Marvel screenwriter Michael Waldron has a knack for smashing convention.
He got his start on the Dan Harmon shows “Community” and “Rick and Morty” — madcap but cerebral cult favorites that toy with small-screen traditions. “Community” was a meta sitcom that questioned the rules of small-screen comedy; “Rick and Morty” is an animated oddity about interdimensional mishaps.
But in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Waldron now gets a chance to twist and bend the laws of one of the most lucrative entertainment empires on the planet.
Waldron was the creator and head writer on “Loki,” a witty Disney+ spinoff series starring Tom Hiddleston as a time-skipping Norse trickster. He is back this week with “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” a fantasy epic as cosmically labyrinthine as its mouthful of a title suggests. (He has also been tapped to write an under-wraps “Star Wars” movie for Disney.)
The new “Doctor Strange” was directed by Sam Raimi, a veteran filmmaker who helped catapult comic book movies to commercial riches and critical esteem with the original “Spider-Man” trilogy. “Multiverse” hinges on Benedict Cumberbatch as the sardonic sorcerer of the title and features “WandaVision” star Elizabeth Olsen, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Wong.
In a video interview this week, Waldron, 35, talked about his cinematic influences, working in Harmon’s orbit, collaborating with Raimi, playing his part in a behemoth media franchise and more. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
NBC News: I’d love to hear about how you first discovered Marvel comics. When you were growing up, were you drawn to a particular character or storyline or illustrator?
michael waldron: Well, unfortunately, I was not a huge comics fan growing up. [Laughs.] I was actually more of a pro wrestling fan, weirdly, and that was the nerdy, mythic storytelling that I grabbed hold of as a kid and became very obsessed with.
But, like many kids who grew up in the ’90s, I was a huge fan of the “X-Men” animated series, and I’ve got to believe that it was my first real introduction to Marvel comics and that canon. Then it was Sam [Raimi’s] “Spider-Man” movies in the early 2000s, where I was like, “Oh, wow, this character is unbelievable, and I want to read more about him.”
I’ve gotten more into the comics recently, and not even so much because I started working for Marvel. When I was writing for “Rick and Morty,” so many of the writers were huge comics fans, and they would reference them so much that I started reading.
Council of Ricks [a running joke on “Rick and Morty”] was a takeoff on Council of Reeds [a concept from the “Fantastic Four” universe], so that led me into reading “Fantastic Four” stuff. I love Matt Fraction’s “Hawkeye,” Tom King’s “Vision,” anything by Jonathan Hickman. I’m having the great fortune of discovering a lot of it now.
You mentioned “Rick and Morty.” I know you got your start working on Dan Harmon shows like “Rick” and “Community,” as well as some of his digital projects. How do you think those experiences prepared you for your work for Marvel?
Dan is brilliant and such an amazing mentor to me. Dan’s creative process is so democratized that even as an intern and a PA [production assistant] I was pitching jokes on “Rick and Morty” and “Community,” and every now and then I’d sneak one in. [Laughs.] It was incredibly important to my confidence as a young writer.
I learned how to create out of chaos, in a way. Dan is never afraid to let go of anything, so just because a script is good enough to make and put on air and maybe get a B+ rating — that’s not good enough for Dan. If there’s a chance to make that thing perfect, he’s down to throw it away and start over and chase the thing that’s great.
I think having that approach—nothing’s sacred—has really served me well.
In a recent interview, Sam Raimi praised you as a writer and storyteller, and he said that you took a novelist’s approach to “Doctor Strange.” Who do you consider your greatest influences as a writer?
Sam was so kind to say that. I could never write a novel. It’s too many words. I think maybe I just wrote so many drafts of the [“Doctor Strange”] script that maybe by the end it felt like I had written a novel.
But in terms of my influences on the film side, Paul Thomas Anderson is a writer that I admire so much. Richard Linklater. Larry McMurtry, who wrote “The Last Picture Show” and “Lonesome Dove.” Great, naturalistic drama writers who are also not afraid of being weird and funny — those are my favorite writers.
Mike Nichols wasn’t strictly a writer, but he’s another hero of mind, creatively. None of those guys are folks you would say are sci-fi writers or filmmakers, but that’s what I’ve tried to bring to the stuff I’ve done in the MCU: a human, dramatic sensibility. How can we make this feel like a [Peter] Bogdanovich movie within a giant, swirling multiverse adventure?
Tell me about your collaboration with Sam. Did he share any particular pearls of wisdom that have stuck with you?
I’d say working with Sam was the great joy of my career, and sometimes I regret that this very well might be the top of the mountain for me, and then I’m like, “Well, that’s OK.” He was a hero of mine when I was a kid, and he couldn’t be a more collaborative, generous, wonderful guy. In addition to being a great team, we also are just tremendous pals.
He has taught me so much about making movies and searching for truth and honesty in every scene. He told me a story about the time he had worked with the great Alvin Sargent, who wrote “Paper Moon” and wrote the first two “Spider-Man” films.
Sam had written some gag set in an elevator in “Spider-Man 2” that he was very excited about — Peter is going up in the suit or something — and he was very excited to present it to Alvin. Alvin looked at him and shook his head and said, “It’s not honest.” Sam said he realized he had gone for the joke over the truth of the moment.
It became a running gag between Sam and me. Whenever I went for the cheap laugh or the cheap scare, he would say, “It’s not honest.” I think it’s impossible for me to write a scene without first running it through the Sam Raimi “Is It Honest?” machine.
When you look at the pop culture landscape over the last year or two, it appears multiverses are having a moment. You’ve got the new “Doctor Strange,” plus “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and A24’s “Everything Everywhere All at Once” and the animated Spider-Man films at Sony. Why do you think the multiverse concept resonates with audiences?
It’s a good question that I should probably have a better answer considering I worked on so much multiverse stuff. [Laughs.] But to me, the multiverse is a different version of going to space. Ten years ago, Thor showed up [in the MCU] from space, and suddenly the MCU movies went from being earthbound to interstellar, and you’re able to bring in Guardians of the Galaxy and eventually Thanos.
The multiverse is another frontier of storytelling in that way. I think it’s interesting because it’s a way to literally explore the roads not taken and encounter versions of yourself: who you might have been, who you should have been, or perhaps who you shouldn’t have been. It’s a rich storytelling device that I think is exciting, and yes, it’s obviously resonating with people.
Ultimately, it’s another form of escape, and people clearly want to escape.
When you come into a big Marvel project like “Doctor Strange,” are you briefed on how it connects to other upcoming projects in the MCU, or are you essentially locked into the parameters of the movie?
There is a general plan in place, and you know where you’re falling chronologically, which movie will lead into you, what you might lead into. But the mandate is always to make the best “Doctor Strange” movie you can possibly make — and if you do that, then it will organically align with the other stuff in the MCU. That’s the name of the game: make great stuff.
Marvel has a team of producers, and our producer, Richie Palmer, was there every step of the way, making sure that what we were doing didn’t clash with anything else going on in the MCU. But by and large, we had freedom to make our project.
I know these last couple years have been busy for you. But when you have downtime, what do you enjoy watching?
[Laughs.] I know, I’m like: “Jeez, I don’t have any time to watch anything.” I like watching old movies, though.
You’ve got TCM on in the background a lot?
Yeah, and I’ve got my watchlists on HBO Max and Disney+. I fill up my watchlist while I have dinner, and then I’m done eating and turn off the TV. I’m like: “That’s great. I was entertained by the idea of watching things.”