by Tom Reed
Marvel’s newest superhero blockbuster Doctor Strange has a strange side effect, possibly fitting for a film that deals with bending reality. However it’s probably not the sort of side effect Marvel would want coming out of be another action-packed instalment in its monolithic franchise. The side effect was that less than an hour after the film I found myself almost forgetting that I had seen it.
And I wasn’t the only one.
After watching it with a bunch of the Movie Maintenance crew, we sat down to eat and talk about what we had just seen and we couldn’t really say anything about it. Some of us had forgotten large parts of the plot already, and this was only 20 minutes after seeing it. So why was something that should have been memorable just not? Why did I find myself completely disengaged from a film that should tick so many boxes for me? I mean the source material alone is ripe for some mind-bendingly cool stuff, and admittedly the visual depictions of other dimensions are excellent, and then there’s that cast list. Cumberbatch. Swinton. Mikkelsen. Ejiofor. That’s some serious talent being brought into the MCU here (no disrespect to anyone already in it, but come on look at those names) and yet none of it registers.
And look credit where it’s due, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Stephen Strange is good. But it should be great. Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One almost steals the film. But only almost. Meanwhile on the flip side of the coin, Mikkelsen is criminally underused and it’s clear that Chiwetel Ejiofor, while strong, is there with one eye firmly fixed towards the sequel. Let’s not even go into Rachel McAdams being cast to just kind of exist in Strange’s world, give the girl something to do!
So why, despite the interesting and limitless potential on offer here, do we walk out of the cinema with nothing but kaleidoscopic colours burnt into our retinas? Because Marvel went safe when it should’ve taken a risk. This is weird because it used to, but now that it’s actually in a better a position to make riskier films it’s not.
Marvel, as a studio and as a film franchise, started out as a gambler. The first film to enter the MCU was Iron Man. A fairly big risk, and something that Marvel has spoken about before. First they decided to tell the story of Iron Man, not really a household superhero and not really a guy with an easy to sell back story. Murdered parents and spider bites are way more accessible for an audience than Tony Stark’s story of an arrogant arms manufacturer who gets tortured and kidnapped by terrorists and learns to use his arrogance for good instead of evil. It’s not a story, or character, that screams crowd-pleasing summer hit. Then they cast Robert Downey Jnr. Now of course these days he’s everywhere, but this is early 2000s Downey Jnr. You know the one who’d had a couple of run ins with the law and had started to make a comeback through darker indie films like A Scanner Darkly and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. And finally they give it to Jon Favreau to direct. Again not a name that one would usually associate with blockbusters.
So for their first film they took a punt on a character that might not work with a lead actor who was on a quest for redemption and a director whose biggest film to date had been Elf. It’s the sort of risk that looks like a masterstroke when successful and would have sent them packing if it had have failed. It didn’t. Well done Marvel for taking a risk with their first venture into a cinematic universe.
Fast forward to 2016 and we’ve seen the Marvel film factory churn out box office hit after box office hit, in the process garnering more acclaim than their much maligned counterpart over at DC, and all on the back of a gamble in 2008. But for some reason the attitude that saw them launch themselves into the pop cultural stratosphere is absent in their latest effort. In fact there has been, on the whole, a lot of playing it safe recently when they should have been taking risks in the way they are telling stories. And now is the time to do it! Now it doesn’t matter what sort of film they put out, the Marvel brand is so strong they could put a box of cereal on screen for ninety minutes and it would still make half a billion dollars.
Sure, there are some stories that have to be done a certain way; there are characters within the MCU who need stories told in a more conventional style. Safe stories so to speak. However Marvel has had two left field superheroes that it has failed to use in an interesting or different way. Ant-Man and Doctor Strange. These two characters are not the usual hero. Ant-Man is a slacker thief turned hero while Doctor Strange is on another plane of reality entirely, and yet with both stories instead of going different they took the safe Marvel story route, the story we’ve had a thousand times from them. And neither film was that great. Ant-Man had moments where you could see the good stuff underneath the Marvel paint job and Doctor Strange is disappointing in that it’s so unremarkable. It seems the bigger this franchise has become, the less likely Marvel is to take risks dramatically. Despite there being no better time to do so.
And the result? Their output has weakened. The quality of the stories has dropped dramatically because they’re no longer the studio that takes risks. They’re the studio that used to be the cutting edge of storytelling; they created interconnected films that could stand on their own. How absurd is that as a concept? They made space Vikings seem legitimate. They made audiences fall in love with a tree. But recently what? We’ve had a second Avengers that promised lots and delivered little, a Thor sequel that I forgot happened and now this recent entry into the franchise, which is okay but could and should have been better. And sure there are some flashes of that old school brilliance, Winter Soldier and Civil War were both strong films, but you cut those two out you’re looking pretty far back to find a truly great story from Marvel recently.
Now we have New Zealand genius/director Taika Waiti currently working on the third Thor film. A film that seems to hint at teaming Thor and Hulk up to stop the end of days in what Waiti has promised to be a throwback to 80s fantasy films. Based on that description, and the output of Watiti in the past, it sounds like it could be the perfect antidote to the blandness we’ve seen recently.
Then again an arrogant but brilliant neurosurgeon who is taught to bend reality by a bald Tilda Swinton and has to defeat Hannibal Lector in a film by a horror director sounds like it should have been edgier than what it was.
We need Marvel to start taking risks again.