Multiverse of Blandness: What's the purpose of a Cinematic Universe when studios are so unwillin

Scott Derrickson is no doubt best known for his work on Doctor Strange, but before he came to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, he was perhaps better known for his work in the horror genre. Derrickson’s appointment at Marvel, to oversee the production of the Sorcerer Supreme’s first cinematic outing for the studio, intrigued me way back when it was first announced. His previous work, including Hellraiser: Inferno and Sinister, suggested something a little edgier than what we had come to expect from Kevin Feige’s universe to that point.

Unfortunately, while the first Doctor Strange has some interesting visual flourishes in the form of Inception-style city bending, and one of the more creative endings of any movie to fall under the Marvel banner, the 2016 Benedict Cumberbatch starring release wound ultimately being little more than a reworking of the Iron Man origin story, only without the charismatic charm of Robert Downy Jr. to carry it. And the way it underused Rachel McAdam’s is almost unforgivable.

That’s not to say there are moments of Doctor Strange that I like. Mads Mikkelson nails the blend of pantomime and threatening the villain requires, and there are plenty of cool set-pieces, but overall it was a pretty disappointing release, and left me wondering why the studio bothered hiring someone as left-field as Derrickson in the first place.

After all, while Hellraiser: Inferno may not hold a candle to the Clive Barker originals, it’s certainly got something interesting about it. That the movie was never intended to be a Hellraiser film to begin with is obvious, and the film is far more interesting when it isn’t trying to shoehorn in the Cenobites or the Lament Configuration. Meanwhile, Sinister is a solid, if not somewhat derivative, little genre movie with some really creepy, uncomfortable moments.

There’s little doubt, then, that Derrickson is obviously more than capable of delivering on the promise of horror. They may not be the most inventive, unique or groundbreaking of movies, but a Scott Derrickson horror is, at the least, going to be a well-made and functional movie that’ll hold your attention and keep you entertained.

That’s why I was, dare I say, excited when he was announced as director for Doctor Strange. Of all the Marvel characters to have made their way to the big screen to that point, Doctor Strange was the one that seemed to have the most to offer us horror fans. Finally, it seemed, Marvel were going to start delivering on their promise of exploring different genres within the MCU. Sure, you can argue Winter Soldier is a conspiracy thriller and Thor an epic fantasy, but the truth is they only really offer up those things in theory. The films themselves are ultimately all pretty similar, and play it very, very safe.

Doctor Strange was announced shortly after the release of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, which itself seemed to suggest that Feige and Marvel were keen to explore different styles.

After Doctor Strange’s release, and the inevitable disappointment that is hadn’t delivered on the potential, I probably should have given up hope. I didn’t, however, and when Marvel announced that Doctor Strange 2 would not only shift further toward the horror genre Derrickson’s involvement had suggested from the beginning, but that it would be titled Multiverse of Madness, suggesting a link to John Carpenter’s excellent and under-seen Lovecraftian horror In the Mouth of Madness, I once again found myself tantalised by the prospect.

Derrickson’s recent departure from the production, citing those dreaded creative differences as his reason, wouldn’t be enough on its own to worry me that the direction the film is headed is once again go to under-deliver on the promises made. Sadly, thought, Marvel’s insistence that the film will still begin shooting in May of this year, is enough.

How any director can join a production of the scale of Marvel’s so late in the day and actually bring their own unique style with them is a mystery. The truth is that a Marvel production is, ultimately, a Feige production, and so long as that’s the case then we’re not ever going to get a truly different, truly original take on the material.

The sad part about all of this is that the potential for a Cinematic Universe like the MCU to explore these different avenues is huge, but so long as the major studios are pumping absurdly large amounts of money in these projects, and chasing that billion dollar mark, we’re doomed to only ever get watered down, broad versions of far more interesting prospects.

Star Wars has suffered a similar, albeit far more damaging, fate. The standalone anthology films that Disney promised us after their purchase of Lucasfilm and the Star Wars brand sounded like a fantastic idea at the time. The idea that we could see Star Wars movies that sat comfortably within different genres was pretty much the only thing that kept me interested in the series’ modern interpretation.

Of course, we all know how that one wound up, don’t we? And, as it currently stands, we’re not likely to be seeing another anthology movie anytime soon. Bye-bye Star Wars horror, bye-bye Star Wars noir.

Even the X-Men franchise, which is arguably the only “Cinematic Universe” to have really delivered something different in the form of Deadpool and Logan, seems to struggle to genuinely explore this potential. The New Mutants’ behind the scenes woes have been well documented, and while we might finally be getting to see it this year, there’s little doubt in my mind that the troubles the production has faced have been, at least in part, down to the fact that it’s something different.

I’m not sure I understand the purpose of these Cinematic Universes anymore. If it isn’t to bring different ideas and different styles together, exploring things in new and interesting ways without being beholden to the consistency one expects from a trilogy or a series, then what is it?

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© Alex Secker 2018