Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness finally pays off an abandoned Infinity Stone Easter egg from Guardians of the Galaxy. Marvel Studios has earned a reputation for long-term planning, but the studio is remarkably flexible. As Avengers: Endgame director Joe Russo admitted recently, there is no real MCU master plan. “Oh, we hope one day that we can get to… Infinity War and Endgame,” he recalled. “But a lot of the stuff was made up in between the movies.”
A perfect example can be found in Guardians of the Galaxy. In an early scene in which Peter Quill retrieves the Orb containing the Power Stone from the planet Morag, the set design includes a mural showing four of Marvel’s cosmic abstracts reaching out for control of the Infinity Stones; Death, Eternity, Entropy, and Infinity. This, closely following on from Thanos’s eagerness to court death in the post-credits scene of The Avengers, strongly suggests Marvel originally intended to make a more comic-accurate Avengers: Infinity War. But plans changed, and the cosmic avatars were forgotten.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness brought them back. When America Chavez transports Doctor Strange through the multiverse, they are blasted through multiple different dimensions and planes of existence. It’s easy to miss, but in one of them, attentive viewers will spot the Living Tribunal, the embodiment of the multiverse itself, who only manifests to ensure there is no imbalance of mystical force across time and space. There have been hints of the Living Tribunal before in the MCU. Mordo wielded the Staff of the Living Tribunal in the first Doctor Strange, while the remains of a statue of the Living Tribunal were briefly seen in the Void at the end of time in Loki. But Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness marked the first time he’s actually appeared in the MCU. At last, Marvel is beginning to pay off that mural from Guardians of the Galaxy, confirming the abstracts really do exist. The abstracts were an essential part of the Infinity Gauntlet comic book arc that loosely inspired Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, but it’s easy to see why Marvel Studios chose not to incorporate them into those films. Phases 1, 2, and 3 of the MCU were much more grounded, and the abstracts would have been a step too far. Phase 4 has embraced the spectacular, however, with everything from Celestials looming over the Earth to multiversal jaunts, so they’re much more appropriate now.
The introduction of the Living Tribunal at this point is actually rather ominous. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness contained a lot of setup for a Secret Wars event, most notably through the introduction of incursions: the mutual destruction of entire timelines in devastating collisions. In the comics, the Avengers learned somebody was triggering incursions on purpose; they only learned the identity of their true enemy, a race known as the Beyonders, after discovering they had already slain the Living Tribunal. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness may have finally paid off a Guardians of the Galaxy Easter egg, but it has also pointed the way toward something even bigger.