How Marvel Studios has sold a supernatural trip into alternate realities.
It’s been about six years since the concept of a multiverse was introduced in super hero mass media, meaning outside of the source comics. That introduction came in a 2016 episode of “Supergirl” that featured Barry Allen from “The Flash” accidentally vibrating from his universe into hers.
But in the Marvel Cinematic Universe the idea was introduced just last year in Spider-Man: No Way Home and is now being expanded upon in this week’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.
A sequel to the first Doctor Strange movie in 2016 (though the idea of a sequel is kind of outdated since the character has appeared in major roles in four subsequent MCU releases), Benedict Cumberbatch returns as Dr. Stephen Strange, the now-former Sorcerer Supreme of Earth. After the events of Spider-Man: No Way Home, the multiverse is now cracking and becoming a danger to our reality. To help him fight back – and fix the mistake he made by opening the door to alternate universes to begin with – Strange will need the help of Wong (Benedict Wong) and Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) as well as new ally America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez).
Rachel McAdams also returns as Christine Palmer, who will perhaps have something tangible to do in this movie, along with Chiwetel Ejiofor as mentor-turned-rival Karl Mordo. And there are some surprise (or not so surprise) appearances as well.
So with all that as prelude, let’s take a look at how the movie has been sold.
announcements and casting
Marvel Studios’ presentation at San Diego Comic-Con 2019 served as the platform to announce a release date as well as the movie’s full title. As the Covid-19 pandemic ravaged the country, though, that release date was pushed back a few times.
The movie, along with other upcoming MCU entries, was name-checked in the “Marvel Studios Celebrates The Movies” video from early May 2021. That came after significant discussion and speculation of how the hit “WandaVision” series on Disney+ may be impacting this movie.
In early 2020 the news came that Scott Derrickson, who directed the first movie and was announced as the helmer of the sequel, was stepping down from that role but would stay on as a producer. A short while later reports came that Sam Raimi was in discussions to take over, reports that were confirmed in April of 2020. And Marvel imported a new writer from its “Loki” series on Disney+ to take over script work.
Raimi’s role as director was confirmed at Disney’s investors presentation in December of last year, as was the fact that the film would feature America Chavez and that McAdams would return to her thankless role from the first movie.
An interview with Raimi from October 2021 had the director admitting he was hesitant to come back to the Marvel world.
Reshoots/additional filming that started in mid-November raised some eyebrows but didn’t seem like a major deviation from the norm for MCU productions.
the marketing campaign
The formal marketing of the movie finally got underway in late December, mostly because it needed to wait for Spider-Man: No Way Home to be released since that film leads directly into this one.
Along those lines, Wong’s warnings for Strange to not cast the spell open the first teaser trailer (40.2m YouTube views) after first being seen in the Spider-Man trailers. After some trippy visuals of cities forming at odd angles we see Strange seek out the help of Wanda, who’s chilling after the events of “WandaVision”. From there we’re shown that Mordo and others are going to confront Strange about his breaking of reality and more.
The way Strange and Wanda’s faces are interchanged on the poster released at the same time continues to show her importance to the story and the fact that we’re dealing with shards or remnants of different versions of these characters.
Raimi commented on the state of filming, including those reports of reshoots, in a brief interview a bit later.
In early January 2022, Marvel announced a new Doctor Strange series it billed as being a good entry point for those who aren’t already fully-immersed in the character’s history and backstory.
The first full trailer (50.3m YouTube views), released in mid-February, opens with Strange still haunted by the fallout from cracking open the barriers between universes. While he enlists Wanda’s help to put things back in order, Mordo brings him before a group of people to answer for his actions.
There’s a lot that’s teased in that trailer, including:
- Patrick Stewart’s voice hints at him appearing as Charles Xavier for the first time in the MCU proper
- And the tribunal Strange is brought to is most likely The Illuminati, of which Xavier is a member
- Wanda’s line about Strange being a hero after breaking reality while she’s been shunned is [fire emoji]
- There are clearly multiple versions of many of the same characters on display here, including Strange, Wanda and others
- America Chavez, ladies and gentlemen
Various characters and settings appear in the shards of reality surrounding Strange on the next poster, released at the same time as the trailer. Notable that for as much as Raimi is highlighted in that trailer, his name doesn’t appear here.
Cumberbatch was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in late February, with Feige introducing him and commenting on how Strange is now, with Tony Stark no longer available, the core character of the MCU.
Empire Magazine had two movie-themed covers for an issue that included interviews and photos.
The first TV spot came out in early April and hits many of the same beats as the trailers, focusing on Strange convincing Wanda to help him fix the multiverse and the problems they’re all going to face in trying to do so.
