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Could 'Doctor Strange 2' Introduce Horror Versions of Marvel Heroes?

'Multiverse of Madness' director Scott Derrickson has the chance to make the largest-scale movie ever in the scary movie genre, and what if that involved traveling to dimensions where Spider-Man or The Hulk are at their worst?
The sequel to 2016's 'Doctor Strange' will be Marvel's first horror film.   |   Courtesy of Marvel
'Multiverse of Madness' director Scott Derrickson has the chance to make the largest-scale movie ever in the scary movie genre, and what if that involved traveling to dimensions where Spider-Man or The Hulk are at their worst?

Marvel Studios has taken us from San Francisco to Hala, from World War II to the not-too-distant future. We’ve seen the death of gods and the birth of heroes. We’ve learned to love an anthropomorphic tree and raccoon and seen the generosity of a Hulk. But now the screaming starts. OK, so Marvel Studios may not produce anything severe enough to launch audience members into full-fledged shrieks, but the studio is entering the horror territory with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Announced July 20 at Saturday’s Marvel Studios’ Panel at Comic-Con, the sequel to Doctor Strange (2016) will see Scott Derrickson return to the director’s chair to bring scares into the MCU. For horror fans, that title alone has our interests piqued, given its similarities to John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness (1994), itself a play on H.P. Lovecraft’s novella At the Mountains of Madness (1936). With Carpenter and Lovecraft as reference points that will hopefully have greater influence on more than just the title, I can’t help but wonder: just how horrific can this Doctor Strange sequel get?

Marvel Studios' Phase 4 seems a little more ambitious than what’s come before, not necessarily in scope but in the story avenues that are being opened up, and the decisions of who gets to tell those stories. Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige has made no secret of his desire for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to not just tell superhero stories, but also genre-crossing stories. Some of these genre alignments have worked out better than others, For example, Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) is more successful at harnessing the political thriller genre than Ant-Man (2015) is at harnessing the heist film genre. When it comes to Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, it’s a lot easier to believe that it will fit into the horror genre than some of Marvel Studios’ past genre claims, namely because Derrickson has made a career out of nightmares. The filmmaker got his start with Hellraiser: Inferno (2000), but came into his own with The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005). That film gave a much-needed jolt to PG-13 horror at the time, and the level of scares accomplished in that arguably give us the best idea of what to expect, particularly regarding horror born of madness, from the presumably PG-13 Doctor Strange sequel.

It was confirmed at Comic-Con that not only would Benedict Cumberbatch be returning as Doctor Strange, but that Elizabeth Olsen would join him this time around as the Scarlet Witch, who is also receiving her own Phase 4 entry beforehand with the Disney+ series WandaVision. A significant part of Wanda Maximoff’s journey in the MCU going forward will be her dealing with the death of Vision (Paul Bettany), and how her reality-warping powers play into that grief. In the comics, years of trauma for Wanda resulted in the storyline House of M, an alternate reality in which the Scarlet Witch gave the Avengers the version of the life they always wanted. There’s a logical expectation that House of M will factor into Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and while that story has a dark conclusion, it’s not horror. Yet, there is a Doctor Strange villain who can shift Wanda’s struggle into that territory and see Doctor Strange out of his depth.

Derrickson spoke to IGN in 2016 and said, “I really like the character of Nightmare and the concept that the Nightmare Realm is a dimension. [...] That’s early — that’s like the first Strange tale. I think that’s in the introductory episode of Doctor Strange, and I always loved that.” Nightmare is indeed the first villain that Doctor Strange encountered, way back in Strange Tales No. 110 (1963), and he draws powers from nightmares in the hopes of controlling the waking dimension. It’s not difficult to imagine Derrickson, who shocked audiences with the demonic Bughuul in Sinister (2012), making Nightmare an equally frightening figure. But given the nature of big-budget superhero films, the horror Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness will come from more than snuff films, creepy kids and demons in the shadows. Think bigger than Sinister. Think bigger than contemporary horror as we usually consider it. With Wanda involved, I expect Nightmare to tap into her grief and use her power as a conduit to create nightmare realities for some of Earth’s most powerful people.

Imagine if Nightmare’s influence over Wanda, possession even, results in a multiverse populated by the worst nightmares of superheroes. The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) has finally emerged as a hero in control of his life as “Professor Hulk.” But imagine if his rage became equal to his intelligence and he didn’t devolve back into the Savage Hulk, but evolved into the Maestro, an insane dictator version of the Hulk who first appeared in The Incredible Hulk: Future Imperfect No. 1 (1992). Peter Parker (Tom Holland) had his life upended by Mysterio at the end of Far From Home. He’s been branded a menace and a monster, and perhaps there’s no more nightmarish a scenario than for Peter to literally become a monster, gaining four extra arms like he did in The Amazing Spider-Man No. 100 (1971), a scenario that when adapted for Spider-Man: The Animated Series (1994) saw him mutate into a gnarly looking Man-Spider. Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) seems to be pretty laid-back having returned from the Quantum Realm, but perhaps his nightmare could take a page from Hank Pym’s comic book debut in Tales to Astonish No. 27, “The Man in the Ant-Hill (1962)," in which the scientist shrinks down and is attacked by a savage ant colony.

Derrickson has a unique opportunity with the film to apply some of the most memorable horror-centric comic tales to superheroes otherwise missing from the Phase 4 lineup. But more than that, he has an opportunity to tell an all-encompassing horror movie on a scale unlike one we’ve ever seen. By way of the multiverse, Stephen Strange can move from a postapocalyptic Threads (1984) inspired Hulk nightmare, only to get caught in body-horror rendition of An American Werewolf in London (1981) or The Fly (1986) with Peter Parker, and land in a '50s-style monster movie à la Them! (1954) or War of the Colossal Beast (1958) courtesy of Scott Lang. All of this while dealing with Wanda’s possession and the eldritch horror of Nightmare. Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness saw the horror creations of Sutter Cane come to life and bring forth an ancient race of beings because of the public’s investment in his novels. Derrickson’s In the Multiverse of Madness has a chance to do something similar while exploring just how influential horror has been on superhero comics, and just how vast the genre is.

  • Richard Newby
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