In November 2016, “Doctor Strange” opened to a solid $85 million domestic launch. Five and a half years later, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” has blown its predecessor out of the water with a domestic debut of $187 million and $449.4 million worldwide, the second largest for any film since theaters reopened after the pandemic.
How did this sequel explode? Disney can probably thank the cultural success of Disney+’s first Marvel series, “WandaVision,” which has created a storytelling bridge between movie theaters and streaming that is starting to bear a lot of fruit.
“For us to be talking about the 11th highest domestic opening ever for a sequel to ‘Doctor Strange’ speaks to the power of what Marvel Studios has done, not just theatrically but with the interconnected storytelling they have built on Disney+ over the past year,” Disney’s distribution chief Tony Chambers told TheWrap.
Granted, the credit doesn’t only go to “WandaVision” for boosting interest in the franchise during the long pandemic-fueled dry spell. “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” pulls on at least a half-dozen narrative threads from other MCU chapters, most notably the record-breaking “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” which featured Benedict Cumberbatch as Strange and ended with a trailer for “Multiverse of Madness” in lieu of a post-credits scene.
But more than anything else, the plot of this sequel hinges on the events of “WandaVision,” since Wanda Maximoff, played by Elizabeth Olsen, is corrupted amid her search to regain the family she built in the Disney+ series, leading to a conflict between Doctor Strange and the newly-minted Scarlet Witch.
During its nine-episode run in early 2021, before movie theaters had reopened, “WandaVision” received as much hype as any MCU film. Each midnight release of a new episode was immediately met with live-tweet threads, memes and loads of fan theories on social media.
By the end of the series, Wanda Maximoff had gained a following within the Marvel fandom as devoted as taht for Iron Man or Captain America, and many fans were anxious to find out how the Scarlet Witch would move on from her misadventures in Westview. “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” feeds that interest with a plot centered on Wanda as she is consumed by her grief and her desperate attempt to get back the family that she once had.
As a bonus, the film also makes a few asides to two other Disney+ shows that play in the Marvel multiverse: “Loki” and “What If…?”. While those shows are not as intrinsic to the plot as “WandaVision” is, they make good on Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige’s promise to weave the MCU’s streaming and film storytelling together in ways that provide a little extra value to hardcore fans who watch every series without alienating casual viewers.
As the MCU’s fourth phase pushes on and the number of streaming series builds, it’s possible that we could see more theatrical films with strong connections to the most popular Disney+ shows see a significant box office boost compared to their direct predecessors. Already the success of “Doctor Strange 2” should raise expectations for “The Marvels,” the sequel to 2019’s “Captain Marvel” that’s due out in July 2023.
Like “Doctor Strange 2,” “The Marvels” has a connection to “WandaVision” as Teyonah Parris will return as Monica Rambeau, the SWORD agent who gained superpowers from Wanda’s magic. The film will also be a follow-up to the upcoming Disney+ series “Ms. Marvel,” with Iman Vellani playing teen superhero and Captain Marvel fangirl Kamala Khan.
Other upcoming MCU films like “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” and the untitled fourth “Captain America” film will also have links to Disney+ shows like “Loki” and “Falcon and the Winter Soldier,” further fueling that interconnected web that has made Marvel into an unstoppable behemoth even after “Avengers: Endgame.”
That could amplify the argument from the National Association of Theater Owners that streaming should complement rather than take away from movie theaters. Even outside Marvel, franchise films have fueled interest in streaming spinoffs, as evidenced by the success of “The Suicide Squad” spinoff series “Peacemaker” on HBO Max. Now, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” is showing that the big franchise bucks can also flow from streaming to theaters, and it won’t be long before other studios try to replicate that formula.