Is there a hell in the MCU? And does that imply the existence of demons, God, Lucifer, and who knows what else? All these things certainly exist in Marvel Comics, but the MCU has been fuzzier on the question. Black Panther makes it clear that Wakandan rulers go to a specific afterlife, and Moon Knight recently stated outright that there are a lot of afterlives and pantheon gods, though that series’ ties to the MCU have been fairly minimal.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness adds a new wrinkle, when multiverse-traveling sorcerer Stephen Strange falls afoul of “the spirits of the damned” after he uses magic in a very specific way. So wait, does that mean human spirits from hell? What’s going on with the afterlife in this movie? Why are sinful ghosts in charge of magical law enforcement? And how will this affect season 2 of Loki? Polygon asked Multiverse of Madness screenwriter (and Loki writer-producer) Michael Waldron whether he’s just opened a giant can of religious worms.
“Those are all conversations we had,” Waldron laughs. “Nothing is in the movie by accident. [Marvel Studios president] Kevin [Feige] is certainly aware of the implications of everything here, you know? They’re not spirits of the damned just for spirits of the damned’s sake.”
[Ed. note: Spoilers ahead for a particular event in Multiverse of Madness.]
Fans are particularly curious about demons and hells in the MCU because they’ve been holding out hope for existing Marvel Comics characters like Mephisto to eventually appear in the movies or shows. But Waldron says the spirits in Multiverse of Madness come more from the supernatural tradition seen in the movie, built around Wundagore Mountain and the corrupting book of dark magic transcribed from its walls, the Darkhold.
“We truly tried to root [the dead in this movie] in our own internal logic,” he says. “There’s the Darkhold, and if you use the Darkhold to possess your own corpse, there’s a separate layer of gatekeeping beyond all of this stuff that will come for you. And that’s who Stephen finally runs afoul of, so that was pretty fun to explore.”
“Don’t use multiverse-crossing magic to possess your own corpse” seems like a remarkably specific edge case to have a rule around, much less a spiritual enforcement task group. Waldron encourages viewers not to think of it as though someone wrote down a rule that Stephen broke — it’s just something weird and transgressive enough to really infuriate the spirits.
“In my mind, Stephen Strange and Wanda are the only two sorcerers strong enough to even dreamwalk to begin with,” he says. “It’s such an impossible spell to achieve, let alone maintain. I think Strange, in my mind, is probably the first guy to ever attempt to possess his own corpse. It’s the Break glass in case of emergency on the very back page of the Darkhold. And those spirits of the damned are like, Absolutely not, you cannot do this.”
The sequence in the film where the spirits attack Strange and yank on his zombie face closely recalls some of the specific torments Ash goes through in fighting the dead in Raimi’s comedy-horror films Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness. Fans have particularly called out that sequence for the way it makes Multiverse of Madness feel so distinctly like a Raimi project.
But Waldron says Raimi initially hesitated over whether he wanted a comic horror sequence involving the dead. “I was totally writing with Sam in mind the entire time,” he says. “I had watched all his movies. I tried to really get an ear for the dialogue in his movies, because I wanted it to feel like a Sam Raimi film. But Sam, to his credit, had no interest in coming in and just playing the hits. Sam did not come in and say, I need you to give me a zombie. And in fact, when I presented the idea of Dead Strange to him, there was a real hesitancy on his part, because he didn’t want it to seem like he was just saying I want to do my Sam Raimi thing.”
Waldron says Raimi wasn’t on board with the idea until it was clear that it was part of the larger themes of Doctor Strange ignoring what everyone else tells him the rules are and doing whatever he thinks is necessary to achieve his goals. “So when we could justify it in that way, then Sam was on board,” Waldron says. “It was like All right, now let’s have some fun, let’s really go all in.”
Some of the all-in aspects of Multiverse of Madness do get particularly odd, like the universe where everyone is made out of paint. When asked whether the movie will give him and his co-writers freedom to get weirder with the multiverse madness in Loki season 2, Waldron laughs again.
“I don’t know if I could go any weirder than we went in season 1,” he says. “We had an alligator drinking wine out of a kiddie pool. That felt like the Mount Everest peak of weird! I think there’s plenty of opportunity there. We’re always looking to outdo ourselves, but hopefully it’s always driven by character. And yeah, I learned on this movie once again, no idea is too crazy. You can write Stephen Strange possessing his own corpse, and maybe you’ll end up shooting it. That encourages me to be bold, which is good.”