The following contains spoilers for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, now playing in theaters.
Doctor Strange spends most of his latest Marvel Cinematic Universe appearance, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, fighting (or running from) Wanda Maximoff. But amidst all that is a surprisingly grounded emotional beat for the character, one that's multiversal elements only highlight the genuine aspects of that throughline. Multiverse of Madness actually approaches a bittersweet, romantic storyline with the right level of emotional honesty and growth, making it the most mature love story in the franchise.
If Multiverse of Madness has any overarching flaws, it comes with the film's ultimate lack of depth for character arcs. Every major character has a solid setup for growth in the story, but there are periods where all of them are quickly glossed over or resolved with a single conversation. The exception to this rule is the bittersweet confirmation that Strange will never actually end up with Christine Palmer. Introduced in Doctor Strange, Palmer was previously a medical associate of Strange's and even a former lover. But the pair broke up over Strange's inflating ego, and while they seemed to acknowledge their lingering feelings, they didn't end the film together.
By the events of Multiverse of Madness, Palmer has even moved on -- with one of the film's opening sequences focusing on her wedding. Strange tries to be happy for her, but he discovers that he remains hung up on his former love -- something he addresses directly to Palmer, who sadly notes they never stood a chance because of their incompatible personalities. It's a surprisingly mundane and eminently bittersweet element of an otherwise ridiculous world. And it turns out that other variants discovered something similar -- with Strange finding out that three versions of himself from across the multiverse tried to make it work with Palmer, only to fail.
And this element of Doctor Strange's character arc actually lands, largely thanks to Rachel McAdams as both the MCU Christine and the Earth-838 Christine. Despite her better understanding of his world and her clearly heartbroken feelings for the dead Doctor Strange of Earth-838, she ultimately refuses to join Strange in the MCU. Instead, she gives him the push he needs to move on, allowing him to end the film content. And funnily enough, this comes just as his enduring comics love interest Clea makes the leap to the universe in the mid-credits sequence -- meaning if he can find the bravery to try again, he could form something with her.
The MCU has utilized romance before, but never so bluntly from a mature perspective. In the past, the franchise has used romance more as a tragic motivator (like with Steve Rogers' time-displaced separation from Peggy Carter or Wanda Maximoff's lingering grief over Vision) or a character beat (like the banter-heavy romcom style pairings of Scott Lang and Hope Van Dyne or Tony Stark and Pepper Potts). It's rare the franchise has really taken the time to explore the implicit tricky elements of a romance and how sometimes they don't work. Eternals tried to with Ikaris and Sersi's long-lost love, but that faded into the background amidst the noise and fury of that overstuffed film. But Multiverse of Madness avoided that by placing its romance at the heart of the title character's growth.
Frequently in the movie, Strange is asked if he's happy -- and he can never say that he is. His hang-ups about a woman who moved on carry throughout his adventures into other realities. These alternate versions of Strange fell into the same pained habits, with one even going so far as to accidentally destroy his reality and doom himself to becoming a monster in a bid to be with his beloved. But it never work because, sometimes, a romance just doesn't work. Strange having to grow enough to accept that is probably the most fulfilling emotional throughline in the film and is a refreshing approach to romance from a franchise that usually treats love as set-dressing.
To see how mature Strange and Christine's romance is, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is in theaters now.