“Doctor Strange 2” screenwriter Michael Waldron knows a thing or two about the multiverse.
He first burst onto the scene as a writer on the beloved animated series “Rick and Morty” and was in line to become the show’s new showrunner, that is until Marvel Studios came calling asking if he wanted to head up a live-action TV show about Tom Hiddleston’s trickster villain Loki.
It was while working on the Disney+ series “Loki” that Waldron was offered the opportunity to take a crack at a few different things all in one project: Marvel’s first horror movie, a Sam Raimi movie and a “Doctor Strange” sequel. He was enlisted by Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige to tackle screenwriting duties on “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” after the departure of original director Scott Derrickson, and as it turns out, there were only a few structural pillars in place on which Waldron built the storyline.
“Really what was in place is that it was a multiverse movie with Doctor Strange and that Wanda was going to be in it, and then we’re going to be introducing American Chavez,” Waldron told TheWrap during a recent interview. When the pandemic hit, suddenly Waldron and director Sam Raimi had even more time to “start from scratch” and figure out what they wanted this movie to be.
They wanted it to be a horror film, and Waldron says they got little pushback from the higher-ups at Disney for the film’s more terrifying sequences, which allowed “Evil Dead” director Sam Raimi to do his thing.
“There were no guardrails,” Waldron said. “It was it was ‘go go go’ full-Sam. If anything, it was Sam being cautious of his own guardrails, because Sam didn’t want to come in and just do the horror stuff just for the hell of it. He wanted to make sure it was all servicing the story, that what’s happening with the Illuminati is there to make Wanda a scarier villain as we hurtle into the third act of the film. It’s not there to shock you. I mean, it’s shocking, but it serves a greater purpose for our antagonist and protagonists.”
Those demons in the third act? Raimi’s idea, Waldron revealed.
Read our full spoiler-filled conversation to find out more about the creation and execution of “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” including why they settled on Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) as the villain, that Illuminati lineup and the status of “Loki” Season 2.
When you signed on, what structural pillars were in place at that time? And then how did you build the story around that going forward?
Michael Waldron: I mean really what was in place is that it was a multiverse movie with Doctor Strange and that Wanda was going to be in it. And then we’re going to be introducing American Chavez. And really beyond that, after COVID shut everything down and Sam and I had the opportunity to kind of turn things over and start from scratch, we got to figure out what we wanted it to be.
So was Wanda as the villain there from the beginning? Or was that born out of those conversations?
There was always the notion of her as part of the ensemble and this discussion of does she go bad at the end? I mean, it’s always been in the cards because it’s who the character is in the comics, building to “House of M” and all that stuff, there’s Wanda descending into madness. We were excited about the idea of making her the primary antagonist in the film because it felt like there was no stronger antagonist. And it felt like to have her as just a member of an ensemble only to turn bad at the end would actually be shortchanging both versions of that journey. You’d get maybe a lousy version of her fall from grace, and also maybe a lousy version of her being a villain, as opposed to the really fun version of her being the villain. And you know there’s the feeling that the door had been open for us. She opened the Darkhold at the end of “WandaVision” and that’s the Book of the Damned. So it was there for the taking.
I’m curious how “WandaVision” then informed those decisions because it’s this kind of exploration of trauma and grief, and obviously leaves it with her in a place of empathy. And then you’ve got to position her in this film where she’s a strong enough antagonist that you’re fearful that she’s going to do great damage.
My feeling was that “WandaVision” pushed her to the place where she reckoned with this grief, but maybe what she hadn’t reckoned with was her anger over all of it, and that was something that I discussed with Lizzie. And I think that that’s what the Darkhold seized on, was that anger, and that really clouds Wanda’s decision-making. I also think she’s making good points throughout the movie. Stephen did give Thanos the Time Stone. Did he have to? Could there have been another way? That question is posed a lot throughout the movie. If he hadn’t given Thanos the Time Stone … I mean Wanda killed Vision. The Mind Stone was gone. It’s just to say, I think that she’s making good points and it just felt like a really delicious conflict to explore.
This was built from the beginning as Marvel’s first horror film and I’m curious what guardrails were in place from Marvel’s standpoint, because it’s terrifying in places and delightfully so.
Yes, it is. There were no guardrails. It was “go go go” full-Sam. If anything, it was Sam being cautious of his own guard rails, because Sam didn’t want to come in and just do the horror stuff just for the hell of it. He wanted to make sure it was all servicing the story, that what’s happening with the Illuminati is there to make Wanda a scarier villain as we hurtle into the third act of the film. It’s not there to shock you. I mean, it’s shocking, but it serves a greater purpose for our antagonist and protagonists. So yeah, all that stuff was fun and totally Sam-driven.
