“For even if I grieved you with my letter, I don’t regret it. And if I regretted it – since I saw that the letter grieved you, yet only for a while – I now rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because your grief led to repentance. For you were grieved as God willed, so that you didn’t experience any loss from us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, but worldly grief produces death.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
In a world without God, we are haunted by death. Let me be more specific: In a world without Christ, we are haunted by death. In his letter to the Thessalonian believers, the apostle Paul wrote encouraging them to grieve for their lost loved ones who died in Christ like the people of faith they were and not as those who had no hope. There is indeed a difference between the two. And if last year’s hit Disney+ series, Wandavision explored the process of grieving (something I wrote about here), this year’s latest Marvel movie, Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, helps to highlight the difference. Absent time to go see it in the theaters, the film final released on Disney+ this week, I have watched it from start to finish, and am at last ready to offer up some thoughts. If you haven’t seen the movie, this review is going to be full of spoilers, so proceed with caution. If you’ve already seen it, here’s what I think.
Perhaps my first reaction to the film is that it isn’t what I expected. I actually did a pretty good job of not encountering any spoilers before watching it. I stayed away from all of the usual podcasts and YouTube videos that I turn to for plot reviews (or opportunities to poke holes the plot as Ryan George hilariously does on his YouTube channel, Pitch Meetings). I warned friends who saw it to not tell me anything. There were several exciting cameos I already knew about from previews and pre-release rumors, but other than spoiling some exciting cameos, none of that spoiled the story. Coming a full six years after the first entry in what will likely be a trilogy as all Marvel storylines have been (except the Avengers and Thor, which will release part four of his story in a couple of weeks), while Dr. Strange is indisputably the hero of the story and gets the most screen time, this was really a movie about Wanda Maximoff, better known now by her comic book moniker, The Scarlet Witch.
Rather than being the hero she played throughout the third Captain America film and the final two Avengers entries, Wanda was the villain in this one – and a formidable villain she was. She was unquestionably the most powerful character in the film. By the end, no one really had the power to beat her in spite of all of their best efforts. Instead, they had to let her beat herself.
The film opens right in the middle of a dramatic action sequence in which a variant Dr. Strange (helpfully identified by my closed captions as “Defender Strange”) and America Chavez are on the run from some interdimensional monster. Chavez is no stranger to comic book readers and has long been a fan favorite since her introduction in 2011. Unfortunately for the uninitiated, she gets almost no backstory but for a brief flashback in which we learn about her two moms (as a character it seems she was designed to check off as many woke boxes as her creators could possibly check – she’s somehow Latino in spite of being an interdimensional being, she has two moms, she’s a lesbian although that doesn’t get mentioned in the movie, and she grew up in a utopian paradise where only women lived and attended an interdimensional academy somehow named after Supreme Court justice Sonya Sotomayor), and her powers are given even less of an explanation. For the purposes of this film, she is able to punch star-shaped holes between universes which allows her to travel the multiverse. Left out of this film, but part of her power set in the comics is that she can fly, she has super strength, and superhuman durability. Those powers would have been awfully convenient in the movie, but alas, she wasn’t the headliner or the main villain, so she was powered-down a bit.
In any event and as I said, Chavez is trying to escape an interdimensional monster with the help of Defender Strange. How the two of them got matched is yet another gaping hole in the plot. Just as the monster has killed that version of Dr. Strange and is sucking the powers (and life) out of her, her powers engage, and she opens up hole to our universe to escape. Eventually she is attacked there by another monster, Gargantos, which is a giant, one-eyed Octopus. Our Dr. Strange goes to intervene and manages to dispatch the creature. This allows for some story-developing dialogue: Chavez is on the run from some demon who wants her multiverse-traveling abilities for itself. Given that Dr. Strange and Wong, who has entered the story by this time, recognize witchcraft is involved, the former goes to Wanda for help. What we soon discover, though, is that she is the power behind the attacks on Chavez. Wanda has been pursuing her with the help of the Darkhold, an evil book of magic that corrupts whoever uses it and which was last featured in the fourth season of ABC’s Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD series. The reason for this is that she wants to use Chavez’s powers to go to a universe where her children are alive in order to be reunited with them.
