TV/Film Reviews

Dr Strange and The Multiverse Of Questionable Writing

Let me start off this review by saying that I don’t find anything in the world entirely bad (at least in an ‘art sense’). You will never find a review that I’ve written that won’t find at least some good points about a piece of work (and to counter that, none with no bad points either) because I don’t believe it’s fair to the people who’ve put their time and effort into a piece of art to sit here and rip apart all of their work.

In my time as a fanfiction editor I read many questionable pieces but, even when the good parts were limited, there was always some. To put it simply, to say something is entirely bad or good is an emotional response, not a logical one. All works have some good and some bad. They will be more likely leaning more one way than another but that shouldn’t change the simple fact that they should be admired for the sheer act of putting something on the page or on the screen.

I’m not saying I haven’t hated things in the past, or that there’s things I’ve seen or read that I never want to see or read again. I’m not saying that there’s not some pieces of work that are ‘so bad they’re good’, as pieces like ‘The Last Airbender’ film are fun to watch other people watch to see their reaction to the sheer ridiculousness of it all. Again, even this film despite how much I lean more towards the ‘it’s bad’ side also has some redeemable qualities (and if you’d like a review of it tell me in the comments and I’ll force myself to watch the whole thing again). Every ‘bad’ piece has at least one or two good points.

I hated watching Pixar’s ‘Good Dinosaur’– I would never watch it again, unless somebody asked me to fully review it, but I have to admit that the backgrounds were beautiful. Some of animation’s best in fact. The fact that the animation of the dinosaurs did not match it didn’t change how amazing the backgrounds were.

I think everything, and every person for that matter, sits on a spectrum of bad to good and whilst they may be closer to one side or another, they’ll never sit at the very end of either side. Imagine how boring a book would be if the characters were entirely good or bad. Imagine how less stressful the real world would be if you could say ‘oh yeah, they’re bad’ and just put them immediately in prison. No, we have court systems and juries because it isn’t as black and white as that.

I know that if I used a clickbait title like ‘Dr Strange and the Multiverse of Madness is the worst Marvel film/movie yet’, I could potentially get many more clicks than if I were to say ‘Dr Strange and the Multiverse of Madness Didn’t Fully Live Up To It’s Potential’ but the clickbait title wouldn’t be correct. It would incite emotion, not logic. The film may be closer to one end of the spectrum than other Marvel films or productions but I’m not going to diminish the hard work of all the people who worked on it by saying it had no redeemable features. So, here you go, here’s at least some good features I could mention from this film:

  1. The concepts behind the characters, I presume mostly taken from the comics with minor alterations, were pretty decent and intriguing.
  2. The actress behind newcomer America Chavez seemed enthusiastic and her story has the potential to become really enjoyable when she’s developed further.
  3. The other actors, extras included alongside the main stars, really played with their roles and had fun within the genre (horror and superhero).
  4. The costuming and make-up departments had a great eye for detail.
  5. The set builders and backgrounds were, for the most part, stunning. The lighting helped to set the scene and control the suspense (as any good horror film should– she says, pretending she watches horror films).
  6. The stunt actors and choreographers did an amazing job with many complex fight scenes featuring many different characters.
  7. The special effects team, on and off the computers, other than that one extremely cringy scene with the attacking music notes (which could be a fault of the writing team, or production, and they did the best that they could with) were extremely well executed.

No doubt I’ve forgotten some other teams that should be commended just as much and should be proud of their work as well, but overall I agree with Elizabeth Olsen. Everyone who worked on this film should be respected for their work/effort and commended for their achievements. It’s no easy feat to create a piece of art that will be anticipated and watched by so many people around the world.

That aside, I can’t argue that I was part of the crowd that enjoyed the film (I know, you’d never have guessed, right?). I went into this film excited to see a continuation of the story with some of my favourite Marvel characters, nervous because of the supposed ‘horror’ elements because of my present high anxiety levels– and I walked out disappointed, apathetic and angry (the anger has now subsided after many discussions/rants with my mother). And it wasn’t because of the all the departments I’ve listed before, it was entirely down to direction and writing– the two, unfortunately most important parts of a film that the other sections all depend on.

Now, I don’t know if the writer/s could have been affected by time limits, outside control, studio demands or even Covid, but the writing in the film (and to another degree, the planning that should’ve occurred before the writing) was weak. Many rules of writing were broken and as an over-educated writer it was hard not to pick up on them.

