Dr Strange
Marvel Studios | Disney

‘Doctor Strange 2’ is a Horror Film?

'Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness' is one of the most audacious MCU films to date. It's a manic, horror-tinged romp through a kaleidscope of alternate realities.
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Sam Raimi has been making superhero films for a long time. His excellent Spider-Man trilogy in the early-to-mid 2000s helped usher in an era of Marvel hero box office dominance, alongside the Fox X-Men series and the fan-favorite Blade movies that starred Wesley Snipes. But before he ever brought superpowered heroes to the big screen, Raimi delighted audiences with his zany, macabre Evil Dead trilogy.

From indie horror to comic book blockbuster? These two genres might seem distinct–after all, what do zombies have to do with superheroes? However, horror directors have found it easier to transition to superhero action than most filmmakers. Raimi is a notable example, but directors like James Wan (Saw, Aquaman) and David F. Sandberg (Annabelle: Creation, Shazam) have pivoted neatly from helming horror flicks to directing superhero movies.

Raimi’s latest movie, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, finally hit theaters on May 6 and is the first entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to fully embrace the horror genre. Between jump scares, ghosts, and some ghoulish reveals, the film revels in the devilish delights Raimi has perfected over the years. It also really stretches its PG-13 rating to its limits and begs the question: how did Raimi sneak a horror movie into the MCU?

Warning: The following article contains full spoilers for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. 

Things Get Strange

It shouldn’t be surprising for comic book fans to hear that a Stephen Strange movie is full of ghosts and ghouls. After all, the Master of the Mystical Arts is Marvel’s go-to guy for all things haunted. While Spider-Man stops bank robbers and Thor battles Nordic deities, Dr. Strange is the Marvel character most likely to cross paths with Mephisto or Nightmare. This plants some of Strange’s adventures firmly in the realm of horror, though more casual Marvel fans might be surprised to find out just how dark some of Stephen’s comics can be. 

This could partly be due to the MCU’s typically family-friendly aura. The first Dr. Strange movie–directed by another horror alum, Scott Derickson (Sinister, Deliver Us From Evil)–was more mind-bending than hair-raising. Sure, the villainous Dormammu causes mayhem and threatens to subsume reality, but it’s all presented in a punchy, action-first framework that feels right at home alongside Iron Man and Captain America.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is different. In this movie, audiences are introduced to beloved characters from the comics and fan-favorite actors return to reprise their roles just to get brutally taken down by the Scarlet Witch. It’s jarring and exhilarating, and if you’re a fan of Raimi’s other work, you’ll feel right at home. Watching Wanda Maximoff turn into a full-blown horror villain is thrilling stuff, and it feels like a perfect companion to the MCU’s broadening scope.

Horror and Heroes

Horror cinema and superhero genre films aren’t a million miles away from each other. Both genres are all about spectacle. In a horror movie, a director needs to show the audience just enough to get them to feel afraid. The monster needs to be threatening, but, for the narrative to progress, some of the characters need to survive. By contrast, superhero movies need to give you a taste of the villain’s power to make the hero’s intervention feel like a necessary step. The villain needs to be at least as strong as the hero (or in some cases, as cunning) to make the conflict feel meaningful.

This makes characters like Dr. Strange challenging to write. After all, what good is being the Master of the Mystic Arts if all you use your power for is refilling beer steins and other fun party tricks? For Strange to be tested, he needs to fight enemies that are on his level. But how do you get stronger than “capable of rewriting the basic rules of this universe?”

Well, a villain capable of rewriting the basic rules of every universe is a great place to start. Enter the Scarlet Witch, a villain-turned-hero-turned-villain-again. One of Marvel’s best magic tricks leading into Multiveres of Madness was keeping Wanda’s heel-turn in this movie a secret, avoiding the question about who the movie’s antagonist would be. 

Relatable Villain, Shocking Stakes

By casting Wanda as the villain in the film, Multiverse of Madness gets audiences to feel sympathy for the antagonist. We saw her pain in Infinity War and WandaVision, so we know how she got here. While most people would agree she’s making all the wrong decisions, she’s not making them out of nowhere.