That plot line will only make sense if you are well-versed in the comic book storylines on which all the Marvel movies are based, or you watched the Wandavision series last year. During her misadventures in Westview, Wanda gave birth to twins who rapidly grew to the age of ten or eleven. But then, when she was finally convinced to release the town from her magic, not only did she have to give up her idyllic fantasy, but also her children who were creations of her mind. In a post-credits scene, though, we discover that they might be alive somewhere else. As it turns out, versions of her in a variety of other universes are the content moms of Tommy and Billy. Wanda’s plan is to replace one of those other versions of her with herself so she can have once again what she lost.
With the battlelines drawn, Dr. Strange commits himself to doing whatever he can to protect Chavez from Wanda’s grief-driven plot. Unfortunately, she is far too powerful for him to be able to do this. She rips through the combined might of Kamar-Taj (the temple where Dr. Strange learned his magic) and almost gets Chavez a second time since the opening scene when the latter escapes through yet another fear-induced star-shaped portal through the multiverse. This trip lands her and Dr. Strange in a universe similar to ours, but whose heroes have a great deal more knowledge of the multiverse than ours do.
This knowledge has led them to create a council called the Illuminati composed of those exciting cameos I mentioned. The members of the group are Mordo, who seems to have been included as a nod to the fact that they set him up as the villain in Dr. Strange 2 at the end of the first film, but whose story was completely ignored in favor of Wanda’s, Captain Carter, an alternate version of Captain America who was introduced in the What If animated series, Black Bolt, the leader of the Inhumans and who was played by Anson Mount who also played him in the terrible Inhumans series from several years ago, Captain Marvel, but this time as Monica Rambeau whose version from our universe was somehow granted some sort of energy powers in the Wandavision series by passing through the walls of Wanda’s giant hex a couple of times, Reed Richards, the leader of the Fantastic Four who will finally get a good Marvel-made movie about them in 2023, and Professor Charles Xavier, the leader of the X-Men who was played by Patrick Stewart who, of course, played the same role in the original X-Men franchise from the 2000s. I almost wish I had seen the film in a crowded theater full of Marvel superfans just to hear the place go crazy at the revelation of the characters…only to be utterly shocked a few minutes later as Wanda shows up in this universe…and kills them all in rather gruesome ways.
After a few more actions sequences which include yet another What If character, this time another version of Dr. Strange himself, we finally get to the climactic final battle…which proves not to be very climactic at all. As I said before, no one has the power to defeat Wanda. The solution is for Dr. Strange, now inhabiting a zombified version of himself from another universe by way of that universe’s copy of the Darkhold, and Wong to slow Wanda down long enough for Strange to tell Chavez that she just needs to believe in herself and she’ll be fine to defeat Wanda. All that action and mystery and the answer is to believe in yourself. I’ll admit, it seemed a little on the nose even for Disney.
Strange’s zombie speech inspires Chavez to believe in herself and suddenly begin controlling her powers for the first time. Trying to fight Wanda still won’t work, though, so she acknowledges out loud that she can’t beat her and will instead give her what she has wanted the whole time. She punches open a hole into the Illuminati universe where Billy and Tommy are terrified by the witch now in their living room. After a brief battle with their mom Wanda, Scarlet Witch Wanda finally realizes what a monster she has become and calls a halt to her terrible efforts to deal with her grief. After this, everyone lives happily ever after…except Wanda who pulls a mountain down on herself to make sure no one else has access to the evil magic that so corrupted her mind and heart to become the monster she was throughout the film.
As I said at the start of this, I’m not sure what I expected from the movie, but this really wasn’t it. It has many more horror elements than the original Dr. Strange did. There is a great deal more involvement of the occult, although not in a way that somehow legitimizes or otherwise explains it. It has the standard woke nods that apparently all Disney creations now include. And, seeing some of the greatest heroes in the MCU get brutally thrashed by Wanda with almost no effort was pretty unexpected. But, nonetheless, I really enjoyed it. That was never really in doubt. It wasn’t as good as Spider-Man: No Way Home by any stretch, but it was fun.
