Doctor Strange has certainly been promoted as being a departure from Marvel's usual fare but I was surprised how much it actually stands on its own within the Marvel cinematic universe.
[There won't be any Doctor Strange spoilers until the very end of this article, in which case they will be clearly marked.]
After watching Doctor Strange my first thought was, “Wow, that was different,” but my next thought was how well it could stand on its own. While we assume most going to see this film are big fans who've seen every Marvel film to date, there's certainly a portion of people for whom this will be their first foray into the MCU. And whether that's because it doesn't look like your run-of-the-mill superhero film and that's what appeals to them or just happenstance, they're getting lucky with this one.
Marvel's cinematic universe to date has been fairly interconnected and self-referential. That's mostly thanks to tertiary characters like Nick Fury, Agent Phil Coulson, Agent Maria Hill, Agent Carter, and Erik Selvig. You can probably also count Tom Hiddleston's Loki in there as well thanks to his starring villain role in The Avengers. And obviously characters getting multiple films also helps with viewer familiarity and a shared universe feeling. There's really no such thing in Doctor Strange.
Much like Robert Downey Jr.'s first turn as Iron Man in 2008, Benedict Cumberbatch holds the responsibility of introducing viewers to something they haven't really seen before. The mysticism and magic could be a hurdle but the look of this film will definitely captivate audiences. Peter Sciretta at /Film spoke to Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige about his interest in pursuing a Doctor Strange film particularly because he's “so different.”
Because he is an entry point into a whole other, the way Thor was to a cosmic side and certainly Guardians. Strange is to a whole other segment of the comics which are very important and lead to all sorts of other storylines. So it was always there. It really wasn”t until though we sat down to start charting out Phase Three that we said, okay, we know he”s cool. We knew we want it to be trippy, but what does that actually mean and what could the story mean? You know, that was within the last four or five years.
Iron Man and Captain America were easy to digest characters and stories, Thor had cosmic grandeur, Guardians had comedy. Suffice to say, if you're not won over on the mysticism, magic, and visuals of Doctor Strange, it might not be your favorite MCU film but it is approachable and that's because it's mostly unconnected to their film universe at large.
In another article from /Film today, Feige updated them on the status of the Inhumans film which you may remember was taken off their release schedule after first being pushed back. He told them, “I think Inhumans will happen for sure. I don”t know when. I think it”s happening on television. And I think as we get into Phase 4 as I”ve always said, it could happen as a movie. I think it would be super cool.”
Phase 3 ends after Captain Marvel and the fourth Avengers film (which is currently untitled) is released and while Marvel is always ten steps ahead, it sounds as it Feige isn't seriously considering the Inhumans anymore. Now more than ever I understand Agents of SHIELD's Chloe Bennet and her frustration with the MCU. She said earlier this year, “The Marvel Cinematic Universe loves to pretend that everything is connected, but then they don”t acknowledge our show at all.”
But Feige sounding like he has no idea what's happening on SHIELD isn't all that surprising and certainly isn't personal to those working on the TV series. In the later half of 2015 Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter moved away from Marvel Studios films (thankfully) leaving Feige reporting to chief of Disney Studios, Alan Horn. Perlmutter still has main control over their television projects (with Jeph Loeb serving as their main head) but all of that movement came about because Feige and Perlmutter were butting heads on development.
I think we hit peak interconnectedness in the MCU during the Captain America: Winter Soldier Hydra reveal. They managed to make what was a major film plot also a major part of Agents of SHIELD and to be honest, it was probably when I was enjoying that show the most. But since then the connections have mostly disappeared, which is maybe for the best.
A few months ago I spoke about Warner Bros.' Booster Gold movie, a project I sorely wanted but wasn't sure would fit in the current DC movie universe. I think it would be even more difficult to fit in the DCTV universe into what they've got going on, no matter how cool it might be to see some of the CW actors show up in some grand multiverse story. And I think the same can be said for the Marvel shows, whether that's SHIELD or the Netflix series.
Interconnectedness is bound to be a positive thing for some fans and negative for others. The same goes for comics themselves. I find myself emjoying both standalone stories and big events that pull multiple heroes together but right now the MCU has a lot of characters and they're growing year by year. It's why I'm glad Doctor Strange stands on its own.
Have you seen Doctor Strange? What did you think of its place in the MCU?
[Stop reading here if you want to stay away from Doctor Strange spoilers.]
All of this said, while Doctor Strange is a very different superhero film, it still feels very much like a Marvel product and does make a few references to their other films. So how does it connect exactly? An establishing shot of Avengers Tower in New York, the very briefest mention of “The Avengers” as an existing group (and just as briefly explained by Wong in-story), a small nod to Rhodey (aka War Machine) and his Captain America: Civil War injury, [EDIT: Director Scott Derrickson clarified in a reddit AMA that this was not a Rhodey nod.] mention of Infinity Stones (which the audience isn't left to ponder on too much), and a mid-credits sequence featuring Thor. That's pretty much it. The Thor part would be the only confusing bit for those who haven't seen the other Marvel films, unless you count trying to explain things like the multiverse or the Dark Dimension to a non-nerd viewer. But I'm sure someone else is already working on an explainer article for that.