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Stephen Strange's Drastic Change In Doctor Strange 2 Explained

Contains spoilers for "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness"

With the Marvel Cinematic Universe sorely in need of leaders as Phase 4 pivots away from the heroes of the Infinity Saga, Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) has emerged in recent years as one of the universe's most important and versatile characters. Strange dutifully appears in a supporting role in four MCU films before receiving his own second solo movie, doing everything from leading the Avengers' fight against Thanos (Josh Brolin) to misguidedly helping Peter Parker (Tom Holland) find anonymity again. Now it's finally time for "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness," and as most critics agree, it was well worth the wait.

The multiverse has already been a factor in the MCU — specifically for Strange. The Disney+ miniseries "What If....?" explores what Strange's life looks like in a universe in which Christine's (Rachel McAdams) death causes him to seek out the mystic arts. This version of Strange never fully accepts the loss and foolishly pursues the power to reverse Christine's death. Strange's hubris ultimately turns him evil and destroys his entire universe, leaving him to grieve completely alone.

In the new movie, Strange's drastic change thematically matches the same dilemma the character faces in "What If...?" As Christine says early in the film, Strange always has to be the one holding the knife.

Stephen Strange learns that the multiverse considers him a threat

As foretold in trailers for "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness," characters across the MCU's multiverse often consider Stephen Strange himself one of the universe's greatest threats. Audiences first see this dynamic play out in the movie's opening sequence, in which an alternate version of Strange almost kills America Chavez and steals her powers in order to stop the monster chasing them from taking America's powers for itself. While the monster kills the alternate Strange, this event makes America untrustworthy of Earth-616's Strange when they first meet. Across the 72 universes she's traveled through, she has learned Stephen Strange is generally not trustworthy, because he tends to seek power for himself.

When America and Strange narrowly escape Wanda Maximoff's attack on Kamer-Taj by jumping through another star-shaped portal to Earth-838, they quickly encounter Karl Modo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who works with a contingent of familiar faces known as the Illuminati as that universe's Sorcerer Supreme, and promptly arrests Strange and America. The Illuminati explain to Strange that Earth-838's Stephen Strange studied that universe's Darkhold and nearly caused an event they call an incursion that can destroy entire universes. As such, the Illuminati agreed to kill 838-Strange after they defeated that universe's version of Thanos in order to prevent 838-Strange from causing any future incursions.

The Illuminati quickly realize they've been guarding against the wrong superhero from 616 when Wanda dreamwalks through Earth-838 Wanda's body and kills most of the superhero group.

Stephen Strange comes to terms with his own selfish behavior

"Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness" uses Stephen Strange's relationships with the film's supporting cast to display the character's fundamental flaw: He's a secret authoritarian who thinks he knows better than everyone else. When Strange attends Christine's (Rachel McAdams) wedding at the beginning of the film, she tells New York City's resident sorcerer that their romantic relationship could never work out because of his need to always be the one in charge. MCU fans have already seen that dynamic play out in "Avengers: Infinity War," when Strange hands Thanos the Time Stone, dooming the Avengers and half the universe for years. At the time, Strange is the only character who sees the convoluted, time-hopping path to destroying Thanos, so he takes it upon himself to make a unilateral decision on behalf of ... the universe.

This decision is alluded to throughout the movie by Wong and Earth-838's Christine, as Strange defends that decision by asserting it was for the greater good to ultimately defeat Thanos. While Strange is not wrong, he is confronted by the repercussions of these actions when he learns that alternate versions of himself used the same logic to try and kill America or to allow the Darkhold to corrupt him. 

When 616-Strange is forced to make the same decision to steal America's powers and stop Wanda, he refuses — even after Wong tells him to do so. He trusts in America to help him stop Wanda. By refusing to act on his first, authoritarian instinct, Strange saves America's life and completely gains her trust.

Doctor Strange uses forbidden magic and gains a new facial feature

In order to stop Wanda from stealing America's multiverse-hopping powers and gaining unprecedented control over the multiverse, Strange uses that dimension's copy of the Darkhold to dreamwalk back on Earth-616. Strange possesses the corpse of the version of him who died at the film's start, which he takes to the remote Darkhold Castle to help Wong and America confront Wanda at the height of her Scarlet Witch-driven villainy. 

This action actually helps Strange kill two birds with one stone. When he reaches the Darkhold Castle, demons try to prevent him from advancing further, asserting that necromancy is beyond the pale — even for Darkhold users. Ever inventive, Strange actually exerts control over these demons and uses them to his advantage to fight Wanda in an undead display of horrific action.

Still, Strange's use of two different forbidden magical abilities at the same time pays off for the film's heroes, destroying all copies of the Darkhold across the multiverse in the process. Though the Illuminati warn Strange that studying the Darkhold only leads to corruption, Earth-616 Strange believes himself above that level of corruption — just like every other Strange. 

The film ends with Strange suddenly developing a third eye to match the one the more evil variant of him sported in the destroyed universe. Whatever is next for Strange in the MCU, his path seems destined to lead somewhere dark.