So what’s the reaction when you’re like, “Okay now we’re gonna have a bunch of demons yelling at Doctor Strange for reanimating a corpse, and there’s gonna be electric guitars going off?”
Well that’s the greatest thing in the world. I mean, the souls of the damned, that was Sam and that was him choosing to play the hits, and I was thrilled. We worked together on what’s the logical scaffolding for why the souls of the damned are yelling at Strange and attacking him? And yeah, you just pinch yourself because you’re talking about demons with Sam Raimi, and it’s a dream come true.
What was the decision-making process that went into choosing which members would show up in the Illuminati?
The lineup that we got is the dream lineup, the lineup you never thought you actually could get. I tried to, first off, just choose them creatively, as almost driven by if I was the Doctor Strange of that universe assembling an Illuminati, who would I pick? I look to the Illuminati comics themselves. It was just, in your wildest dreams who could you get? And that’s really who we ended up with.
The John Krasinski thing started as fan-casting and has been something the fans have long wanted to see, but also in this portrayal you have an “out” of sorts for it to just be a one-off instead of him being the definitive Reed Richards.
These guys have told me I can’t get into too many specifics about the Illuminati members. But I think that’s part of the fun of it, is it feels like a dream come true that then becomes a nightmare. And that’s a great feeling to have in a movie theater.
I know this movie had to swap release dates “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” How did that adjust the story of “Multiverse of Madness?”
It wasn’t a seismic change. For us, it just meant that Strange had more of an awareness of the multiverse, and that he had been on a prior adventure with teenagers. He knew how to relate to America a little bit better than he would have if our movie had come first. They got to do the “Scooby-Doo this shit” jokes and I didn’t, but that was that was okay.
I know Sam has said, as is the case with so many of these movies, you guys were writing during production and trying to figure out what the ending would be. I’m curious about the challenge of coming to a satisfying conclusion in this story, because it’s not as simple as hero defeats villain, because the villain is someone that the audience loves and cares about.
There isn’t always a fully satisfying ending to the entire audience, especially when you have a villain that everybody loves and cares about. The ending in a lot of ways is probably going to be sad and it’s a tragedy. But I hope what was satisfying is the feeling that at the end of this thing, you do see Wanda break free of the Scarlet Witch’s hold on her, of the Darkhold. But I also am grateful that she admits – and this is important to all of us, especially Lizzie – that she admits she opened the Darkhold. She takes responsibility for what she did. And then she makes a sacrifice to hopefully make sure it doesn’t happen to another Wanda elsewhere in the multiverse.
Well, one of the most exciting sequences in the film is this fight with musical notes. I’m curious if you could tell me where that came from.
It’s amazing. It’s such a credit, first off to Doug Leffler, one of our storyboard artists who is one of Sam’s longtime collaborators. Doug’s a great television director, he directed a lot of episodes of “Xena” with Sam back in the day, and Doug boarded the original upside-down kiss in the first “Spider-Man” I believe. He’s a legend in his own right, and so we worked really closely with him on a lot of stuff. We just knew we wanted that fight with the alternate Sinister Strange to be cool. This is two Doctor Stranges fighting each other, it felt like it had to be iconic. And Doug worked closely with Janek Sirrs, our visual effects supervisor, and then Danny Elfman. Danny had a big part in that with the music itself, and how it would all work. That’s one of my favorite parts of the movie, it’s so cool.
I know you were writing this while Loki was in production. When you guys were developing all this multiverse stuff, were you weaving into the plot of “Loki” the idea that the TVA should be dismantled since Doctor Strange gets up to some crazy timeline-altering stuff in this film?
Fortunately, I was the “Loki” guy, which helped. I was like, okay, the very least I can make sure I’m not screwing over “Loki.” (laughs)
You’re helping yourself.
(Laughs) Yeah, that’s the gift I can give myself is make these things congruous. It remains to be seen – how did the events of this movie play out through the lens of the TVA? What would they look like on a chronomonitor? I don’t know. We’ll have to find out.
To that point, what can you tease about “Loki” Season 2?
Well, just this that we’re excited. Like Season 1, it’s the sort of thing that only felt worth doing if it felt like we had new ground to cover and it turns out yeah, we do. That character is the gift that keeps on giving, and we were fortunate to build such an amazing world in Season 1 with Kate Herron and now Benson and Moorhead coming in [to direct] and Eric Martin is the writer. It’s gonna be great. I’m excited.
Final question. I feel like the big scene-stealer of this movie is Minotaur guy. What can you tell me about him?
Rintrah. He’s an extra-dimensional being from the from the planet R’Vaal and he’s got a great storied history in the comics. And yeah, I think we’ve only scratched the surface with Rintrah.
“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” is now playing exclusively in theaters.