Over the course of the first 23 MCU films, several films stand out as having steered the longform narrative. AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, CAPTAIN AMERICA:THE WINTER SOLDIER, CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR, THOR: RAGNAROK and ANT-MAN AND THE WASP all featured choices, consequences and plot points that impacted more than just the events of those films. It’s hard to argue that Bucky’s reintroduction in The Winter Soldier, the implications of which rippled through the MCU for 5 years, might not have been the point from where the MCU changed forever. It was the beginning of the end of the Avengers, the inciting moment that lead to Civil War and Earth’s Mightiest Heroes being scattered around the globe when its people needed them most. The heroes, of course, came back together to defeat Thanos but it cost them dearly and we are left with a world, 4 years into the future, without a team of Avengers to defend it, alternate timelines created by their attempt to undo Thanos’ destruction and a group of survivors who have experienced a great deal of loss and trauma. While the first two films of Phase 4, 2020’s BLACK WIDOW and THE ETERNALS, don’t seem primed to explore the repercussions of AVENGERS: ENDGAME, it’s beginning to become clear which film will and, by doing so, become a game changer in the same way as Age of Ultron or Ragnarok before it: DOCTOR STRANGE: IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS.
While we know very little about the plot of the sequel at this point, it’s becoming clear that it is being set up to be the fulcrum of Phase 4 and, perhaps, the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Following its introduction in 2016’s DOCTOR STRANGE, the idea of the multiverse was largely left to marinate in the minds of fans before being brought back into the spotlight in SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME. Though Quentin Beck’s story of the multiverse turned out to be nothing more than part of his plan to deceive Peter, it did bring the idea back to the forefront of fan’s minds so when Kevin Feige revealed the full title of the Doctor Strange sequel at last summer’s SDCC, it caused an uproar. At that time, we found out that Wanda would be a key player in the film and that the events of WANDAVISION would spill directly into it. Just recently, Feige indicated that DOCTOR STRANGE: IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS would also be connected to the events of LOKI, which will somehow follow the unredeemed 2012 version of the Lord of All Liars on a trip through time, already making the Scott Derrickson sequel the central hub for MCU fans in 2021.
While we don’t know exactly what to expect from DOCTOR STRANGE: IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS or how WANDAVISION and LOKI will impact it or be impacted by it, it certainly seems that the film is positioned to reshape how we will think about the MCU going forward. Opening up the true multiverse means almost endless possibilities for story telling going forward. Other universes mean other versions of familiar characters, territory that has been mined in the comics for decades. It might also mean new characters such as Captain Britain, the Squadron Supreme or Miles Morales. Having Strange learn to navigate between these universes could also mean he might come into contact with cosmic entities that exist outside the confines of a singular universe, being such as Eternity, the Living Tribunal or even the Beyonder, who might have a thing or two to say to the Sorcerer Supreme.
In the way that CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER set the pace for the longform narrative for the films from 2014-2019, it’s possible that DOCTOR STRANGE: IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS could set the stage for the next several years of films after 2021. If anyone is looking for a path the connects Sony’s films to the MCU or for some version of SECRET WARS to make its way to the big screen, it seems like establishing the true multiverse is a necessary first step.