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Monday, July 25, 2016

Film Land - Has Marvel Lost Faith in Dr. Strange?

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Edited by Robert Beach

At the time of writing, we are about three months out of from Marvel’s next film entry and possible first major failure Dr. Strange. I don’t make that failure claim lightly either. Despite being three months from release, this film has gotten shockingly little fanfare or production push, especially in comparison to other Marvel releases. This might be a response to the relative dead zone Marvel is releasing the movie in. 

Their previous November release was Thor: The Dark World, which was released against Hunger Games: Catching Fire and got completely crushed by it. With Dr. Strange, Marvel has set it up with no competition in a time of the year notoriously free of blockbusters, to the point where even bad movies like Spectre can make a killing. Even still, there’s a "specter" of doubt that hangs over Dr. Strange. I’m starting to wonder whether or not Marvel expects the film to be bad. 

Obviously, we’ve now entered the land of broad speculation, so keep that in mind over the course of this entire discussion.  I don’t have any sources at Marvel or the like; this is just my opinion based on the observable facts like how shockingly downplayed the marketing for Dr. Strange has been. Let’s go back to Thor: The Dark World as a point of comparison here. Dark World also had a limited amount of marketing and was also dropped in the November slot as Marvel’s first attempt to extend its reach into the fall blockbuster circuit. 

At the same time, Dark World suffered an incredibly troubled production that required Joss Whedon to come in and clean up scenes and help functionally end the career of director Alan Taylor. Dark World ended up as the lowest-grossing phase 2 sequel. And that failure essentially forced Marvel to rethink how they did Thor and push his third film back to 2017, four years after Thor: Dark World. 

Now, compare all of that to Marvel’s treatment of Ant-Man in 2015. Ant-Man was another movie with massive behind-the-scenes difficulties that facilitated a new director and even cost the film some of its stars like Patrick Wilson. However, the final product was still a damn funny and enjoyable film even if it had compromised elements with Hope Van Dyne’s story arc. 

What’s more, that quality seems to have bled over into Marvel’s handling of the movie with a major marketing blitz and a release date in the middle of summer. It was a major release with a ton of marketing and hype that paid off. I think the reason Marvel was so willing to push Ant-Man was that they were aware they had a genuinely good movie that would track well with audiences. 

All of this, along with Marvel’s intermittent interest in the Fall movie slot, makes me wonder if Marvel has come to see the fall as a safe space for films they think will underperform or don’t fit within the Marvel Universe. I mean, Marvel doesn’t have a clear path on what role Thor will play in the future of the MCU; his next movie drops in early November to compete with Justice League. 

Even though Thor: Ragnarok sounds cool, Marvel can just cite the release date to explain its failure as they wait for Black Panther and Avengers 3 to wipe the slate clean. They don’t need to follow up on the universe building from it. After all, they completely dropped the conspiracy theory stuff about Tony’s dad from Iron Man 2, and no one cared. 

That lack of an identity within the Marvel brand is the other major reason I think Marvel might be looking to bury Dr. Strange.  See, Dr. Strange was green lit and cast in a previous era for Marvel Studios, back when they were still working under Marvel Comics CEO Isaac Perlmutter. This was around the same time a bunch of Marvel name actors like Scarlet Johannson, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, and Robert Downey Jr. were talking about leaving the franchise over money. 

The thinking at the time was that Marvel would need a new crop of characters to serve as replacements for the big names they were going to lose to money, hence why we suddenly got a bunch of snarky comedy heroes like Star Lord and Ant-Man to serve as Iron Man replacements. Dr. Strange formed under these circumstances as an almost perfect Tony Stark stand-in: a cocky, self-obsessed and perpetually drunk expert who was just smart enough to back up his massive ego as he suffered a perpetual existential crisis. 

The problem is that in the time from conception to implementation the world has shifted around Dr. Strange. Marvel Studios is now directly answerable to Disney, and they’ve secured all the actors who were looking to jump ship. What’s more, Star Lord and Ant-Man were both big hits, and they’ve got Spider-Man: Homecoming ready to come in as yet another snarky superhero type. 

The fact of the matter is Marvel just doesn’t need Dr. Strange as much as they did when they first started making his movie. There’s not even a good reason to pursue his mystic side of the universe. The world is already getting scooped up by Marvel TV, which functionally acts as a rival brand at this point.

Speaking of rival brands, the only real thing a Dr. Strange series could bring to Marvel’s cinematic brand is a foot in the door of the fantasy genre. Fantasy, as a genre, is still decidedly unmoored with no single blockbuster defining the aesthetics of the day like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings did in the 2000s. As such, we’ve seen a lot of attempts lately to capitalize on this and define the genre going forward (Movies like Warcraft, The Hobbit, and the Huntsman series). Aside from Dr. Strange, November will also see the premiere of Fantastic Beasts, the Harry Potter prequel series also angling for control of the fantasy genre. Honestly, both films feel late to the punch. 

The real lord of fantasy in the 2010s seems to have already been crowned through the clockwork success of Disney’s live-action fairy tale movies. Alice in Wonderland, Oz the Great and Powerful, Maleficent, Cinderella, and The Jungle Book have all been massive hits. Upcoming flicks like Beauty and the Beast promise more success for Disney. At this point, Disney has a grip on the fantasy genre, and I don’t see Dr. Strange being a big enough hit to compete with Disney. 

As I mentioned at the start, all of this is speculation based on the available evidence. Come November, it could easily turn out that Dr. Strange is a game-changing masterpiece that blows us all away. At this point, I’m just not sure that’ll be the case. Maybe this is just the result of my prejudices. I don’t care for Benedict Cumberbatch, or the legitimate issues raised over the film’s whitewashing. More so, it’s just how little the film seems to reflect the elements of the comics I most enjoy. 

Like I said, I hope I’m wrong. I want to be impressed with this movie, and I want to love it. I like Dr. Strange, and he absolutely deserves a good adaptation. I’m just not convinced that’s what we’re getting come November. I’m not sure Marvel’s convinced of that either. 

Doctor Strange is scheduled for release on November 4, 2016

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  1. I think the marketing blitz will be closer to the release date, as that's been more effective. It won't make GOTG money but it will probably make at least around what Antman did.

    This originally was slated for an early September release but was pushed back to accommodate Cumberbatch (he was in a play and couldn't film in time).

  2. Dr Strange is the first Marvel Studios film to be made without the influence of the comics side of the company.