Doctor Not-So-Strange: The shallowness of the MCU
Have the Marvel movies stopped being worth our time, and what does deserve our attention?
As my wife and I emerged from a cinema into the stupefying brightness of a sunny afternoon, having just seen the latest offering from Marvel, Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness (hereafter referred to as Doctor Strange 2), we looked at each other for an empty moment. “That was fun,” she finally said. I agreed. “That was stupid and it was fun.” And then we went on with our lives.
There is something very wrong with this picture.
The fact that I’d spent two hours watching a movie whose best quality was that it amused me enough not to notice the passage of time, and the fact that I couldn’t be bothered to form a single real opinion on it were cause for concern. I didn’t care enough about what I was watching to think about it once it was over, and hadn’t cared enough while watching it to analyse the movie beyond following the plot. Stunned by the realisation, I asked myself what had happened? How had I slipped into the lazy, unsatisfying consumption of yet another Marvel movie?
Christopher Hitchens once advised to “try your hardest to combat atrophy and routine”. Life is infinitely richer and more rewarding when it is confronted and lived in the active sense, rather than passively acquiescing to it or, worse, giving in to the anaesthetic of consumerism. (The numbing effect of this is always to the benefit of those supplying the product and rarely, if ever, beneficial to the consumer.) Hitchens’ own daily prescription against the degradation of apathy was to check that the New York Times still ran its “smug, pompous, idiotic” motto (“All the News That’s Fit to Print”). If it was there, and he found himself irritated by it, he wrote that “then at least I know that I still have a pulse”.
Useful advice, though my own prescription against the same passivity works from another direction: rather than ensuring I can still get mad about the stupidity of others, I seek to engage beyond the surface of all that I do, however apparently fatuous or designed merely to entertain. I’ve written before about the attention to craft that enriches silly films like John Wick or Baby Driver, and about how we can learn through the mistakes of poorly executed films and novels, and I’ve agreed wholeheartedly with Roger Ebert when he wrote that “there is a little immaturity stuck away in the crannies of even the most judicious of us, and we should treasure it”.
Ebert’s words came to mind when I read the filmmaker Patrick Willems (who has a knack for encapsulating whole responses to movies in usefully concise phrases) describing Doctor Strange 2 as “delightful nonsense”. This is a great description of a bunch of movies I value, and which don’t leave me feeling hollowed out by their silliness, and about which I care enough to understand at a critical level why I enjoy them in spite of their flaws. The last handful of MCU movies, however, have not fallen into this camp. It’s a question of quantity, of sheer suffocating, crushing, deadening volume. It’s Doctor Strange and the Monoverse of Sameness.
That quantity – the twenty-eight movies, the dozen or so more in development, the half-dozen “shorts”, the seven Marvel series and the seven more coming our way, the non-MCU series that might now be folded into the canon, the online commentaries, the articles and reviews, the YouTube video-essays and YouTube breakdowns detailing every single Easter egg frame-by-frame in all of the content – is smothering the pop-cultural landscape. Instead of piling up, it spreads out; instead of offering deeper thematic and character exploration, it offers more breadth of the same thin subject matter it’s always offered.
In The Gutenberg Elegies, Sven Birkerts writes of the dangers of quantity over quality, and his ideas can be extrapolated to the corporate churn known as Marvel Studios, incessantly turning over its product to produce an endless stream of the same dressed up as something different. When Birkerts writes that “the more complex and sophisticated our systems of lateral access, the more we sacrifice in the way of depth”, his words take on fresh life in the light of Marvel’s obsessive sharing of characters and plotlines across its movies. The tragedy of this approach is that in spreading one’s attention thinly across the ever-expanding surface of the MCU, the viewer is never granted any depth.
There are few moments of real, profound humanity in which themes are treated with any kind of complexity. A few ripostes are sometimes offered by fans who want to defend the MCU: What about Tony Stark discovering the truth about his parents’ death? A man is sad that his mum died and his friend knew who killed her – hardly a revelation. Well, how about Winter Soldier and the politics of government overreach? Baddies using authoritarian military-tech bad; super-soldier punching them in the face good. There are very few real-world complexities explored here. To borrow again from one of the wonderful phrases in Sven Birkerts’ book, watching a Marvel movie is two hours spent paddling “in the shallows of what it means to be human”.
What most people are excited for when they watch a new Marvel movie isn’t delving deeper into the politics of totalitarianism or spending time with the subtle suffering of the human soul. It’s whether the space-pirate Thor will turn up in this movie, or will a particular storyline from the comics be adapted, or will we finally get an answer to whatever minute, esoteric question of canon has been teased throughout the last six movies? And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, to a degree. That degree will be determined by each viewer’s own mileage and patience in travelling any further down this never-ending road. I ran out of gas a few movies ago and have been coasting on dying momentum. With Doctor Strange 2, the car finally stalled.
As I forced myself to consider the movie further (bored as I was just thinking of the additional weight of commentary that accompanies each of these MCU movies), I realised that Patrick Willems’ pithy “delightful nonsense” phrase was an adjective wrong. Doctor Strange 2 and its ilk had ceased to be, for me, delightful and were instead merely diverting. For two hours of my life, the movie diverted me from the real world, from real life, from real emotions and thought. I was distracted, and distraction is never a pause – you can’t put living on hold while you mentally check out for a while. Distraction is instead squandering the only life we can be sure of having.
In case it isn’t clear, and to pre-empt any wrongheaded objections to my criticism, I really enjoyed Doctor Strange 2 – and that is precisely what’s so insidious about it. Many more people would object and much more vociferously to the homogenisation of our cinematic landscape if the stuff being churned out wasn’t so pleasurable in that easy, junk-food kind of way. And this isn’t a question of elitism, or a pitched battle between arthouse cinema and popcorn movies, because these incestuous products of various franchises threaten something that nobody wants to see die: the blockbuster movie. Movies like Jaws, Jurassic Park, Titanic, Sam Raimi’s first two Spider-Man movies, The Edge of Tomorrow, or the Mission Impossible series (a strange franchise holding out against the cheapening of the blockbuster category). In this battle for our attention, the big blockbuster movies and the smaller indie films are on the same side against a cinematic culture that has grown stale.
I’m not saying I won’t ever watch a Marvel movie again. I have fond attachments to some of the Infinity Saga, and I’ve enjoyed comparing notes on some of the more interesting products of the MCU, such as WandaVision, with friends who still care about the franchise. But my enjoyment has no room to breathe, and so watching far less of this stuff might allow me to enjoy it more. And I have to fight against my own very human impulse to check my brain out and go for the pretty colours and sounds over the rewarding yet demanding work of more interesting filmmakers. Finally, if I care about increasing the acreage in our cultural landscape for really worthwhile cinema to flourish, I can at the very least, in my own life, start seeding that ground with the films I want to see more of, while weeding out some of the stuff that takes up space.
• Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, dir. Sam Raimi; written by Michael Waldron (2022)
• The Gutenberg Elegies, Sven Birkerts (1994)
• Letters to a Young Contrarian, Christopher Hitchens (2001)