SPOILER ALERT: This story discusses the main post-credit scene in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” currently in theaters.
For as long as he’s been in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) — former genius neurosurgeon turned master of the mystical arts — has only had eyes for one person: Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). After breaking things off with her in 2016’s “Doctor Strange,” Strange spends a considerable amount of time in its sequel, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” coming to terms that he and Christine were never fated to be together, in any universe.
Turns out, there’s room in the MCU for another woman in Strange’s life. And she’s played by Charlize Theron!
In the post-credits scene of “Multiverse of Madness” — or, technically, the mid-credits scene — we see Strange walking down a Manhattan street when suddenly, a white haired, purple-costumed Theron calls out his name. She tells Strange that his universe-hopping shenanigans has caused an “incursion” between universes, which we’ve already been told could rip the fabric of the multiverse apart. Then she uses an energy blade to cut into the fabric of reality, exposing the Dark Dimension — as introduced in the first “Doctor Strange” movie. She asks Strange to join her to fix the incursion. Strange’s third eye opens, and he agrees. End of scene!
At no point does Theron’s character introduce herself — rude! — but comic book fans and keen-eyed observers of the “Multiverse of Madness” end credits know that her name is Clea. Like Strange, Clea is a sorcerer, and she hails from the Dark Dimension. In the Marvel comics, she has a long and complicated history with its menacing overlord Dormammu — her mother is his sister, for starters — and she and Strange eventually enter into a rather unconventional inter-dimensional marriage.
It’s unclear how much or little of Clea’s comic book history will wind up being a part of the character’s backstory within the MCU, and she certainly is not anywhere close to a marquee character in the Marvel comics canon. But she is now played by an action movie icon, between the “Fast & Furious” movies, 2020’s “The Old Guard,” 2017’s “Atomic Blonde,” and especially 2015’s “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Theron is a star, not a supporting player, and Marvel Studios would not hire an actor of her fame, stature and talent if it’s not planning big things for her.
Just how big is the question.
It’s no surprise that Disney and Marvel are radio silent on their plans for Theron and Clea. But at the very least, we can reasonably expect Cumberbatch and Theron to headline the third “Doctor Strange” movie — and likely much sooner than the six year gap between the first and second films. (“Doctor Strange in the Dark Dimension” certainly has a good ring to it.) But how much should audiences should expect Clea, and Theron, to become entangled with the rest of the MCU, in the same way Cumberbatch’s Strange has through the last two “Avengers” movies and “Spider-Man: No Way Home”?
In a previous era of the MCU, of course Marvel Studios would hope to include Theron is as many projects as possible — Robert Downey Jr. was in nine MCU movies from 2008 to 2019. Post-“Endgame,” however, the horizon is far less clear.
Here’s what we know for sure: To date, Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige has yet to show his cards as to how — or even whether — the Phase Four suite of MCU films and Disney+ shows will come together with an “Avengers”-style culminating mega-event. Jonathan Majors is set to appear in 2023’s “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” as Kang the Conqueror — a Marvel comics Big Bad on par with Thanos in terms of universe-threatening ambition. Strange and Clea don’t have much history with Kang in the comics per se, but since the Disney+ series “Loki” established that Kang has designs to subjugate all of the multiverse, there’s a decent chance that Strange and Clea’s mission to prevent a multiversal incursion could lead them to pop up in the third “Ant-Man” movie. (For one thing, Dormammu isn’t about to give up control of the Dark Dimension to Kang or anyone else.)
Another possibility: Upcoming releases like this July’s “Thor: Love and Thunder,” and 2023’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” and “The Marvels” — not to mention the as-yet-undated “Fantastic Four” film — will shift the MCU’s focus away from Earth and into the multiversal cosmos, where Strange and Clea could find themselves especially useful, leading to a big team-up movie that would debut in May 2024.
With so many films and Disney+ titles to manage now, however, it is just as likely that we won’t see a grand, unifying movie for Phase Four at all, or at least as we’ve come to expect them. Consider that Theron’s franchise dance card is already pretty full, between playing Cipher in “Fast X” (and, presumably, its sequel) and reprising her starring role as Andy in “The Old Guard 2” and any other sequels beyond it. She is an in-demand star who often produces her own material, so devoting years of her career to making Marvel Studios movies may not be possible.
It almost seems like, by casting an actor too big and busy to turn over her career wholesale to the MCU, Marvel is signaling (intentionally or not) that the era of massive team-up films is over. But whether Theron goes on to a major MCU career or a minor one, Marvel — and audiences — will be happy to have her.