Doctor Strange Doubles Down on the Disney+ Streaming Content Slop

In 2008, Marvel Studios began to blur the line between movies and comic books with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Nick Fury’s cameo in Iron Man promised to bring together characters from previously disconnected films into a single saga driven by a shared continuity. And it worked! The MCU has legions of fans, from comic book veterans to total newcomers, and it consistently rakes in billions at the box office.

However, with the MCU now in its second decade, its treatment of cinematic continuity has become rote. Worse, with the advent of the Disney+ video streaming service, the original goal of turning movies and comics into each other has mutated into something more cynical. No longer satisfied with just bringing individual movies together under a shared umbrella, the MCU asks audiences to keep track of entire exhausting content ecosystems in theaters and on streaming, even if it hurts the content itself. There’s just so much, and it all “matters”…so nothing matters.

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Strange Daze

I don’t really like the first Doctor Strange movie. The painfully forced Iron Man-style humor doesn’t work, and Benedict Cumberbatch’s delivery makes it worse. All the ways the film tries to sidestep the franchise’s baked-in Orientalism feel awkward and uncomfortable, too. Equating magic with science always makes my eyes roll. The frantic pacing makes it tough to appreciate the genuinely impressive visual ideas and inventive action beats. And, despite being helmed by horror director Scott Derrickson, it’s not scary, it’s formulaic. Still, you can watch the flick by itself, and it makes sense. Aside from the post-credits tease and offhand mentions of “Avengers” and “Infinity Stones,” you might not even know Strange was a Marvel character until he popped up in the next big crossover. Doctor Strange is its own movie.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is also a movie. As a critic, I reject the idea of saying something “doesn’t count” just because I don’t like it. MCU movies may be bad art, but they’re still art. And in many ways, Multiverse of Madness is an improvement. It’s directed by Sam Raimi, of all people. It has elements of the schlock horror-comedy he brought to Evil Dead (now a video game) with the faintest hints of the sincere heroism he expertly explored in his Spider-Man films. Plus, Raimi knows where to put a camera.

However, while the second Doctor Strange is a movie, it’s not its own movie. Whatever charm Raimi manages to smuggle into the work is undone by the crushing weight of relying on external sources for the film to make sense. 

This is why Multiverse of Madness is best experienced not as a movie in theaters, but as a piece of content streaming on Disney+, starting June 22. On streaming, you can watch it back to back with everything else you need to watch—all the extra information and outside context—to understand its basic plot points. With streaming, you get all the extremely necessary backstory from WandaVision (and ignore the wishy-washy stance on Wanda’s villainy). You can brush up on the multiverse-fracturing that happened in Loki. Disney+ even has that terrible Inhumans show that nonetheless earned an inexplicable Black Bolt cameo in Multiverse of Madness. (Get Anson Mount’s agent a raise.) Oh, and remember that this all takes place after the five-year, death-and-rebirth time skip from Avengers: Endgame.


While the second Doctor Strange is a movie, it’s not its own movie. Whatever charm Raimi manages to smuggle into the work is undone by the crushing weight of relying on external sources for the film to make sense. 


Multiple Revenue Streams of Madness

The problem isn’t just the latest Doctor Strange, it’s the MCU’s entire current approach, on Disney+ and elsewhere. Multiverse of Madness also references Spider-Man: No Way Home, a Sony movie streaming on Starz. For whatever reason, HBO Max has the 2008 Incredible Hulk, just as Tim Roth gets ready to reappear in the upcoming She-Hulk show on Disney+ (with its hideous, hopefully unfinished CGI). Folks seem to really dig Ms. Marvel‘s live-action, streaming adventures, so with luck they won’t screw things up when she joins Monica Rambeau and Carol Danvers in Marvel Studios’ The Marvels, a whole other movie. On PCMag we have explainers on how to watch the MCU in order, and why you can’t expect to see everything on just one service.

MCU chart

Even DC is catching up. Amanda Waller is getting her own show, which will join Peacemaker as the next The Suicide Squad spin-off. In an entirely separate continuity, Colin Farrell’s Penguin is getting a show after stealing the spotlight in The Batman.

All of this should sound familiar to old-school comic book fans, people who are used to reading all sorts of ongoing parallel stories to keep up with what’s happening in the universe. Arguably, the first batch of modern comic book movies succeeded because they presented the appealing characters in far more approachable stories than today’s increasingly incestuous comic book plots. However, movies are now on the same path as the comics. If anything, this is even more annoying, because we’re forced to keep track of multiple kinds of media. We must pay for movie tickets in addition to streaming subscriptions to get the complete story—not just cute Easter eggs, but vital plot points. Although the MCU is episodic, movies don’t work like this. Even TV doesn’t work like this. And manga readers can tell you that comic books don’t have to work like this, either.

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Economically, however, this all makes a dark sort of sense. The ongoing story, when spread throughout so many vectors, not only makes the films appointment viewing, but also locks in a loyal streaming audience. You get the best of both worlds: the exciting hype of an event movie, plus the consistency of a show. In an era when Netflix is no longer willing to pay for “indulgent” movies like The Irishman (and as it loses its own Marvel shows to Disney+), of course these services are pivoting toward pumping out endless slop where every drop is crucial to keeping up.

This just turns entertainment into claustrophobia, an all-encompassing fog you can’t escape from. We watched the Avengers puzzle come together, and our reward is a nagging sense that we’ll never fully enjoy or even understand anything next unless we plug into the entire content machine, wherever it asks us to go. Movie theaters deliver art with the grandeur of the big screen. Streaming services conveniently let us watch nearly anything we can think of. They both deserve better than what Disney and Marvel serve up.

For more on streaming, check out five reasons to ditch your video subscription and keep cable. Consider these recommended streaming video guides if you don’t know what to watch.

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