Doctor Strange: Expanding the Bounds of the MCU

Doctor Strange had an opening weekend that keeps the hot streak of the Marvel Cinematic Universe going.

It’s an entertaining addition to Marvel’s filmed world. Benedict Cumberbatch is a strong presence in the title role. And even if some grumblings about the movie’s adherence to the “Marvel formula” aren’t entirely off-base, it’s well executed, stylish and involving.

More important is what Doctor Strange represents for the MCU. Up to this point, Marvel has kept its movie world firmly rooted in concepts of “science” (i.e. science as seen through a comic book lens). So radiation turns scientists into big green brutes, rich industrialists can make high tech battle armor and ancient alien civilizations are out in the universe doing their own thing. Even Thor’s corner of the MCU was recast from the traditional mystical/mythological, instead viewing the Norse gods as an advanced alien race. The MCU stories had firmly kept one foot in “science.” Magic was not on the table.

Doctor Strange changes all of that. This movie opens up the MCU in some crucial ways. The films are freed from having to run everything through the comic book “science” mill. Magic exists in the MCU and is an acceptable explanation for various powers and phenomena. Elements of the MCU previously cast as definitively “science” might not be anymore (a couple of explicit references to the past MCU movies puts that possibility into play).

It also opens the MCU up to wild new dimensions. Picking up the introduction of the Microverse in last year’s Ant-Man movie, Doctor Strange explores dimensions outside the regular world. Whether that’s a mystical realm seeking to swallow up the Earth or the astral plane, where a spirit can detach itself from its body and go walkabout, it expands what’s possible in the MCU.

That’s a crucial change for the franchise. It’s already popping up in the TV part of Marvel’s filmed world. This season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has introduced both Ghost Rider and the Darkhold, the comic book world’s definitive book of bad magic. Hints at mysticism popped up in both seasons of Daredevil, but especially in its second season, with the introduction of mystical ninja cult The Hand. And next spring’s Iron Fist will explore another mystical realm and a hero whose powers have a mystical link. These bring different flavors to both the movie and TV wings of the MCU.

Doctor Strange drove that “magic is real” point home with some visuals that were a distinct departure for Marvel. Some wild action sequences incorporated influences like M.C. Escher, Salvador Dali and a colorful acid trip to drop viewers into this bizarre new world. The cinematic kaleidoscope very much honored the work of Steve Ditko, the legendary comic book artist who co-created Stephen Strange and established the fantastic visual iconography for his world.

Doctor Strange brings new shades to the MCU. Even as it tells a standalone origin story, it makes connections to the broader shared universe and continues to diversify the MCU’s genre profile. It’s an intriguing push into a new direction that generates a lot of possibilities for Marvel going forward.

Author (Grievous Angels) and pop culture gadabout #amwriting

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