Now that the Infinity Saga has ended, the Marvel Cinematic Universe needs to redefine itself. The lineup of the Avengers is irrevocably changed and there needs to be a new through-line and set of characters to build around now that Iron Man and Captain America are out of the picture. Phase Four needs a new identity moving forward, and it seems that Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is the film Marvel Studios is hoping to do that with.
But is putting all that pressure on the Doctor Strange sequel the right way to go? Sure, Strange’s story opens up all sorts of new worlds to explore — often literally. The Infinity War went cosmic, so leaning harder into magic and the multiverse next does make a certain amount of sense. With Doctor Strange being one of the weaker Phase Three movies, though, putting all of those expectations on the next one is probably a little too much.
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Doctor Strange isn’t exactly a breakout character that everyone wants to see more of in the MCU. He’s played by fan-favorite Benedict Cumberbatch but that’s the biggest thing Doctor Strange has going for it. His movie wasn’t hated, but it’s not as well-received as others in Phase Three of the MCU. The $677.7 million worldwide gross is nothing to sneeze at, but compare that to Captain Marvel ($1.128 billion) and Black Panther ($1.347 billion). Even Spider-Man: Homecoming ($880 million) did significantly better. If you’re looking at critical reception, Rotten Tomatoes puts Doctor Strange at a solid 89 percent, but both Spider-Man movies and Black Panther are well ahead of it, suggesting those are the characters to build Phase Four around (though the Sony deal severely complicates using Spider-Man).
Complicating matters further is Marvel’s attempt to do transmedia storytelling again. WandaVision is set to be almost a direct prequel to Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, putting even more weight on the movie. Now it’s supposed to carry the new Disney+ strategy on its back as well? Elizabeth Olsen has a co-starring role in the movie as well, so it would seem the link between the movie and the show is going to be pretty tight. That’s a difficult trick to pull off in the best situation, and Marvel doesn’t have the best situation right now.
The biggest unknown right now is the departure of director Scott Derrickson. While the split between him and Marvel Studios seems to have been amicable — with him staying on as producer — you can’t just slot in a new director and hope things go smoothly moving forward. Marvel Studios is a well-oiled machine at this point, but a change in director is still a huge deal. This is the same thing that happened with Thor: The Dark World, and while the problems with that movie may not be entirely the fault of changing from Patty Jenkins to Alan Taylor late in pre-production, it certainly didn’t help. While the movie may turn out fine, changing directors like this doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence.
Putting this amount of weight on one movie is (forgive the pun) strange because that’s not how the studio handled the previous phases of the MCU. Phase One was mostly carried by Iron Man, after the first movie was a massive hit, with the others there mostly to introduce the new characters. In Phase Two, the pressure of introducing the Infinity Stones was spread across Thor: The Dark World, Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers: Age of Ultron, while Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Iron Man 3 set up other elements of the story, included some rough, basically off-screen connections to the then-new Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
When Avengers: Age of Ultron faltered a bit, that was OK: Marvel Studios didn’t have all its eggs in that basket and just picked right back up in Phase Three. Many of the movies were big gambles but they were spread out a lot more. There were movies introducing new characters (Doctor Strange, Spider-Man: Far From Home, Black Panther and Captain Marvel); others that moved the big story forward (Captain America: Civil War, Thor: Ragnarok, Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame) and still others just having fun in their own corner of the universe (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and Ant-Man and the Wasp).
Phase 4 is spreading things around and not entirely leaning on Doctor Strange, but it seems like the studio is still trying to get it to do too much. Compared to the Phase Three movies, a Doctor Strange sequel should feel a little more like Guardians or Ant-Man, setting things up and playing around in magic world; not the movie to build the next phase on.
The hard part is, there’s no easy answer for what to do next. While Marvel Studios is a powerful brand with a lot of goodwill and Disney’s money behind it, it still needs to be careful and strategic to keep making good movies moving forward. While this could all work out perfectly (remember when everyone doubted the studio for announcing Guardians of the Galaxy?), putting too much pressure on a single movie isn’t wise, especially when Doctor Strange isn’t many MCU fans’ favorite character.
Obviously, we hope that it all works out, but maybe Marvel could do with putting the future of the entire MCU on the shoulders of a different movie franchise with a stronger track record.
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