During the buildup to Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, half our staff didn’t realize Michael Stuhlbarg was even in the movie. You can’t really blame anyone for that, either. It was easy to miss him standing behind Benedict Cumberbatch at Christine Palmer’s wedding in the trailers. But while Michael Stuhlbarg only had one scene in the movie, he more than made it count. Dr. Nicodemus West delivered one of the most emotional scenes in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. In a moving, important moment that served both the MCU at large and Doctor Strange 2‘s own story.
The MCU has always been full of demigods, impossibly brilliant scientists, and magic space stones. But it’s a drastically different franchise than the one that established itself as a juggernaut with six movies in four years, the last of which featured just six Avengers fighting a single villain to save a single world. For the first decade, though, even as it grew in scope, the majority of MCU stories took place on one Earth, in one timeline, in one universe. That helped keep a cinematic world of superheroes tethered to a reality we recognize and can empathize with. Super serum or not, Steve Rogers was always still just a kid from the Brooklyn fighting to protect humanity.
But Phase IV is far more complicated than previous eras. The MCU has moved to more abstract and metaphysical planes. Now countless heroes, across both film and television, work to save a Sacred Timeline while others fight off incursions caused by multiple versions of themselves. The past and future can be toyed with, erased, or completely reset. He Who Remains lives in a Citadel outside the eternal loop of time itself. And infinite Variants of everyone exist everywhere across a multiverse of unlimited dimensions that are sometimes populated by literal gods.
All of those elements, which are hard to keep track of let alone grasp, create an existential problem of storytelling. If literally everything can happen, does anything that does happen truly matter? Especially if anything can be undone or changed after the fact?
The inherent issues of the MCU’s expansion into theoretical concepts go beyond those questions, though. Each time the franchise gets wilder and more complex it gets harder to remember that the actions of the series’ heroes impacts everyone. A decision made on a distant planet like Titan affects regular people back on Earth. Innocent people like Dr. Nicodemus West. That fact, now more than ever, keeps the franchise rooted in a reality any fan can appreciate. But until Multiverse of Madness, the MCU had started to lose that vital element.
What made the beaten down neurosurgeon’s scene especially evocative wasn’t just that it reminded us of that overlooked fact. It was West’s quiet sadness. Not everyone who feels wronged by the Avengers has the recourse, nor the will, to fight back. Forget thoughts of vengeance like Baron Mordo. Nic West couldn’t even muster the energy needed to fully express the obvious bitterness he has for his former colleague. A colleague who never bothered to check in on him, despite Strange being the one who let Thanos snap away Nicodemus West and half the universe. During those five years he was dust, the doctor lost his cats, his brother, and whatever sense of control he had over his own life. The sorcerer handed over the Time Stone to save the universe in the long run. But everyone else had to live with those consequences immediately and forever.
Seeing Dr. West’s sad resignation was the reminder the MCU needed to establish how the Snap and the Blip touched everyone’s’ lives in ways that are impossible to measure. The questions Nicodemus West asked Doctor Strange highlighted how these supreme beings do not act in a vacuum. What they do—both good and bad, well-intentioned or careless—matters to everyone and everything in the moment. Dr. West’s pain right now is real, even if some event in the future changes the past. Every decision the Avengers make carries the greatest stakes imaginable.
It’s easy for that vital aspect of the franchise to get overlooked while superheroes fight epic battles. But you can’t tell stories about saving the world without remembering why it’s worth saving. Dr. West’s own painful story (delivered in typical superb performance by Stuhlbarg) was exactly the grounding the MCU needed right now. When any hero in the franchise does something we’ll remember the true cost of those actions. Those choices go well beyond anyone them and their super cohorts.
But what made that scene a truly great movie moment is that it didn’t just service the MCU and how normal people might feel about Earth’s mightiest heroes. It also contributed to the story Multiverse of Madness told. The master of the mystic arts faced the consequences of his own choices and what they meant for him and his ability to be happy, same as Nicodemus West. If you want to be the one holding the knife you also carry the responsibility when someone gets cut. And that burden can wear you down, especially when it also means making personal sacrifices to protect people who might hate you for doing so.
It’s why, when presented with the option to get what you want in another world, where you can have everything you think you want, it’s easy to go down a dark path. On Earth-616 Wanda took that path. On Earth-838, in another life, Stephen Strange did too. Sometimes the difference between a hero and a villain is living with what you’ve done, same as everyone else who must live with what you’ve done.
Dr. Nicodemus West didn’t just root the MCU back into terms we can identify with in Doctor Strange 2. Nor did he merely reestablish the stakes for every Avenger everywhere. By sharing his difficult tale he humanized the film’s two main characters, making their own stories more meaningful. That’s an incredible performance by a character who only appeared in one scene. So while it was easy to forget Michael Stuhlbarg was even in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness before we saw it, we’ll never forget just how good he was in it.
Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist. You can follow him on Twitter at @burgermike. And also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.