My real question is at what point in the production of the Wandavision series this film was written. More specifically, I wonder if the respective writers knew they were tackling the same subject with both properties. It’s unusual for Marvel to deal with the same theme in multiple different films or Disney+ series, but they definitely did with these two. This movie, more than anything else, was a continued reflection on Wanda’s struggles to deal with her grief in the fallout of the events of Avengers: Infinity War. In that sense, I’m glad they made both of them, because nothing else Marvel has made has really grappled with the emotional toll of the terrible havoc Thanos unleashed on the world.
You can go back and read my linked review of Wandavision at the top of this post for more thoughts on Wanda’s journey of grief. What Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness showcased, though, was what happens when we don’t process our grief in healthy ways. Rather than accepting the losses she had endured and seeking to move on from them, Wanda became obsessed with trying to go back to reclaim what she had lost. We sometimes do something similar when going through seasons of powerful grief in our own lives. We just don’t have the power to invade an alternate universe in an attempt to actually get our hands on the past we have lost.
What this film puts even more powerfully on display, though, is the truth of what Paul wrote in his second letter to the believers of ancient Corinth and which I included at the top of this post. In 1 Corinthians, Paul jumped all over the members of the church there for a whole variety of different problems they were facing. Apparently, the letter caused quite a stir among the church members. There was no small amount of grief on their part at the loss of innocence and respectability in Paul’s eyes. Yet Paul expresses gladness at their grief. This seems cruel of him at first, but then he explains himself a bit further. He is rejoicing not at their grief per se, but in what their grief caused, namely repentance on their part and a renewed push toward faithfulness in and with the abiding help of Christ. He lands on this powerful idea: “Godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, but worldly grief produces death.”
What he means is this: Grief is a pathway. Where that pathway leads us depends on a number of different factors including who we bring along for the journey and how we respond to it. If we take the journey with the guiding help of God’s Spirit, grief can lead us to a powerful encounter with our God. In this sense, grief can cause us to turn from the past and more fully toward God. This brings us into salvation that is not tinged with regret over what is in our past. This kind of a grief pathway is a very good thing.
But when we grieve without God’s help, when we take the journey all by ourselves or with guides who promise things we can never experience, the journey’s end is not nearly such a positive. In fact, it can lead us to death. Wanda’s grief over her various losses, while totally understandable, was worldly. She fixated on herself and her pain. She obsessed over trying to reclaim the thing she had lost. And her journey led to death. She killed scores of people throughout the movie. Her path of destruction cut a wide swath through the multiverse. It wasn’t pretty.
In the same way (minus the witchcraft and sorcery and superpowers), we can let ourselves get lost in grief like Wanda was. This will not see us through our troubles. Instead, it will leave us mired in them as they gradually suck the life out of us. The end of that particular path is only ever death. It may only be a relational (or perhaps a financial or social) death for now, but it will not remain that way forever. If you are on a journey of grief, you need to know that you are not alone. Now, you cannot have again in this life what you have lost, but there is a future for you. It will not be the same. It cannot be the same. But if you will entrust that future to God, it can be redeemed and good. This is the power and promise of our God. Godly grief produces repentance. We walk away from what was and toward what can be. And in the glorious future our God has for us in Christ, all of the “what can be’s” that God has planned for us will come to fruition.
If you are grieving, I know the journey is scary stretching out before you. Walk it anyway. Walk it with a community that loves and supports you. Walk it with the God who gave His life so that one day all your tears will be wiped away. Walk it with the confidence that the sin that causes grief has already been judged and defeated and those whose trust is in Christ are simply waiting for that glorious day to arrive. Walk it with a spirit of repentance so you can experience the salvation that will turn your mourning into dancing. Do otherwise and you might not threaten the fabric of reality, but you will have a much harder time with your own reality than you’d like. Godly grief leads to repentance. Take that path and live.