There’s something rather interesting about Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. A lot of discourse surrounding the film has mainly been about the Illuminati and its members, Sam Raimi’s directing style, and how it “feels different” from the usual Marvel fare. Yet, after the film’s release, there’s been a hot debate regarding its rating as a PG-13 film, which has sparked an online discourse on if it should’ve been R-rated given some of the takedowns at the hands of Wanda. While some are understandably annoyed by the notion that one looks bad at horror elements in genre films, it does highlight Marvel studios’ biggest challenge when advertising the Doctor Strange sequel and ironically highlighting the current trend within its Phase 4.
A Multiversal Level of Expectation
The term “multiverse” has become synonymous with the potential of cameos and actors returning in roles they once popularized. Spider-Man: No Way Home certainly proved that very fact with Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield‘s return. Yet, it also became a hindrance finding dragging expectations for Multiverse of Madness to new levels, as people expected a romp throughout Marvel’s extended cinematic history. The tease of Patrick Stewart‘s return definitely raised the bar in that regard, with many expecting more Fox characters arriving in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Ironically, it’s been an underlying issue ever since WandaVision was first teased, as many put out their hopes that each time she shows up, the X-Men and mutants would make their arrival within the cinematic franchise. Yet, that was obviously never the intention; Evan Peters‘ Ralph Bohner should’ve been the very obvious warning for that very notion. Yet, on some level, Marvel Studios must’ve been aware of that expectation as their marketing started leaning hard into the “who might appear” notion of the project.
Illuminati getting a highlight in the last trailer almost seemed like a call to get people to wonder who else might show up and deter any thoughts of “so it’s only the Illuminati” early on. The rumor mill has gone rampant in a way that true believers started guessing who could appear with Kang, Deadpool, Wolverine and so many more getting even just a passing reference. Yet, the Doctor Strange film stayed true to what it is, a Doctor Strange story. The marketing doesn’t shy away from it either; they barely even hid Scarlet Witch’s turn to evil. Yet, people may have still expected an Avengers-level crossover leading to its potential frontloaded box office due to what No Way Home offered them only a few months before.
Any story dabbling in the multiverse is going to have this preconception built-in, may it be the eventual arrival of Kang and even other franchises like Warner Bros.’s upcoming The Flash film. Even comparisons made to Everything Everywhere All At Once are a showcase of a story element being interpreted in a specific way, while also letting previous releases shape the “expectation” going in. Multiverse of Madness was never advertised in any way similar to the Michelle Yeoh film, but it naturally became the “next” benchmark going into the other. Even if it’s an indie film with no real expectations going in, story, structure, or brand-wise, it was about the multiverse and that’s all it needed for “easy” comparison material.
A Horror-Defining Genre of Challenges
There’s an interesting juxtaposition between the film’s take on horror and how it was presented through its marketing. We’ve known for a while that this was going to be a horror film, a genre that is popular but also extremely niche. The highest-grossing horror film to date is the first entry of 2017’s It at a domestic gross of $327.5M. Even the more action-oriented Meg couldn’t break beyond $145.4M, which is quite far away from its 1975 inspiration Jaws, which was the originator of the term “blockbuster” release.
The 2017 film broke horror boundaries to gross $701M worldwide and still stands at the top of the board if you go by unadjusted box office numbers; a showcase of an exception rather than the rule. Yet, the film was very obviously an R-rated horror film with the added nostalgia factor from the 1990s It miniseries. In a way, it was the first true blockbuster horror film in a while to make bank, but it never shied away from what it is. Yet, even that film couldn’t escape a B+ CinemaScore rating when it was released.
There was a lot of discussion surrounding Multiverse of Madness‘ CinemaScore with a B+; some even hinting at the general audience’s not liking the film as a result. Yet, if you look at horror’s history with that broad of a target demographic, they rarely score above B. Even the well-received Scream revival from 2022 with a 76% acceptance rate by critics and 81% Audience Score couldn’t escape a B+ scoring. Last year’s Candyman received a B rating even with a 72% Audience Score and 85% Tomatometer score from critics. It’s simply a genre that doesn’t seem to mesh well with the general audience; something that tends to get forgotten in the discussion. Marvel Studios’ latest is compared with Marvel Studios’ previous, but that might not be as simple anymore
Moving forward, if their projects start to dabble more with new concepts and different directions, this might become the norm. Not that every film in the MCU will end up with a B or B+ evaluation, but that there will be more projects that may stick out from some more audience-friendly fare. Spider-Man: No Way Home has a strong A+ rating, which strongly showed in its cinematic staying power. Shang-Chi and Black Widow enjoy an A and A- rating respectively. The latter two dipped their toes in kung fu and spy cinema as the base of their inspirations. So, Doctor Strange and even Eternals may be exceptions rather than the rule, which we could see happen more often.
