SPOILER ALERT: This story discusses major plot points in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” currently playing in theaters. Do not read until you’ve seen the movie.
As an alum of “Community” and “Rick and Morty,” screenwriter Michael Waldron certainly knows outré, genre-hopping science fiction; with “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” Waldron found a kindred spirit in director Sam Raimi, who invented outré, genre-hopping horror with his “Evil Dead” trilogy.
Together, Raimi and Waldron have made one of the most distinctive — and, for some, controversial — movies ever in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. To wit (the big spoilers start here): Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) goes full Scarlet Witch and brutally murders anyone who gets in the way of her mission to find a universe in which her sons from the 2021 Disney+ series “WandaVision” are still alive. It’s a heel turn that has shocked many — including Olsen — especially when Wanda decimates the Illuminati, the team of superheroes from an alternate reality that includes Patrick Stewart’s Charles Xavier (from 20th Century Fox’s “X-Men” movies), Anson Mount’s Black Bolt (from ABC’s “Inhumans” TV series), and John Krasinski’s Reed Richards, the first time the leader of the Fantastic Four has appeared in the MCU.
In an interview with Variety, Waldron says he understands why some fans have been thrown by Wanda’s violent plummet into the dark side. But he stands by it, pointing to the Darkhold — the book of evil magic Wanda received from Agatha Harkness (Kathryn Hahn) in “WandaVision” — and Wanda’s unresolved grief as the catalysts for her behavior. He also talks about how Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige helped to drive casting the Illuminati, why Namor (aka the Sub-Mariner) wasn’t among them, and how the “Star Wars” movie he’s writing for Feige has light-years of difference from “Multiverse of Madness.”
When did you know that Wanda was going to be the villain of this movie?
Sam and I came on in February of 2020. And initially, we were inheriting what the prior administration had been doing. And then COVID happened and our start date pushed six months. So he and I had the opportunity to essentially start over and say, “What do we want this movie to be?” And the foundational building block of starting over was Wanda should be the villain the whole way through. This should be a story of Doctor Strange protecting America Chavez from Wanda. So it was there from the very beginning, really, in what is the ultimate version.
It sounds like there was a version where Wanda wasn’t the initial villain?
Well, there was the version where she was more of — and I even did an earlier draft where she was more a member of the ensemble and turned bad by the end. And it always felt to me like it was just hedging. There was never a way to service her fall from grace properly as a supporting character in the movie because there had to be a separate antagonist. And it also felt like we were leaving the biggest bit of fun on the table for somebody else. And, truth be told, having watched and experienced and studied “WandaVision,” I felt like she was at the point, in possession of the Darkhold, where she was ready to break bad. She had reached that point that she reaches in comics, and that we could believably pull it off.
How tricky was it to connect what happened in “WandaVision” to that breaking bad point in “Multiverse of Madness”? I’m sure you’ve seen how some fans are having a hard time believing she’d go evil so quickly — did you ever wish a bit that “WandaVision” had ended underlining more clearly that Wanda was heading to a dark place?
No, I don’t wish “WandaVision” had done anything differently. I wouldn’t change a thing about what they did. My interpretation of “WandaVision” is that she confronts her grief and she lets go of the people she has under her control, but I don’t think she necessarily resolves her grief in that show, and I don’t think she resolves her anger. Maybe she’s able to say goodbye to Vision, but I think she’s really just fallen in love with those kids. I think that all of those hanging threads are the things that the Darkhold preys on when she gets the Darkhold from Agatha. You see in the final scene of “WandaVision,” that tag — the mistake that our Wanda makes is she opens the Darkhold. She starts reading, and I think it preys on her desire to have those children and have them for real this time. So yeah, that was how I arrived there. It made sense to me and it made sense to our teams because we built the story.
So is Wanda of Earth-616 dead now? What was that flash of red light at the end?
I think that’s up for interpretation. She made some kind of sacrificial act that destroyed the Darkhold in every universe, which is protecting Wanda in every universe from being seduced by the Darkhold. Whether she’s dead or not remains to be seen. I know what it’s like to love characters and to not want them to be gone and to hate when they do bad things. But that’s that’s part of the fun of watching stuff and getting swept up in it.
Mephisto has been a head canon MCU villain for over a year now. Was he ever in play for this movie in any way?
No. Only in jokes. Only in bits I did in the writers room and in text messages I sent to [“WandaVision” head writer] Jac Schaeffer. Mephisto was never in play for us.