It isn’t uncommon for every writer to break, by accident, at least one rule whilst you’re working on a project. Writing’s a hard thing to do and editing can be just as complicated. There’s even plenty of mistakes in the review I’m writing now, I’m sure (like right now. Are you ready for it?). But to so noticeably have broken so many is a big red flag to me that at some point in the planning or writing something’s got in the way or gone wrong.

I know it may seem harsh, and yes I also think the writing had good points, but as a writer myself the stand-outs are the faults– because, if somebody hadn’t pointed them out to me so I could fix them, and I had only seen them for the first time when the public had also seen them/they were unfixable now, I would be extremely annoyed and angry– mostly at myself. Yes, every non-writer out there, you should know– every writer will make these mistakes at some point but usually we would edit them away. Unless, we hadn’t seem them and nobody had told us.

Let’s start with the first broken rule, and it’s a big one in the writing world, believe me: Show and Don’t Tell.

So, I’m sure I have an entire blog post about this rule. The difference between show and tell is as follows.

Tell: America didn’t like to be reminded of her mothers. She wished that she could see them again but that could never happen.

Show: America looked inside the portal, her memories played on a loop like a broken television set. Two women, one dressed in gold and white and the other decorated in as many silver pieces of jewellery could fit over her arms and neck, were standing next to an eight-year old girl and watching the girl play with her wooden frog by a pond. America could feel her heart beating heavily in her chest, her breath became shallow and she had to swallow to force a larger breath to come out again. “It’s them…” she said, almost whispering and wiping a tear that dared to creep down her face. “But… no… I can’t.” She swung her arm at the portal and swept it away with her hand. The portal fizzed and then disappeared.

You see how in the telling portion you are told how you are supposed to feel and what you’re supposed to see? It’s reminiscent of a story my five-year-old niece would tell me. Whereas in the showing portion you are shown America’s perspective; you find out how her parents dressed; about her relationship with them and you get the sense that she lost them and can’t bear to see them, without being told that that it what you’re supposed to see. Everything is being inferred and it is telling you, the audience, so much with so little. It tells you as well, over anything, that you are intelligent and you can make your own informed decisions without being told.

But the film often didn’t allow you that intelligence. It told you/us that Wanda was the villain, without showing how or when this happened. It told us that her motivation was her kids without explaining it in more depth or showing any of that relationship and it’s importance. It told us America was okay with the new Dr Strange despite the betrayal of the Strange she formerly trusted, completely pushing aside that storyline as if it didn’t matter or wouldn’t affect her. A lot of the writing, telling us what we need to know, was reminiscent of Mr Fantastic telling Wanda that Black Bolt was a threat. It’s silly, demeaning to your audience and it should have been edited away when it was discovered. Don’t tell me things, show me them.

Although, I used the America portal scene as an example for Show Vs Tell, it wasn’t actually this rule that that scene broke. Before I tell you, what do you think? What do you think that scene broke of the rules of writing? Take a second and think before reading on…

The Iceberg theory

I know for sure I’ve done a blog post on this, so if you want to read about this theory more in-depth you can find it in my list of early posts. Basically, when designing a character you create an Iceberg. With Iceberg’s you can only see ten percent of it as the rest is all under water. The ten percent above the water is representative of the amount the reader will learn about the character within your writing. The ninety percent is what you as a writer will know and it will inform the characters decisions, actions and speech.

For example, I may know that America has two mothers. I know that she doesn’t have any memory of them or that it hurts her to think of them. I know she came from another planet and was trained to be a warrior (or whatever is in her Iceberg)– so when it comes to telling people about this, what I shouldn’t do is ‘info dump’ them. The memory machine that her and Strange step onto in another universe– is the ‘info dump’ machine. It wasn’t necessary and was a lazy way to tell us about America’s backstory. Most importantly, it’s brushed aside for the remainder of the film and isn’t crucial to anything that happens. It doesn’t seem to affect the character except in that moment (maybe only about a minute of screen time).