Dolby Cinema’s exclusive poster has Strange looking out the shattered remains of the window of his home, an image that follows the earlier poster that has the same window breaking around him as a metaphor for the various realities that have splintered. RealD 3D’s poster has the main characters all spinning out of themselves, reinforcing there are multiple versions of each that will play into the story. A different take on the same idea is used on the Screen X poster, which also makes Wanda’s role appear much more significant, as well as on the IMAX one-sheet.
For the official theatrical poster, many of those ideas are brought together, with Strange in the background (a position that seems more like how villains are usually placed on these posters, which is interesting), Wanda up front and the rest of the characters placed around them.
An extended TV spot came out in early April when tickets went on sale that also expands on some of the themes we’ve seen previously. Especially prevalent here is how much more Wanda’s journey seems to parallel Strange’s as we see some of her alternate realities, including one where she has her two children.
At this point, in what has become an unfortunately common occurrence, comics writer Joe Casey, who created the character America Chavez for Marvel Comics in 2011, spoke out about the “pittance” he was offered by the company for her use in other media. Casey rightfully notes that while Marvel owns the character outright, it’s become standard for the freelance writers and artists to receive little more than a hearty handshake and tickets to the premiere when the movies and shows those characters appear in make hundreds of millions of dollars. The point, he said, was not even for him to get a big check from Marvel but to affect change in the industry as a whole so those who come along later can benefit more substantially from the success of their creations.
Back to the campaign, another TV spot emphasizes how the movie is meant to be seen on the big screen, which is why it’s coming exclusively to theaters. It’s somewhat of an odd message considering Disney has sent a number of movies, either from Marvel or Pixar, straight (or very quickly) to Disney+ streaming recently. So it’s almost reinforcing the notion that streaming is a second-class distribution platform that degrades the “event” nature of content.
Character posters for Strange, Mordo and Christine Palmer came out next, followed by the first featurette that has Cumberbatch, Olsen, Wong and Raimi talking about the dark, dangerous nature of the story.
More TV spots continued to come out, including a cross-promotional commercial from Tide that has Wong using the laundry detergent to get Strange’s cloak clean before the doctor gets back.
Another beat that has become common recently came next when the movie was banned in Saudi Arabia for mentions of America Chavez being gay.
The next featurette from later in April focuses on Raimi’s involvement, from how he got the gig in the first place to the unique vision he brought to the production and story.
The Illuminati will see you now
That it’s The Illuminati sitting in judgment of Doctor Strange was confirmed in a TV spot that marked 10 days before the movie’s release.
Disney used its CinemaCon 2022 presentation in late April to tease this movie, among others, and affirm its commitment to theatrical releases. Part of that presentation included the news that the first trailer for the much-anticipated Avatar 2 would play in front of this movie in theaters.
The Illuminati are teased once again in another TV spot that also features what seems to be an appearance by Captain Carter, an alternate universe Peggy Carter (played by Hayley Atwell in previous movies) who was given the Super Soldier serum instead of Steve Rogers that first appeared in the “What If…?” Disney+ series last August.
It’s the same themes explored on the final poster that we’ve seen before, just with a slightly different spin.
Another featurette that came out in late April focuses on Wanda and how this movie is a continuation of her story from “WandaVision” along with offering multiple versions of the character.
An interview with Raimi had him talking more about how he approached his return to the world of super hero movies, what regrets he has over how the last sojourn ended and more. Unfortunately much of the attention paid to the interview focused on scrapped plans for a fourth Spider-Man installment instead of on the film he’s currently promoting.
Marvel held the movie’s red carpet world premiere this past Monday with the cast and crew along with others involved in other aspects of the MCU in attendance.
The Contest of Champions mobile game announced the addition of Wong and Rintrah, a character glimpsed in the trailers, as champions in a coming movie-themed event.
Cumberbatch appeared on “The Tonight Show” to talk about this movie and more.
Let’s go back to Feige’s comments in February about Doctor Strange now being the “anchor” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
That makes a lot of sense considering the supernatural direction Marvel Studios has been going in over the last couple years since Avengers: Endgame concluded the first phase of the series. “WandaVision” is a big part of that shift, as is the just-finished “Moon Knight” series along with the introduction of Black Knight and Blade at the end of The Eternals.
That aside, the campaign here is an interesting mix of picking up where “WandaVision” left off and exploring the many opportunities available by embracing the multiverse. We see the latter in how the second half of the marketing, especially in the TV spots, gave more screen time to the alternate versions of Strange and Wanda while also spending a lot of energy setting up The Illuminati and teasing Captain Carter and other new characters.
Tracking projections estimate a $175m opening weekend for the film, which has an 80% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The tracking in particular represents not the power as much as the size of this marketing push, which has been pervasive. When the campaign works, though, it’s pretty strong, especially in how it seeks to put Olsen’s Wanda Maximoff at the center of the story as much as Strange is.