How does bringing the Illuminati into this movie work? Do you go to Kevin Feige and say, “I want to bring Patrick Stewart and Anson Mount back? Can we do that?”
That’s kind of a combination of us putting forth, “Well, what if we did this?” But also, Kevin’s as excited about this stuff as we are, so sometimes those ideas are coming from Kevin saying, “Well, what if we got so and so? I’m gonna do it! I’m gonna make the call!” So he’s as excited about all that stuff as any of us. It’s a big, geeky team effort to see what we can assemble for that team.
Where did you draw from to build this version of Professor X? The Fox movies or the comics and the animated series from the 1990s?
A little bit of both. I don’t know if I’m technically supposed to get into specifics about these actors or characters, but I worked with that performer to even talk about making it different, so it was a different version of him. He uses a line from “Days of Future Past” that he says to Stephen. But also, we drew from the classic cartoon version of that character. He’s a variant who has qualities of a bunch of different versions of those guys from across the multiverse.
Was Namor ever a possibility?
[We] talked about him, because he’s certainly an original member of the Illuminati. But I think Marvel has other plans for him in the MCU. And so he didn’t make his way in this particular movie.
I’m sure you’re aware that fans have been clamoring for John Krasinski to play Reed Richards. How involved were you in casting him in that part?
I’m not involved in the casting, but as with all of these performers, I worked really closely with him in bringing that character to life with him and Sam. And especially on that one, because that was the one character that had no real precedent ever in the MCU, at least. Figuring out how we want this guy to be — that was a lot of fun. That particular character is certainly one of my favorite comic book characters.
Do you expect Krasinski will return for the “Fantastic Four” movie?
It’s a question for somebody else.
Well, I’ll ask this: Was Wanda always suppose to kill all of the Illuminati?
Yeah, that was there in my first draft of the script. That was the madness of the multiverse to me, really. You introduced this superhero team that makes the audience feel like they’re finally safe, and then the Scarlet Witch eviscerates them. It was a great way to knock the audience off their feet. And then hopefully, you spend the rest of the movie terrified of Wanda and what she’s capable of.
Elizabeth Olsen told me Wanda was originally supposed to kill even more people — what did she mean by that?
Well, there were more people. [Laughing] Maybe not necessarily in that sequence. But I talked about her as kind of a T-1000 in that assault on Kamar-Taj. She’s unstoppable. So yeah, there’s maybe stuff that we never even shot but cool little one-on-one fights between her and some of those sorcerers. There was some amazing [concept] art that we never actually shot.
You were instrumental in creating the Disney+ series “Loki” and establishing the multiverse as a force within the MCU. Did you ever look at connecting that show with this film in any way?
If it had been necessary, I think we would have. But as it was, it felt, even to me, like we were just reaching. Nothing would have made me happier than to get to write dialogue for Tom or Owen or Sophia. But it felt like this was a story happening separate of that TVA purview. And that might have complicated things. You know, this movie was already handling a lot, and that might have just confused things even further. So I think we were okay without it.
Now that you’re done with this movie, how far along are you with the “Star Wars” movie you’re working on with Feige?
We’re finally into it in earnest. I mean, I’m writing away. It’s a lot of fun. I’m enjoying having the freedom on that to do something that’s not necessarily a sequel or anything. It maybe has a little bit less of a — it just doesn’t have a bunch of TV shows and movies that you’re servicing on top of it, the way I did with “Doctor Strange.” So it’s nice. It feels like a different exercise.
Are you planning on playing in the Marvel Studios sandbox again?
If they’ll have me, for sure. I love working with Kevin and the entire team over there. What it’ll be, who knows? I don’t know whether I’ll try to create another show for those guys, or dive into another movie. I learned a lot about directing from Sam, so now, unfortunately, I probably have to go try that at some point, just to see if I can put everything he taught me to use.
Finally, you have a brief cameo as the best man in Christine Palmer’s wedding — how’d that come about?
Sam just saw my talent and it just couldn’t be ignored. We always joked about putting me in the movie. It was the middle of the shoot, and Sam said, “All right, you’re in.” Suddenly I’m in a makeup trailer next to Michael Stuhlbarg. It was great. It was fun. I got to shoot with Rachel McAdams, who I love and is so talented. Right before the first take, she looked at me and she said, “It’s Friday and I want to go home. Don’t screw this up.” I was like, I’m in the big leagues now!
This interview has been edited and condensed.