Weight of Audience Expectations
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness has faced a sharp drop in its second weekend by 67%, but the film still is only a few days away from crossing $700M. While it seems unlikely it’ll become the first horror film to pass $1 billion, the film is definitely taking many cues from Raimi‘s time with Evil Dead and Drag Me to Hell. If it comes to superhero storytelling and that director’s name, Spider-Man is what many might think of. In a way, we did expect horror elements, but Marvel Studios purposefully hid away any brutal takedowns that took place in the film. There are hints of Wanda crushing an Ultron bot, but no one expects her to literally turn Mr. Fantastic into spaghetti before his head pops.
In a report by Deadline, besides the rather bizarre “Uncle Vinny” section, a statement is made that only 27% of viewers would rewatch the film. It includes a curious statement by the Kentucky-Delaware exhibition head Rick Roman, who highlights that the film lacks rewatchability.
The movie has to be loved and enjoyed enough to want to see it a second time. My moviegoers feel the film is not good enough to see again.Rick Roman
The article highlights that viewers’ negative reactions were mostly in regard to the “MCU discussion about storylines that may have jumped the shark and high expectations from the trailer to the actual film” which connects to the points made above. People have continuously expected the multiverse storylines to be the next Captain America: The Winter Soldier that reshapes the entire franchise moving forward. This is even highlighted by the Uncle Vinny rant in the article that there’s no clear path because Marvel Studios decided to play a long con this time around.
Word-of-mouth definitely played a key fact, as people probably expected horror but not Evil Dead going into the film. Some may have hoped for their usual Marvel fare and were met with something quite different and, like Eternals, unabashedly trenched in a different genre. One could make a similar discussion with the Chloé Zhao film, which faced a harsher critical reception. In a way, the echoed indie film’s reception from the general audience, which doesn’t usually get CinemaScores to begin with. So, the only current comparisons would be The Northman‘s B and The Unbearable Weight of massive Talent at B+.
It even reflects the critical reception of these stories, as many are pointing out to “X director’s style not meshing with Marvel’s usual flair” highlighting a very interesting trend in how perception has shaped what makes an “MCU film.” While critically, there has been an ongoing wish for more innovation and creative freedom in regards to Marvel projects. Yet, as it has happened, we’re seeing the natural reaction of something being “off” due to it not following the preconceived notion. If one expects specifics going in, anything that moves away from that will stick out like a sore thumb, which might be something that falls once those expectations are dropped on a rewatch; only if it actually gets one.
Can’t Make an Omelette Without
The same Deadline mentioned earlier highlighted that their approach to “plus-ing,” a Disney process where they keep adding to a project even if it’s deemed as the “worst” at one point, could potentially be reaching its limit. The concept strongly focuses on building upon what worked and what didn’t, which some tend to connect with a more formulaic and I strongly disagree with the “factory” view of their productions, as more and more behind-the-scenes statements highlight how surprisingly effective the company is at improvising. Yet, the standardized view of how more mainstream productions work has led to overshadowing what Phase 4 really is trying to do.
It’s hard to deny that most of the current projects stand out for different reasons; even if controversial ones. Marvel Studios very likely saw the challenge of following Avengers: Endgame and tried to take a step back rather than double down. Complaints have become so varied, that they may be reflecting how the general audience is feeling post-COVID many have felt a loss of control. Now, if the perceived “usual Marvel fare” is starting to try out new things and evolve to stay relevant, some might need a while to adjust.
Moon Knight‘s mind-bending fourth episode may have ruffled some feathers with those expecting a more straightforward experience. Thor: Love and Thunder is very likely going to continue this trend, as Taika Waititi has publicly teased its romantic comedy elements. They may or may not fully dive into similar to Multiverse of Madness‘ horror, and it is very much something Waititi has been dabbling with such as his work on Our Flag Means Death. We might see a wild variety of receptions throughout Phase 4 as Marvel Studios continues to find a more diverse footing to break beyond expectations and offer different audiences unique experiences.
One thing is clear, the general audience still enjoys these films. Even if massively frontloaded, one cannot downplay Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness‘ initial draw at the box office. There are quite a few different elements possibly at play here and the challenge will be to keep that early momentum. There’s no clear trend that general audiences “are done” with Marvel films, quite the positive so far. No Way Home definitely created some good faith and there’s a chance that Disney+ releases give these projects a new life that extends into the cinematic experience, a counteract to the 45-day release window affecting its cinematic release.
One thing is for sure, Marvel Studios’ future endeavors might not be as simple to dissect as they start embracing more avenues moving forward.