Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness Takes A Hatchet To The Cameo Craze

This post contains major spoilers for "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness."

Now that we're almost exactly 14 years into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it seems like everyone has the routine down to a science. As usual, screenings for the newest movie from Thursday night through the opening weekend will be packed to the gills. Excited moviegoers will break out into applause as the house lights are turned down and the familiar Marvel orchestral theme starts to play over the studio logo, obediently rooted in their seats until the final post-credits scene ends. The months-long marketing cycle will have promised a reassuring blend of game-changing plot developments, the expected amount of quippy and self-referential humor, and no shortage of crowd-pleasing cameos and moments that we might as well call for what it is: custom ordered fan-service at the expense of meaningful storytelling.

Everything still works exactly as intended, as the generally positive critical reaction and advanced tracking numbers indicate, but even the most diehard fans must have noticed a pervasive feeling of convention creeping in around the edges.

Despite director Sam Raimi's involvement in "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness," raising hopes for a more maverick approach to the material that filmmakers like Shane Black and James Gunn have succeeded with in years past, it's hard to convincingly claim that this latest Marvel sequel fully upends the franchise's status quo. As /Film's Hoai Tran-Bui points out in her review, even Raimi himself admits that he never set out to do so in the first place. All those aforementioned qualities are present and accounted for here, purposefully baked into the script by Marvel's new go-to source for multiverse drama, writer Michael Waldron. And for much of the film's runtime, I worried that we were witnessing just the latest example of a visionary filmmaker losing their individuality among the suffocating constraints of the blockbuster machine.

Until that scene happened.

Honestly, we probably have to go back to "Iron Man 3" and the infamous Mandarin plot twist in 2013 — almost a decade ago! — for the last time Marvel showed as much willingness to go there. With the introduction of the Illuminati midway through "Multiverse of Madness," Raimi and Waldron shoveled a heaping spoonful of fan-servicey cameos into our mouths ... only to gleefully turn it to ash moments later.

Having their cake and eating it too

I'll admit — while my raucous crowd exploded with excitement, I audibly groaned. As with much of "Avengers: Endgame" and especially "Spider-Man: No Way Home," "Multiverse of Madness" seems to knowingly pause for the requisite audience freak-out when Hayley Atwell's Captain Carter, John Krasinski's Reed Richards, and Patrick Stewart's Charles Xavier (among others, such as Lashana Lynch's Captain Marvel) all appear on-screen for their cameos in the multiverse. Never mind that much of the hype surrounding this moment will likely be lost in translation to newcomers to the franchise years down the line. No, all that matters is that in the year of our Lord 2022, fans desperately wanted to see Krasinski as Reed Richards (a fan-cast based almost entirely, as far as I can tell, on a viral edited mockup) and the "X-Men" crossing over into the MCU (even if Stewart's return, multiverse variant or not, tramples all over Xavier's poignant and heartbreaking end in 2017's "Logan").

Well, within the span of 10 to 15 minutes, all those exuberant cheers around me all turned into horrified screams.

Having established Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) as an outright villain, continuing (though also contradicting) the threads laid down in "Endgame" and the Disney+ series "WandaVision," Sam Raimi films the powerful Scarlet Witch through the most overt horror lens he can conjure as she cuts a bloody and merciless swath through these fan-pleasing characters. This sequence will undoubtedly be criticized most vocally among fans who had the rug pulled out from under them, labeling it as "edgy" or "mean-spirited" or a "betrayal" to Wanda fans, dismayed by her coldblooded heel turn ... and those feelings aren't entirely wrong. But after almost a decade and a half of nonstop, safe, and carefully modulated media meant to appeal to all four quadrants as much as humanely possible, isn't it about time that we appreciated the rare moment when all our expectations were not only satisfied but immediately turned on their head?

/Film's Sandy Schaeffer recently went long on spoiler culture and, specifically, the ways that Marvel has used the tantalizing tease of cameo appearances as both a marketing and a storytelling shortcut. At a time when we've grown so accustomed to mainstream blockbusters that do nothing but pander to our most basic wants, one sequence in "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness" gives us what we need, instead.