As soon as The Avengers first assembled on theater screens, the Marvel Cinematic Universe went from mere superhero movies to must-see events. Each and every calendar year, more and more MCU movies hit our screens and, even if only tenuously, they all led directly into each other. It became a kind of media collection; if you hadn’t seen one of the movies, you were missing part of the story. With the Disney+ TV series, it seemed as though the MCU films would get denouements on the small screen. But would they matter to the movies going forward? Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness has answered that question with a resounding, and time-consuming, yes.
One of the major questions after WandaVision was how directly would the outcome of that series tie into her appearance in Multiverse of Madness. Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen)’s arc in the movie doesn’t merely take place after 2021’s WandaVision, it’s of paramount import. Wanda isn’t just mourning the loss of the children she had in that series, she spends the entire movie looking for those exact kids. In that exact same house. I would even venture to say if punters rocking up to the movies to see the latest big screen Marvel outing haven’t seen WandaVision, they will be completely lost.
But it goes far beyond WandaVision. The animated series What If…?—by rights the least intrinsic to the future of the MCU—ended up giving a lot of context for at least a few of Multiverse of Madness‘ beats. The super-powered version of Peggy Carter is a near direct replication of the version of Captain Carter from the first episode of What If…? And while Benedict Cumberbatch has stated that What If…?‘s Strange Supreme isn’t the same as Sinister Strange in the movie, the animated episode provided fans with a glimpse of how a Doctor Strange could destroy a whole universe; the movie short-hands this with its explanation of the fallen Doctor Strange from the Illuminati universe. (Confusingly, the toys call this version Supreme Strange.)
But you might say, okay fine. The Disney+ shows take place in the same continuity as the movies, so why wouldn’t they impact the greater MCU? Sure, fine. But one of the movie’s biggest surprises comes from a character from a failed MCU-adjacent series from 2017. The connection of Jeph Loeb’s TV MCU to the greater Cinematic Universe was always tenuous at best. Following the folding of that division into Kevin Feige’s purview, those shows were thought all but decanonized.
However, Charlie Cox from Netflix’s Daredevil is the official MCU Daredevil following his cameo in Spider-Man: No Way Home. Vincent D’Onofrio’s Kingpin from that selfsame series stomped his way into the proper MCU on Disney+’s Hawkeye. And now even Black Bolt as played by Anson Mount from the derided and cancelled Inhumans series received a stay of canonical execution through a variant version’s appearance in Multiverse. Do you need to have watched Inhumans in its entirety to understand Black Bolt in the movie? Not at all. But the layers of pop cultural knowledge necessary for the average filmgoer to comprehend his brief appearance are not thin.
The degree to which the TV series are important even extends to animation. Patrick Stewart has played Professor Charles Xavier since the very first X-Men movie in the year 2000. He is as intrinsically linked to that character now as he is to his other iconic leader, Captain Jean-Luc Picard. So, on the one hand, Stewart in Multiverse just officially brings the X-Men into the MCU. But! This Variant of Professor X does not wear any of his Fox-universe garb. He does not sit in his Fox-universe wheelchair. He wears the clothes and uses the distinctive yellow hover-chair of the ’90s X-Men animated series. Sure, this was his look in the ’90s comics, but it’s the show the movie invokes. We know this by the strains of the cartoon’s theme song playing as he enters the room.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness doesn’t simply ask that you’ve seen all the MCU movies. It isn’t just requiring you’ve watched the Disney+ shows. To fully appreciate the breadth of the multiverse, you have to have keen knowledge of every corner of every iteration of the Marvel Universe. For people like us, who live and breathe it, that’s easy. The ’90s X-Men animated series is what got me reading Marvel Comics in the first place. But is it fair to assume people who just like the movies will know it? Does it take anything away if they don’t?
The MCU isn’t just the biggest movie franchise. The MCU is maybe the most popular thing of the moment. Has been for a long while now. Making every piece of it matter, no matter the size of the screen, seems somewhat reasonable. But Marvel Comics don’t necessarily require that you read every issue of every book to understand things. So is it fair for the MCU to say you must watch every movie and every episode of every series or you won’t get it? When it was a couple of movies a year, sure. But 2021 had four films and 36 episodes of TV. 2022 will probably end up having the same number of episodes, though one fewer movie. Is it fair to assume that for every viewer?
I’m not saying it’s unfair. People do not need to watch every movie or TV show to enjoy the next movie or TV show. And do I think Black Bolt or animated series Captain Carter and Professor X are more than a bit of fun for fans? No, not at all. Certainly the MCU has thus far not committed the cruel act of secretly making the fifth and sixth episodes of a series stealth continuations of another beloved series. (I’ll never forgive The Book of Boba Fett for having two great episodes of The Mandalorian stuck inside it.) Still, when the comics referenced something from a past issue or another title, they’d include a handy note from the editor. No such thing exists for shows and movies.
But this is unlikely to change. Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania‘s main villain will be Kang the Conqueror, a Variant of a character from the very last episode of Loki. Marvel just moved the movie’s release date to February 17, 2023, a little under two full years since that episode aired. If Loki didn’t appeal to some viewers, or they fell off partway through, they’ll just have to deal. So long as we deep-divers are okay with explaining things to the casuals in our lives, of course.