If it had affected America to the extent where she was constantly thinking about it, or she mentioned it briefly again– if it had informed her decision making and affected her actions and dialogue– then it would be an appropriate use of the iceberg (although still a lazy way to bring it in). As it was, it only really served to tell the audience that she has a past– which we already know because of course she has a past. No person, whether they know America Chavez or not, is going to think that a superpowered girl who is running away from monsters and apparently has travelled throughout the multiverse, isn’t going to have a past. But if that past isn’t important to this story– then it’s unnecessary and should have been cut. It’s still highly unrealistic that it didn’t affect her, as the film projects, but that aside, it wasn’t needed. I also termed this machine, in my notes, ‘the backstory machine’ as it was just such a lazy way to tell us what should have been told us by showing us it in spurts or when it was important.

An example of this used right is with Valkyrie in Thor Ragnarok. Loki ‘info dumps’ us by forcing Valkyrie back into her own memories and ‘shows’ us, not tells us you notice, about her life on Asgard fighting Hela. This is an earned backstory for three reasons:

  1. We’d already got hints to her previous life as we’d learned in minor bits of dialogue she was a Valkyrie and there had to be a reason she left. Especially as Thor’s description of the Valkyries didn’t match this person we’d met, creating intrigue and making us want to know why she’d changed so much.
  2. The backstory was told through a ploy by Loki to beat Valkyrie, by attacking her with her own worst memories (an already established power of Loki’s) so it didn’t come out of nowhere and was done with a purpose by another character. This backstory was never explicitly talked about again because the audience had all the information they needed and didn’t need to be told how to feel about it.
  3. This memory coming up for Valkyrie informed her decision to capture Loki and team up with Thor. This in turn affected all of the scenes that were to come after it and Valkyrie’s change of heart was earned through that scene.

Backstory and the remains of your iceberg should always serve a purpose to your story, but even more so if it is in the top tip. Why am I seeing the tip of the iceberg if my ship can sail straight through it without it affecting my journey? It’s not an iceberg anymore then, is it?

I should say, to add to this, the film also had a problem with expository dialogue– i.e. telling us what is going to affect the plot further on, rather than letting us be surprised by it later. Yes, there is a difference between foreshadowing and exposition– foreshadowing is done subtly and cleverly and is usually only noticed on re-watches (such as in Doctor Who the Toglefane saying the ‘darkness is coming’ which was believed to just be about the Master coming but was actually foreshadowing something that happened a whole series later). Exposition is never done subtly and is an extremely obvious message about what is going to happen. This was seen often with Wanda and Strange’s dialogue.

A major problem I saw with the way it was written was to do with characters. All of them had potential as an idea but weren’t explored to the extent that they should’ve been. Often their actions only acted to serve the plot, e.g. America Chavez accepting the new Strange when she’d only recently been betrayed by another Strange– really this should have affected her relationship with him and made her less likely to trust him. At first it did seem to be heading that way and then, because it didn’t help to move the plot forward, it was forgotten and ignored. It would’ve been a more interesting dynamic and character study to continue with this distrust– it could’ve also lead to a more engaging truth reveal about America’s past or lack of memory of a past.

Wanda also had major problems with this. We were essentially told at the beginning (notice I say ‘told’ again) that the Darkhold was causing her to act this way, a fact contradicted multiple times and never explained, but they then never went more into depth about this. The ‘villain’ was deemed the book and from then on the book became the scapegoat with no further exploration needed. We never had a scene were this ‘villain’ was earned. We never saw anything about the Darkhold, it’s history or Wanda’s progression into a villain through it– we were just told that we had to see it as the bad guy and that was it. All because the history wasn’t imperative to this main plot (although I would argue it very much was).

Multiverse Wanda’s children were also used as a method of furthering the plot, rather than being treated as real characters. They acted unrealistic because if they had acted another way it wouldn’t have served the plot the writers were trying to force. For example, in their final scene, when our Wanda attacks their mother– knocking her across the room– what do the two boys do? They throw some stuffed teddies at our Wanda and then run to hide behind a very open stair banister. They didn’t run out of the door to escape, or run to their own mother to check on her, or even freeze– they hid in a very open place. And why? Because our Wanda had to see how afraid they were of her for her to stop what she was doing (which is another thing that should’ve been explained– how much of a hold does the Darkhold truly have? How is it so easy to beat it and say you’re not trying to be the bad guy? etc.). It helped to serve the plot but it also weakened the plot.