Wanda grew up in a warzone and lost her parents in a shelling attack. She allowed Hydra to experiment on her and her brother, Pietro, bringing out their latent superpowers. In a bid for revenge against the man she blamed for her parents’ deaths, she threw in her lot with Ultron. She watched Pietro give his life to save the Avengers and then saw Vision make the same sacrifice. Time and again, she saw heroism rewarded with a swift end. 

After the Westview incident, Wanda completely breaks with reality. The Darkhold corrupts her mind and convinces her that she could have everything she’s ever wanted… if she just breaks a few rules. She decides that she must spend the rest of her days with her children, Tommy and Billy, because she’s convinced that they’re not just illusions she conjured up in the Hex. 

Escalating the Violence

Wanda discovers that a superpowered girl named America can travel through the multiverse at will. She uses the Darkhold to send various beasts after the young superhero, which gives audiences their first taste of the film’s horror stylings. A variant Doctor Strange and America battle a demon in a cosmic waystation, and the demon manages to slay the alternate-reality Sorceror Supreme. 

America meets “our” Strange, the Master of the Mystic Arts, and the two flee to Kamar-Taj to hide out from the demons that seek her portal-making superpowers. This is where audiences learn how far Wanda is willing to go to be reunited with her children. She brutally attacks the sorcerers defending Kamar-Taj and invades the fortress to forcibly wrench America’s powers away. 

Raimi leans into the horror cinematography as Wanda becomes more desperate, using her Hex-based magic to pull unsuspecting sorcerers into reflective surfaces. Finally, America panics and opens a portal, through which she and Strange flee to the seemingly utopian Earth-838.

Meet the Illuminati

The film’s most controversial sequence occurs in this reality after Strange meets Earth-838’s version of the Illuminati. Comic readers will recognize the team immediately; the Illuminati makes difficult decisions behind the scenes in the Marvel universe. Fans were delighted to see Patrick Stewart return as Professor Xavier, as well as Anson Mount returning to the role of Black Bolt from the short-lived Inhumans series.

Hayley Atwell returns as Peggy Carter, though in this reality she’s Captain Carter, a remixed version of Captain America who wields a Union Jack shield. Captain Marvel fans also got a treat in the form of Lashana Lynch’s cameo as a superpowered version of Maria Rambeau, Carol Danver’s best friend. Finally, audiences were delighted to see their fan-casting dreams come true as John Krasinski dropped into the frame as this universe’s version of Mr. Fantastic, Reed Richards.

Then, before audiences have time to process these massive reveals, Multiverse of Madness throws Wanda at the Illuminati, and horror ensues. Agatha warned us that Wanda was stronger than the Sorcerer Supreme, after all.

The Nightmare Scenario

Raimi undercuts every expectation of a superpowered team facing down a cosmic big bad by having Wanda dismantle each of them in a brutal sequence that is certain to traumatize any ten-year-olds who snuck into the theater. While these characters are certain to return in later MCU entries (these are just alternate-reality doppelgangers, after all!) Wanda’s rampage is still a jarring and exciting mix-up to the usual Marvel formula.

Likewise, Strange’s final battle with the Scarlet Witch in the cursed temple atop Mount Wundagore shows Raimi as his most ghoulish–in the best possible sense. Strange is trapped in another dimension far from Wanda, and she’s on the verge of succeeding in stealing America’s portal-opening powers. He uses a forbidden spell to “dream walk” back to his reality, but he needs to enter the body of another Dr. Strange in that world. Of course, the only Strange he can find is the body of the alternate-universe sorcerer that America brought with her.

This tees up a fantastic sequence in which Dr. Strange pilots a zombie-wizard and binds the souls of the damned to himself like a cloak. The whole scene is a perfect blend of Raimi’s previous horror and superhero films.

What’s Next?

The latest MCU movie also ends with a post-credits stinger that introduces Clea, the niece of Dormammu and likely a central character in the next Dr. Strange film. Multiverse’s credits confirm that Dr. Strange will return, and fans are excited to see what else the MCU has in store for the Master of the Mystic Arts. 

I’m personally more excited about what Sam Raimi could do next in the freewheeling world of multiverse storytelling, though. For instance, the idea of a Raimi-helmed adaptation of Marvel Zombies could be the next smash-hit series on Disney+The Multiverse of Madness is a great solo outing for Dr. Strange and a welcome change of pace for the MCU. If you love Sam Raimi’s madcap horror, you’ll probably love the newest entry in the seemingly endless MCU.