If 2016’s first big Marvel Studios film, the terrific Captain America: Civil War, was about as sure-fire a hit as you could predict, for its last of the year there’s a genuine sense that the studio is taking a real gamble.
The long rumoured Doctor Strange finally got the go ahead in 2014 when Benedict Cumberbatch snagged the title role and a director primarily known for horror – Scott Derrickson – was chosen to make the film. As you’d expect from the director of Sinister and The Exorcism of Emily Rose, there’s an undercurrent of horror in Doctor Strange, the story of a world class surgeon who’s left unable to operate following a horrific car accident. But it’s the supernatural side to Strange’s story that hints that Marvel’s venturing into new territory.
Magic, even magic that a character is learning to control, is a phenomenal weapon – and by introducing these new powers into the fold, Doctor Strange is shifting the parameters of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe.
This is the 14th film in what’s known as the MCU (Marvel cinematic universe), and while magic has hardly been absent – Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch is now a fully-fledged member of the core Avengers team, after all – it certainly hasn’t been integral. Strange encounters The Ancient One, played in the film by Tilda Swinton, who mentors the doctor in what are described as “mystic arts.” Magic, even magic that a character is learning to control, is a phenomenal weapon – and by introducing these new powers into the fold, Doctor Strange is shifting the parameters of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. Think about it: mere mortals such as Nick Fury, Black Widow, Falcon and Hawkeye might find themselves in an uneven fight should they ever need to take Strange on, even if we’re to accept that between them, they’ve faced and sort-of-defeated the likes of Ultron and Loki.
Marvel films have had to navigate power imbalances between characters before. Samuel L Jackson, for instance, revealed to Yahoo! that his limited screen time in The Avengers films was down to the fact these were essentially “people who have powers fighting people who have powers” films, and that “there’s not a lot [he] could do except shoot a gun”. But the most skillful way that Marvel manages to keep its universe coherent is by showing us that power is essentially mediated by character. We know that Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, has the money and technology to defeat the majority of his foes, but we’re also conscious that his bigger battles are with himself. Likewise, the rivalry between hero Thor and his villainous adopted brother Loki is forever complicated by their emotional connection. Never mind how much power a character has access to, it’s their character that determines how much they’re willing, or able, to harness.
The Marvel cinematic universe is clearly being disrupted with Doctor Strange. But it’s a gamble built on lessons that have been learned across 13 films. The success of the studio might just lie in its willingness to take a risk. Doctor Strange is certainly a keen example of that. Few would bet against it being a successful one. And few would wager against it having interesting ramifications for Marvel films going forward.
Simon Brew @simonbrew. Images: Disney/Marvel.
Doctor Strange is out now. Get times and tickets here.