One of the low-key underrated announcements during Marvel Studios’ instantly-legendary Hall H panel Saturday evening at Comic-Con International: San Diego wasn’t just that director Scott Derrickson was returning to direct Benedict Cumberbatch in a Doctor Strange sequel.
That was widely expected.
It also wasn’t that Elizabeth (‘Lizzy’ per Kevin Feige) Olson was going to continue Scarlet Witch’s MCU story in the sequel or that her and Paul Bettany’s WandaVision Disney+ show will tie-in and lead directly into it.
Although that’s pretty big news in and of itself.
And it wasn’t just that the sequel will be titled Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness - and according to the director will be the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first “scary” film.
But that’s part of it.
It’s that Multiverse of Madness will debut on May 7, 2021, or if recent precedent holds, April 30, 2021.
That likely tells us a lot about what the film is going to be.
For the past eight years since 2012’s The Avengers, Marvel’s annual first weekend of May release has produced six films that have comfortably made more than … [extends pinky finger to corner of mouth] … $1 billion dollars at the global box office. Only 2017’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 ($864 million 2017) and their concession of the date to Sony for 2014’s non-MCU Amazing Spider-Man 2 breaks the billion dollar chain.
The point is, the May date is Disney and Marvel Studios’ blockbuster, tentpole showcase - the film that is expected to be a candidate for that year’s box office champion. And in the case of this May’s Avengers: Endgame, the all-time box office ruler.
The first Doctor Strange opened in early November 2016, an off-peak pre-holiday date Marvel has carved out mostly for the last three Thor films, which will include 2021’s Thor: Love and Thunder. Doctor Strange made $678m globally - good for 15th on the Marvel Studios box office chart. That’s indisputably a very healthy total in almost all Hollywood contexts but as it were a relatively modest one in the rarified MCU air.
Its closest MCU-performer is Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which made $714m globally opening in early April 2014, and this is where things start getting interesting...
...because we think The Multiverse of Madness has the potential to be the Civil War of the next phase of the MCU.
May 2016’s Civil War was, of course, the follow-up to Winter Soldier - functioning as the third Captain America installment and quasi-Avengers 2.5 that served many masters. A popcorn spectacle dressed up as utilitarian world-building, it pulled War Machine, the Falcon, Ant-Man and the Winter Soldier into the main thrust of the Avengers-verse; introduced Spider-Man and the Black Panther; and set up the fracture between Cap and Iron Man that would serve as a plot point, albeit an ultimately minor-ish one, in Endgame.
It was a Who’s Who of the MCU at the time. A sort of greatest hits album with two new original new songs, moved into the coveted May slot because of the then-unprecedented assembled roster.
And The Multiverse of Madness has that same potential, with a … wait for it … mad twist.
Marvel is savvy enough not to just roll Doctor Strange into its prime release date with one other major co-star. And a ‘multiverse of madness’ clearly lays the groundwork for not only multiple MCU stars, but potentially all MCU stars.
And yes, we mean ALL.
Multiverses and alternate timelines and dimensions are one, if not the, most popular tropes in Marvel and DC comic books. The multiverse is more of less the foundation of DC, serving as the lynchpin of most of their major events. The Marvel Comics multiverse also powers many of their most popular storylines of the last few decades besides Civil War, Age of Apocalypse, Secret Wars, the Spider-Verse events, the Marvel 2099 line, Marvel Zombies (the latter three of which are all returning to Marvel Comics in some form) all swim in those same conceptual waters.
They’re the epitome of what Stan Lee called the illusion of change - alterations (in this case instant) to favorite characters and storylines playing on the curiosity of fans. Marvel Studios now has the chance to bring that trope that the Arrowverse (see: Routh, Brandon; Superman, Kingdom Come ) is finding success with on television to the big screen for the first time.
With two years worth of movies laid out now along with Blade and another handful of sequels beyond 2021 undated but known, the MCU is years away from either a revival or new iteration of the Avengers and/or an event that could pull the remaining MCU stars all together again. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness may well be Marvel Studios' way of having their cake and eating it too while they establish a unifying backstory to an Avengers-type franchise in four or five years.
The potential is there to feature any and all MCU heroes, villains, and teams in alternate or twisted versions of themselves. And not just characters of the present and future. No concept, timeline or especially character is off the table, including every villain that’s been killed over the last 23 films, Quicksilver, Yondu, the original Groot, Vision (depending on the events of WandaVision), the Ancient One, more or less every Asgardian but Thor, and not for nothing, Black Widow and Iron Man.
And there’s the matter of a certain now-100-year-old Captain America.
Yes, we’re going there.
Now is it likely just two years removed from Endgame and what will be just a year from Black Widow, Scarlett Johansson and/or Chris Evans and/or Robert Downey Jr. could be called out of retirement to reprise their roles as a multiversal-alternate version or versions of their characters?
Admittedly, the answer is probably no. They all moved or are moving on for good reason. But then lending themselves to a few days on a set is a whole other ball of wax than carrying entire six-month-plus productions every other year as they’ve been doing over a decade.
Bear in mind, Marvel Studios is getting better at surprising even hyper-aware audiences and they weren’t above risking the ‘too soon’ card by having a zombified Iron man crawl out of a grave (albeit in an illusion) in Spider-Man: Far From Home.
In other words, we’re not putting anything by them right now.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is almost certainly going to feature enough twists on established MCU characters and concepts to achieve the event status justifying its showcase May release. The only question is how far will it go … and like Civil War, what other world-building functions can it serve?
We’ll have thoughts on that latter question upcoming in part 2.