Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is packed enough with crowd-pleasing cameos both big and small, but it doesn’t let the credits roll by without delivering one last surprise. As we know from his Spider-Man films, Sam Raimi’s comics-loving heart belongs to Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, and in his first Marvel Cinematic Universe film’s mid-credits sequence, he introduces one of their greatest contributions to the Doctor Strange mythos: Clea, played by none other than Oscar-winner Charlize Theron.
The mid-credits scene finds Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) happier than ever and recently recovered from a splitting headache that reveals a third eye on his forehead, a consequence of his use of the Darkhold. But that’s not the only thing he has to worry about. A silver-haired woman clad in purple manifests in front of him and blames him for a recent “incursion” — an incident in which two universes collide, resulting in the destruction of both. She opens a portal to the Dark Dimension, where Strange faced Dormammu in his first solo film, and asks if he’ll join her. Strange opens the third eye on his forehead and jumps in with a new sense of fearlessness about what lies ahead. This marks the second time Clea has appeared on film; she was portrayed as a young psychology student by Eddie Benton in 1978 television film, Dr. Strange. But it’s the first time we’ve seen her in all her magical glory.
So, who exactly is Clea and what’s her connection to Stephen Strange? Clea first appeared in Strange Tales #126 (1964), as a follower of Dormammu in the Dark Dimension. When Strange enters that dimension to thwart Dormammu’s attempt to take over the Earth, he catches Clea’s eye and she risks her life to save him. For a while, this was the nature of their relationship: Strange would confront Dormammu, Clea would intervene and be imprisoned or cast into another dimension, and Strange would go rescue her or bargain for her return. In these early appearances and sometimes later, Clea remained a naïve ingenue, whose affections for Stephen were her defining characteristic.
Eventually, Clea’s personality took on added depth after she was cast out of the Dark Dimension and lost her natural-born magical abilities on Earth. She began training under Stephen Strange, and served as his apprentice and love interest for many years. At one point, she even joined him as a member of The Defenders, back when they were cosmic-oriented characters, rather than street-level heroes. Eventually, an usurper named Umar took over as ruler of the Dark Dimension with Baron Mordo at her side. Clea soon discovered that Umar was her mother and Dormammu was her uncle, making her half Faltine, a being made of pure magic. Armed with this knowledge, she defeated her mother and became the new ruler and Sorcerer Supreme of the Dark Dimension. And though Stephen refused her offer to join her, the two eventually marry in Doctor Strange, Sorcerer Supreme #3 (1988), creating a magical bond between them.
Clea would appear off and on in Strange comics over the years, usually whenever Dormammu resurfaced to try and wrest away control of the Dark Dimension, but the romance between the two sorcerers cooled. Her biggest comics storyline in years came just months ago, when in the moments before Strange’s death, he gives her his Cloak of Levitation, Eye of Agamotto, and professes his love for her. With his blessing, Clea becomes Earth’s new Sorcerer Supreme, takes her husband’s last name, and currently reigns as Doctor Strange in Jed Mackay and Marcelo Ferreira’s new ongoing series, Strange.
What awaits Clea in the MCU remains to be seen, but we do know a few things. Her appearance sets the stage for more multiversal mind-bending in Doctor Strange 3, the likely introduction of Umar, and the return of Dormmamu. And based on the formidable actress cast in the role, it seems the MCU will, thankfully, not be characterizing Clea according to her early comics persona — a decades-younger woman pining over an older and “wiser” man. This version of Clea also clearly has no need of a teacher; she manifests a purple energy blade and opens a portal to the Dark Dimension with ease. In fact, Strange may have more to learn from her than the other way around. While Multiverse of Madness underscores that Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) will always have Strange’s heart, there might be room enough for Clea, too — that is, if the forces of the Darkhold and the Dark Dimension don’t tear them apart first.
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