuition of most thinking individuals but often, the writers of these contrived plots insist that it isn’t so. They seem to want to scream, “If these bad things had happened to you, then you. would be bad!”

Most of the time, the writers take the notion of a multiverse and try to twist it into an argument against free will. In most multiverse plots, fatalism and nihilism are the orders of the day. I’ll leave it to you, Dear Reader, to answer the question of whether or not a multiverse renders free will irrelevant. My point is, fatalism and nihilism make for lousy storytelling. If a character cannot ultimately make his own choices, then why should I care about him? If there is a good Thanos and a bad Thanos, and a good Dr. Strange and a bad Dr. Strange, and their respective positions were ultimately determined by external circumstances, then why should I root for either of them?

Exploring the Multiverse Some elements provided courtesy of NASA

Furthermore, if you can convince a naïve audience that all these characters are interchangeable from one universe to the next, then death means nothing — the stakes mean nothing. And this is the norm in these types of stories. But the reason for this isn’t just so the writers can satiate their petulant desire to scream “Everything is meaningless!” into the empty night sky. No. It makes the narrative a permanent cash cow.

Typically, what happens in a multiverse story is that when a character is killed — as in Time Travel stories — an alternative version of the character is brought back, and the viewer is expected to regard this doppelganger as the original character. This insults every viewer’s intelligence. No one is going to accept the doppelganger as the original. For one thing, he or she did not die, like the original character. That by itself makes the doppelganger completely different. For another, the relationship of the doppelganger to the rest of the cast must be different by virtue of their memories of the original character. That also demonstrates that the characters are in fact two different individuals and both the other characters and the audience will see them as such.

But you see, Dear Reader, the Mouse thinks you’re stupid. He thinks you will treat Hawkeye, a character you’ve followed for years, the same way you’d treat a new phone, or a toy, because Hawkeye is not a fictional character who has lived a life of his own in your imagination. (He has a little multiverse inside your mind, if you will.) NO! To the Mouse, Hawkeye is as interchangeable as a car, so a multiverse is the ultimate opportunity to tell the viewer to discard their old products and make way for new products. But most viewers will not do this because, multiverse or not, every character is unique and alive. Not just because they have a life of their own, but because they have a life with you.

If you’re a fan of the Marvel Universe , particularly, if you are a fan of Wanda Maximoff, you rooted for her when she listened to Hawkeye and, for the first time, chose to be the good guy. You wept with her when she was forced to kill Vision. You shared in her horror when you realized that her kids were not real and that she’d enslaved an entire town after Vision’s death. You’ve wanted her to find closure. Whether she lived or died in the story, whether she was given justice or mercy, you wanted her arc to end. You wanted to see her accept Vision’s death and move on or self-implode because she could not face the truth.

But none of that matters. All those years you spent wondering what was going to happen to her, meant nothing. Because the events of her life happened differently somewhere else. Don’t you see? The Mouse can torture poor Wanda forever, now. She’ll die horribly in one universe, live marginally better in the next, only to be brought to the 616 universe — our universe — and be subjected to other tortures, only to perhaps die all over again. She’ll live and die perpetually, and her story arc will become an endless loop — to infinity and beyond as The Mouse would say.

I hate multiverse stories because they cannot end and the reason they cannot end is because — by definition — a multiverse is infinite. And there is no better way to kill the stakes than to have a story that can never finish.

Because the Mouse knows it can resurrect and kill Wanda forever, it was unafraid to turn her into one of the most idiotic and malicious villains in the Marvel Comics Universe. The many who rooted for Wanda Maximoff ever since she watched her brother die have longed to see her and Vision together again somehow. They have hoped she would find a way to make her children real and become the hero she was always meant to be. But she has been given the good old Luke Skywalker treatment. But hey! Who cares! If you don’t like it, it doesn’t matter, because you liked it in another universe.

Here’s the second part of my review: Dr. Strange’s Multiverse of Madness features infinite problems. The extensive edits to Sam Rami’s work as a director have left it riddled with plot holes and inconsistencies. If I could describe the problems in one word, that word would be “laziness.” The multiverse provides an excuse for all kinds of incoherent nonsense.


You may also wish to see my two-part review of Transcendence (2014):

Transcendence Part 1 — The Soul Meets the Singularity. In Part 1 of my review of the 2014 classic, we start with the question: Can a human mind be completely transferred to a computer? When an anti-tech group shoots a researcher, his wife, ignoring warnings, “saves” him by uploading him — but is the powerful new Singularity really him?

and

Transcendence, Part 2: Spoonful of Water with the Nanotech When Will — now an AI — “possesses” a tradesman so that he can touch his wife Evelyn again, Evelyn begins to have second thoughts… Transcendence (2014) remains good viewing even though it too often sacrifices tension to pacing: We don’t mind seeing characters worry a bit sometimes.

Also, my reviews of Firefly, the TV series and the subsequent film Serenity: Firefly: Can science fiction reimagined as the Wild West work? I strongly recommend the original 2002–2003 series for its careful development of the culture that grows up around world-building (terraforming). Firefly is an impressive blend of the future and the past and, if Disney+ carries through with its threat of a remake, be sure to see the original. All parts linked at here.


Gary Varner

Gary Varner is the Assistant to the Managing and Associate Directors at the Center for Science & Culture in Seattle, Washington. He is a Science Fiction and Fantasy enthusiast with a bachelor’s degree in Theater Arts, and he spends his time working with his fellows at Discovery Institute and raising his daughter who he suspects will one day be president of the United States. For more reviews as well as serial novels, go to www.garypaulvarner.com to read more.

Dr. Strange: Can the Multiverse Really Work as a Plot Device?