This doesn’t even read as a writing problem. This would be a problem with the planning originally that then affected the writing. A story that focuses entirely on plot, to the detriment of the characters, will never be successfully written. A story always hinges on a character first and then their actions decide the plot. You cannot change a character to fit a plot. It just doesn’t work. Especially if these are already established and well known characters. I can’t rewrite Sherlock Holmes, put him on an Island, and make him not be able to see any clues around him– not unless I gave him a massive head injury, but even then glimpses of his original character would still have to be shown and he would eventually have to return to his original self completely.

I would also suggest to the writers that they need, in their planning sessions, to work on what the limitations and strengths of powers and powerful objects are– and then define them/show it throughout the story. We were never sure what Wanda’s limitations or strengths were– or even what her powers actually were– because she changed them so much. If she has unlimited powers then she falls into that being unrealistic and hard to root for, as she becomes something alien and not human. Weaknesses and failings are what make us human, after all.

Alongside being told what we were meant to see, feel and understand, we somehow didn’t get to learn enough. As I said, I needed to see more about the Darkhold and why Wanda had become the way she was; I needed to understand Strange’s decision making and how he had become so bad at making decisions; I needed more depth to America Chavez as I felt she was being used as a plot device rather than an actual character (although I still see potential in her if she is handed to a great writer).

I’m going to leave it here, although I could say more, as I think I’ve said enough for now. I do, however want to quickly say:

  1. The very ‘horror movie’ scene where they wait for Wanda to bust down the door was incredibly dumb and unrealistic. You would have carried on running and at least tried to open the next door.
  2. Strange should’ve shut the door to the other book, which only he could open, behind them. He has always behaved intelligently before this so it makes no sense that he wouldn’t do this– or one of the ladies wouldn’t have pointed it out to him.
  3. My mother and I call the Illuminati (I’m ashamed that this name makes me cringe so much but it just brings to mind jokes on the internet about ‘Illuminati’ and not something to be taken seriously)– the dumb-dumb patrol. We were shown nothing about them that could uphold them as something to be revered– everything they did was dumb decision making and they proved to be weak. I also refuse to believe that Peggy could be that dumb or that Maria as Captain Marvel could be taken down by a statue when Carol could punch through an entire big spaceship.
  4. And that’s the three ’emotional’ sore points I have from this film. I hope you enjoyed them :P.

As I said, I don’t think any piece is wholly bad. In fact, one of the reasons that the writing in Dr Strange and the Multiverse of Madness hurts so much is that the actual concept had a lot of potential that wasn’t lived up to. They tried to do too much in their plot and moving through settings and that ended up being to the detriment of the characters and their actions.

I still believe that Marvel has the ability to make great films– I certainly don’t feel like some do that Marvel has outrun it’s course and can no longer make good projects. There’s been four works recently that have had extremely poor writing, a handful of fun works with passable writing and a few great ones as well. But this is par for the course with all long-running projects like Marvel. You have hits and misses. For me, Dr Strange MoM was a miss– but future works with these characters, knowing the potential I can still see in them, could be complete hits. All it takes is a writer and director to fully engage with their characters and that’s it. That’s all it takes. It could even be the same writer/s and directors if they learn from their mistakes and keep watch for them in future works– That’s the great thing about being a writer, there’s always time to get better. You never stop learning and improving.

So, in the rare chance that the writer/s of Dr Strange and the Multiverse of Madness read this, I want to say– I’m sorry that this didn’t turn out as good as it could have done but I know that you can get better. As cheesy as it sounds, I believe in you.

And that goes to all writers reading this right now– I believe in you. Go and write your story, enjoy yourself and keep improving, and whilst you’re doing that I’ll be doing the exact same thing.

Thank you for reading– I hope I wasn’t too harsh– and if you do like this film then, good, enjoy it. Anything that brings YOU joy is important, regardless of what I or anyone else on the internet say (unless it affects somebody else’s joy– don’t touch anybody else’s joy).


The Literary Onion

Just to add, from my mother, Wanda’s powers have been titled in our house ‘plot device powers’ as they only do whatever the plot demands them too. My mother would like to know why she didn’t just make more kids?

Also at the end of WandaVision, why were her kids yelling for her to save them? Unless it was from the future and they were yelling about her? In which case can she transcend time but only with certain limits? I’m confused about Wanda, guys.


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