By Carter Glace, Staff Writer
The epiphany I had while watching Marvel Studios latest film was that each film’s consistent quality makes discussing them somewhat frustrating. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has proven once again to be a perpetual motion machine; they’ve never faced a dud or a particular critical failure, and with three films this coming year, they don’t seem to be slowing down.
So what can I say about Doctor Strange that hasn’t already? It’s vision of magic and alternate worlds is jaw dropping, it’s core cast is engaging and lived in, it’s funny, Cumberbatch is solid, the music is great, it’s delightfully contained and simple. It is more interesting to complain about the handful of nitpicks, like how the quips get a bit carried away, or how the sense of time gets lost.
Instead, I would rather discuss what this brand new hero—and the film he stars in—means for the future of a film series slowly coming toward a new horizon. As Avengers: Infinity War is set to be the grand finale of what we know of Marvel, the future of their flagship characters is in question. There are currently no plans for another Thor, Captain America, or Ironman film. While various actors have expressed interest in remaining on contract, there has yet to be an official announcement towards them staying. Either way, it is clear that, if the MCU plans to continue on to a phase four and five, they will need to create new franchises.
That’s where Doctor Strange comes in. As it entered pre-production, rumors swirled that Marvel envisioned the Stephen Strange to be the new tent pole for the MCU, replacing Robert Downey’s Ironman as their flagship hero by casting another A-list super star. On paper, that makes some sense, given that both Strange and Tony Stark share similar personality types and backgrounds (even if his psychedelic adventures are a bit outlandish for a mainstream franchise). And his position as the mystical supervisor of earth gives him an excuse to keep track and organize the universe’s various super individuals. Whether these rumors were true or not, looking at the film in context with Marvel’s other recently planned franchised, it is clear that the Marvel Universe has a very specific, exciting and somewhat outlandish vision for the future.
Looking over Marvel’s franchises that have been created after the first Avengers, we have Doctor Strange, Ant-Man, Guardians of the Galaxy and (soon) Black Panther and Ms. Marvel. Inhumans has also been passed around, but will now come to television.
Looking over what we have so far, what’s striking is that we are seeing a return to tradition, the films harkening back to the very first Marvel made. Despite planets being on the line in all cases, Guardians, Ant-Man, and Strange’s stories are surprisingly self-contained, keeping the stakes personal and within the corner of the universe the characters inhabit. These are problems that specifically relate to them and only they can solve, while the larger world of heroes is none the wiser. Not only does this keep the pesky “where are The Avengers” question at bay, but it also serves as a reminder of a time before phase two, where entire cities weren’t being destroyed to stop various villainous schemes.
We also see an affirmation of the classic Marvel hero, the cocky, roguish and conventionally handsome guy who has a heart of gold that just needs the right people around him to achieve his full potential and save the world. Yes, it’s old, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t still work every single time. That is due to one place where Marvel hasn’t changed a bit: stellar casting and finding actors just on the verge of super stardom. Cumberbatch at this point was certainly an A-lister, but Chris Pratt and Paul Rudd have been two stars waiting to break out to household name status.
And this is one area where Marvel is showing evolution and progress. While Chadwick Boseman as an actor fits the Marvel mold (fast, rising star ready for household name status), his Black Panther is a new kind of Marvel hero, regal and stoic but still utterly charming. And while we haven’t gotten a sense of what Brie Larson’s Carol Danvers will be like, breaking the glass ceiling for female Marvel heroes is huge.
Also, much like the early works of Marvel, the supporting casts of these films are fully realized and diverse. While later films have streamlined the cast of characters for the sake of cross-universe appearances, these new little pockets have allowed for more experimentation in support character, and the result has give us some of the freshest, most exciting characters in the MCU. The franchise would be noticeably less bright without Yondu, Nebula, The Collector, Luis, Wong, or the Ancient One.
But the best sign of evolution comes from the endings of this new wave. The two most common criticisms of the MCU are weak villains and that endings typically descend into punching matches. That was the cardinal sin of Ironman 1 that haunts the entire franchise, stemming from a long held belief that all superhero films need to be action films before anything else. These latest films solve the problem brilliantly: going more abstract and staying true to the characters. Each hero faces the typical “villain of the week,” but their solution to stopping said villain makes each one feel unique.
In Guardians, any attempt to stop Ronan with brute force proves futile. Ultimately, they manage to defeat him by distracting him long enough to steal his source of power (said distraction is Star Lord challenging the alien to a dance off). There are very few scenarios more fitting for this band of misfits than goofing off with pop music and then blowing someone up.
Ant-Man’s finale may go down as one of the most imaginative in modern blockbuster history, a massive, Man of Steel-esque destruction sequence with children’s toys (in the superhero world, this is “having your cake without visualizing our worst fears of domestic terrorism”). But then they took it a step further; in order to win, Scott Lang needed to break his suit’s regulator, trapping him in the microverse, perpetually shrinking to the point he is falling through the fabric of time and space. That’s one hell of a concept, an existential nightmare beautifully visualized, it takes the concept of shrinking and brings it somewhere unprecedented that is both terrifying and incredible.
And that brings us to Doctor Strange. Failing to prevent one of Earth’s mystical Sanctum’s, Stephen utilizes the Eye of Agamoto to reverse time, rebuilding the building and the world around him while fighting the villains in regular speed. And like Ant-Man, they follow through with this concept to create an abstract, intellectual and high concept resolution. Realizing he can’t win against dark magic users, Strange travels to the Dark Dimension to face Dormammu. Using the Eye again, he creates a time loop, trapping the being in an endless cycle of killing Strange until he is driven mad and gives up on his conquest of Earth. Given Strange’s position as a more abstract, surrealist hero, this solution is perfect for the character.
All three of these films appear to be going in the ‘we need to punch the bad guy’ route, only to take a sharp turn and create solutions based around the unique personality of the heroes.
While I’ve been fond of every Marvel film— though I have reservations about Ironman 2—their latest IP’s have made it abundantly clear that the Marvel formula has been finely tuned and evolved. With the key pillars in place and the assurance of a hit, Marvel has been able to create weirder, more high concept and more visually unique films that all manage to feel fresh and original regardless of what tropes they use. Marvel hasn’t confirmed if Doctor Strange was intended to be the new core of the MCU, but I sincerely hope it is, because it is the best testament that the Marvel Cinematic Universe isn’t going to slow down. In fact, it might only get better, because the minds behind the scenes understand what helped Marvel take over the world while being confident and bold enough to make that vision bigger, more creative, cosmic, diverse, exciting and new.