‘Doctor Strange’ and the Role of Magic in the Marvel Universe

Benedict Cumberbatch in Doctor Strange
Benedict Cumberbatch in Doctor Strange | Marvel Studios

Iron Man may have laid the foundation for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) with its fairly straightforward tale of a genius billionaire playboy philanthropist who decides to armor up and take on the criminals who once armed themselves with weapons made by his own company. However, since then the MCU has gotten increasingly more complex.

Phase One of the films introduced a scientist with a tendency to “Hulk out,” a demigod from another world, and an enhanced World War II soldier suspended in time, who all team up and go all-out for a straight-up alien invasion of New York City. In fact, each “phase” of the MCU’s big-picture template appears to be built on expanding the scope of what’s possible.

Phase Two, for instance, brought in space adventure (Guardians of the Galaxy), mind-controlled assassins (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), and sentient robots (Avengers: Age of Ultron) in an effort for the big-screen incarnation of the comic books to better resemble the anything-goes aesthetic of the source material. However, the MCU is now poised to take on its most ambitious story element yet with the introduction of magic into the fold. That’s right, folks. We’re talking about the Sorcerer Supreme himself, the titular star of Doctor Strange.

Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One in Doctor Strange - Marvel
Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange | Marvel

To date, the closest the MCU has gotten to dealing with magic and mysticism is the highly advanced otherworldly land of Asgard. However, rather than depicting Thor’s homeland as that of the gods, the MCU opted to ground it in the concept that the Asgardians visited Earth centuries ago and were mistaken for gods. In reality, they simply exist in another realm, more akin to aliens than gods in that respect.

With Doctor Strange, there is no such rationalization at play. Stephen Strange and his allies (and enemies, for that matter) are tapping into something truly unexplainable, the likes of which Strange must open his mind to even truly comprehend himself.

Benedict Cumberbatch in Doctor Strange
Benedict Cumberbatch in Doctor Strange | Marvel Studios

Even 14 films in, this may be the greatest creative risk the MCU has taken thus far, and that very reason is likely why Doctor Strange hasn’t been added to the roster until now. For the most part, the previous films have been rooted almost exclusively in science fiction, with roughly half the films dealing with more grounded scientific developments — radiation, super-soldier serum, and technologically advanced suits — and the other half simply leaning on a cosmic setting to explain away the bizarre creatures and out-there narratives. Of course, the latter was really opened up in Thor and expanded on in films like Guardians of the Galaxy and the upcoming Captain Marvel. But Doctor Strange straight-up enters the realm of fantasy for the very first time.

Rather than jump headlong into the mind-bending world of Doctor Strange, the MCU has eased into it. Now that Benedict Cumberbatch’s character is being heralded as the heir apparent to lead the franchise after Tony Stark transitions into a more limited role, perhaps the time is right for the films to take some chances in that regard. After all, tech and cosmic-based stories are bound to lose their novelty after a while, and bringing new fabrics of reality into the fray is a smart way to diversity the storytelling of the MCU. It will keep the universe from feeling stale for audiences, some of whom have already gotten wise to the more formulaic aspects of the MCU template.

Doctor Strange | Marvel

Moreover, the battle against Thanos in the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War, could use a man with Doctor Strange’s unique abilities. That film and the untitled fourth Avengers film will mark the end of an era for the MCU, one which has been teased since Thanos first showed his face in the mid-credits scene of The Avengers in 2012.

In that respect, it makes sense that Marvel would make a concerted effort to incorporate as many facets of its interconnected universe as possible before the era ends, bringing the MCU into a fully-formed state as it enters Phase Four and beyond.

Doctor Strange and what appears to be the Time Stone
Doctor Strange and what appears to be the Time Stone | Marvel

If the overwhelmingly positive reviews for Doctor Strange are any indication, Marvel Studios has again made a wise move in bringing Doctor Strange to life at this point in the franchise’s lifespan. We can only imagine how much fun it will be to see such an increasingly diverse group of characters interact in films to come. If there’s one thing you can expect from the MCU, it’s the unexpected and, sometimes, the magical.

Follow Robert Yaniz Jr. on Twitter @CrookedTable

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