Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness delivers a Marvel Cinematic Universe version of the Illuminati in an act destined to be the film’s most memorable but one that sadly doesn’t work.
Earlier this month, Sam Raimi’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness earned a massive $187 million during its opening weekend. As of this writing, Multiverse of Madness has grossed more than $700 million worldwide with a 74% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Just about everyone who has seen the Marvel Studios film is more or less saying the same thing: it’s an entertaining experience but an imperfect one. Arguably the film’s most imperfect act was the one that was the most hyped with the live-action debut of The Illuminati.
MAJOR SPOILERS FOR MARVEL’S DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS AHEAD!
So in order to properly talk about why the inclusion of The Illuminati doesn’t work in Doctor Strange 2 we need to recap the film’s plot. The advertising was a bit coy about this but it turns out that the film’s main antagonist is none other than Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch. Following the events of WandaVision, Wanda Maximoff has been completely corrupted by the Darkhold and is attempting to kidnap and take the powers of the new dimensional-hopping superhero America Chavez, played by Xochitl Gomez. The process is fatal but Wanda needs America’s powers in order to move across the Multiverse so she can be with a real version of her children, who we were introduced to in WandaVision.
When Doctor Strange discovers Wanda Maximoff’s plan he immediately takes America Chavez to Kamar-Taj in order to defend her from the wrath of the Scarlet Witch. This does not go well and many of the organization’s sorcerers are slaughtered during a battle with Wanda. Doctor Strange and America ultimately escape by fleeing to another dimension where they stay for the majority of the second act. It is here that we are introduced to the first-ever live-action version of The Illuminati.
For those of you who may not be aware, in Marvel Comics, the Illuminati is a secret organization made up of some of the most powerful and intelligent heroes in the Marvel Universe. Members of the group typically include Doctor Strange, Iron Man, Black Panther, Namor the Submariner, Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four, Professor X of the X-Men, and Black Bolt of The Inhumans. In the comics, their actual function is somewhat ill-defined but they generally try to work behind-the-scenes and make the big decisions that not only affect the Earth but often the entirety of the 616 Universe and beyond. The Illuminati seem to have a similar function in Doctor Strange 2 but their actual usage in the film is rather baffling from a narrative standpoint.
In the Doctor Strange sequel, the Illuminati roster is made up of six figures. The list includes variant versions of Hayley Atwell as Captain Carter, Lashana Lynch as a Maria Rambeau version of Captain Marvel, John Krasinski as Reed Richards, Anson Mount as Black Bolt, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Karl Mordo, and, last but not least, Patrick Stewart as Professor X. They all tell Strange about the dangers of Multiversal travel and how their version of Doctor Strange actually destroyed another universe by accident. They are deciding what to do with him when Scarlet Witch crashes the party in her search for America.
In the ensuing fight, Reed Richards is literally shredded to pieces, Captain Carter is cut in half with her own shield, Captain Marvel is crushed by a statue, Black Bolt blows up his own head and Professor X loses a psychic battle with Wanda. It’s probably the most intense scene in the entire film and one that fans will be talking about for years. Yet, beyond introducing the variant version of Rachel McAdams’ Christine Palmer, it contributes next to nothing narratively. It serves as little more than a road bump for the rest of the film and fails to live up to all the advertising hype that predated its release.
The first big problem that comes with The Illuminati is that, regardless of how cool they were, they were never going to live up to the hype. One of the drawbacks to the advertising of Doctor Strange In The Multiverse of Madness was that it revealed too little yet too much at the same time. The second trailer for the film showed Doctor Strange being escorted by Ultron robots and speaking to mysterious figures in the shadows, with Patrick Stewart’s voice teasing his return as Professor X. A TV spot would later namedrop The Illuminati, with another promo showing members of the organization in action. So their inclusion in the film begged a number of questions. Who the heck were these people? Some kind of guardians of the multiverse? A secret group that has been waiting over the events of the main MCU? The answer to this, as we all now know, was none of these things, and the group somewhat came off as an alternate universe version of The Avengers.
The second problem that emerges is how they were used in the story itself. Once they’re done spouting exposition they go off to fight Scarlet Witch in the aforementioned battle. The first problem with that is that it comes off as gratuitous and unneeded. We had already seen what she was capable of in the first act of the film when she destroyed Kamar-Taj and took on all of its sorcerers singlehandedly. Her powers and abilities had been well established by this point. Giving her an even higher body count to show how deranged she was served no purpose at this stage and felt like it was only included because the people behind the film needed a big second-act action sequence and, quite frankly, seemed beneath Marvel’s standards.
The other main problem with The Illuminati is that they are all at once too cool for their own good yet completely undeveloped. Casting fan-favorite actor John Krasinski as Reed Richards is nice until you realize he doesn’t actually do anything in the film. He tells Doctor Strange about his universe’s version of Strange and then dies. Likewise, it’s awesome to see Hayley Atwell as a live-action version of Captain Carter but we’re not really given a reason to care about this particular variant before she is sliced in half. The Captain Marvel variant is coasting on the bold assumption that you actually remember Maria Rambeau in Captain Marvel and Marvel makes an even bolder assumption that you actually watched Inhumans for Black Bolt. Patrick Stewart’s Professor X kind of escapes all this because the weight of seeing him in the role brings back good X-Men memories but I personally found myself thinking that Logan should have been his permanent send-off.
To make the whole thing worse, they don’t actually contribute anything meaningful to the plot. In fact, every other variant character from the universe contributes more than they do. No one even mentions them again after they’re all dead. The closest any of them come to making a meaningful contribution to the plot is Professor X by telling Doctor Strange where to find the Book of Vishanti. Unfortunately, even that is rendered moot because the book is destroyed by Scarlet Witch anyway. This eventually forces Doctor Strange to use another version of the Darkhold, effectively causing him to ignore any warnings from The Illuminati or any lessons he might have learned from them, rendering them effectively useless to the plot and Strange’s character development.
The closest thing that comes to memory for comparison is the ending of the first episode of Invincible. In the final scene, Omni-Man kills all the members of the show’s Justice League-like group, The Guardians of the Globe, seemingly out of nowhere. In the show, we’re introduced to these characters very briefly at the start of the episode and likewise do not know that much about them. Also like The Illuminati, they are killed in a very over-the-top gratuitous fashion and the scene remains one of the most memorable parts of the season. However, in Invincible, the fight lays the groundwork for a much larger mystery regarding Omni-Man and recontextualizes everything we thought we knew about this otherwise straightforward Superman stand-in. In addition, it adds a layer of tension to every interaction with the character and constantly makes you wonder what is a performance on his end and what is genuine. Whereas in Doctor Strange 2, its comparable scene, once again, just feels like a mid-film action scene that was added to meet a quota.
Ultimately, the entire act does have its merits. The fight itself is fun to watch and is loaded with suspense. Unfortunately, it’s also one that crumbles under the weight of Marvel’s own hype machine and literally feels like something that could have been cut out and nothing would have been lost, narratively speaking. Hopefully, this won’t be the last time we see these actors as these characters in the MCU but in the case of Doctor Strange In The Multiverse Of Madness, the addition of The Illuminati just didn’t work.