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'Multiverse of Madness' costume designer on updating Doctor Strange's look, Wanda's 'multiversal mold,' and CGI costumes

Stephen Strange was in desperate need of a wardrobe update after Avengers: Endgame.

By Josh Weiss
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness PRESS

When it came time for the Master of the Mystic Arts to enter the multiverse in his second standalone adventure, the hero (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) was in desperate need of some new threads. "The very first task was to upgrade Doctor Strange in his regular 616 costume," Multiverse of Madness costume designer Graham Churchyard tells SYFY WIRE over Zoom, revealing that the mandate came straight from Marvel Studios head honcho, Kevin Feige.

"Kevin said, ‘We really have to upgrade him now.' But keeping the same cloak because it has the whole personality and it's such an extraordinary bit of fabric engineering," he adds. The central idea was to build on the various Doctor Strange looks established by Alex Byrne (the 2016 original film) and Judianna Makovsky (Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame). Churchyard wanted to give the character "more of a heroic superhero chest without going too superhero" by way of "a very tailored costume" full of subtle design flourishes that can be fully appreciated during the scene in which Strange finds himself a captive of the Illuminati on Earth-838.

"When he doesn't have the cloak, you really get to see all the detail in the costume," he teases. "A lot of the time when superheroes are wearing cloaks, it’s just like, ‘Oh, it's fine, you’ll never see the back. They don’t take the cloak off.’ But this time, of course, Dr. Strange plays quite a bit of the movie without the cloak. When it comes out on Blu-ray [and] 4K, I’ll really be able to stop and zoom in and see stuff in such detail. Because we knew all that while we were making it, we didn't hold back on the detail."

Graham Churchyard

Just as much attention was paid to the look of Marvel Cinematic Universe newcomer, America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez), a young woman with the power to travel across the multiverse at will. "We went for a long time without casting," Churchyard says, going on to explain that Marvel Studios wanted to keep America on the younger side in order to give the character room to grow as the universe expands with time. Working closely with Feige and high-ranking Marvel producers, Louis D'Esposito, and Victoria Alonso, the costume designer broke from the comics in favor of a more "modest" vibe. "When you look at some of the comics, the costumes are very adult. So yeah, it was skinny-fit black jeans, the high-top sneakers, and her denim jacket."

America's jacket "went through a lot of different stages" before Churchyard settled on "that kind of emo thing where you start writing stuff on your clothes and expressing yourself," he continues. "I felt that ... maybe she was in a room one night, just writing Spanish poetry on her jacket ... Costumes have to tell a story and they have to suit the actor that walks in. I think there's enough detail in those pieces that will help her launch into the MCU. Her T-shirt shirt is incredibly detailed. It just looks like an athletic gray T-shirt, but if you get in real close, it's [got] snakes and skulls and all kinds of Day of the Dead and witchcraft symbols in there."

Xochitl Gomez as America Chavez in Marvel Studios' DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS.

Chavez — who hails from an alternate reality known as the Utopian Parallel — is pursued across dimensions by a number of monsters dispatched by Wanda Maximoff, aka the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). Determined to be reunited with the two sons she conjured up during the events of the WandaVision TV series, Wanda plans to absorb America's powers, and has no problem killing anyone who gets in the way of that goal. While the connection to the Disney+ series is evident for longtime viewers, things were not as clear during the early start of production all the way back in the dark times of March 2020. Churchyard recalls how he got his first look at the Scarlet Witch costume "literally the day before the world got locked down." However, the television outfit would ultimately be retooled for the big screen.

"We were in a point where [director Sam Raimi] said he wasn't sure it was going to work with the script," he continues. "It worked for WandaVision because it was so punchy and Mayes C. Rubeo’s costume was amazing with the cold shoulder look. It was all bright and [had a] very comic book kind of feel. But because she had to play for such a long time in this movie, he wanted something that reflected the fact that she was possessed by the corruptive Darkhold. The audience should feel that [the evil book] had an effect on her clothing and created this web of black, multiversal mold that's grown over her and caused distortion and decay in the crown and the costume."

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness YT

Wanda's horror-tinged rampage leads Strange and America to Earth-838 — a location that takes full advantage of the multiverse and variant concepts introduced in Season 1 of Loki by way of the Illuminati. Serving as this reality's answer to the Avengers, the panel of heroes includes Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Black Bolt (Anson Mount) of the Inhumans, Super-soldier Captain Carter (Hayley Atwell), Maria Rambeau's Captain Marvel (Lashana Lynch), Professor Charles Xavier (Sir Patrick Stewart) of the X-Men, and Reed Richards (John Krasinski) of the Fantastic Four.

Interestingly, the costumes for Black Bolt and Richards were entirely CGI creations. "I'm sure [VFX supervisor] Janek Sirr’s still not speaking to me for not making those costumes for real," jokes Churchyard. "But it got to the point where there was so little time when the decision that had been made that worked with the future of Marvel and what could be done at the time, there wasn't actually time to make physical costumes there."

He continues: "What happened was that we started physically designing costumes for other characters that didn't make it onto the wish list. The idea was that in London, we'd get all these people in one room. We'd get Hayley Atwell, Sir Patrick Stewart, and everyone else in one room. And then that never happened with the travel restrictions and COVID. The exciting characters that they ended up with was to do with where Kevin's taking the next phase to."

The Captain Carter outfit was perhaps the easiest of the lot, given the fact that Churchyard's MCU experience goes all the way back to Captain America: The First Avenger as a costume effects supervisor. Several years later, he got a chance to redesign Steve Rogers' heroic wardrobe for Avengers: Age of Ultron. In addition to his work on Cap's 2011 origin film, the designer also looked at concept art for the debut episode of What If...? drawn by Marvel Studios Head of Visual Development, Ryan Meinerding.  

"I knew a lot about the Captain America costume and so we used a lot of the same fabrics and techniques and tried not to make it too Second World War and bring it forward a little bit just to make something that really worked on Haley," he says. "That was all made from scratch and we fitted her in London."

What If Still

It should come as no surprise that Patrick Stewart's return as Professor X was intended as a direct homage to the animated X-Men series from the 1990s (Danny Elfman's score contains a few notes of the show's iconic theme song for good measure). Once again, you can thank Mr. Feige for this particular cameo.

"Kevin just said, ‘I want it to look like the [‘90s-era] animated version," Churchyard adds. "Not the wheelchair, but the yellow bumper car — almost like a fairground ride kind of wheelchair — the green suit and the striped tie. Just to dial straight back into that animation — something that he obviously loved from his youth. I sent pictures of Sir Patrick's fitting, which I did on Zoom, to Kevin and he went, ‘I love, the green suit. It was exactly what I wanted.’ It was like a really classic, British Savile Row tailored suit."

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is now streaming on Disney+ and available to purchase via digital platforms. The film arrives on DVD, Blu-ray, and 4K Ultra HD Tuesday, July 26 with a maddening amount of bonus features — including a gag reel and director's commentary. Click here for more details.

Looking for more horror films that will make your spine tingle and blood curdle? You can currently catch Keith Thomas's Stephen King adaptation Firestarter on Peacock and Scott Derrickson's The Black Phone on the big screen. Jordan Peele's NOPE arrives in theaters everywhere on Friday, July 22.