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CAUTION: This article contains major spoilers for Doctor Strange.
There’s a recurring set of complaints about the “samey-ness” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The argument comes in several forms. One common strain posits that every Marvel movie simply follows a predetermined formula, involving some McGuffin (lately, an infinity stone), an undercooked villain, and an inevitable third act action sequence that sets everything right. Another contends that the MCU films lack distinct authorial voices and break down to a house-mandated style. And one recurring grouse, even among fans, focuses on the way Marvel Studios films are shot and lit and even color-corrected.
There’s a grain of truth to each of these critiques, but as I discussed with Robbie Dorman on the Serial Fanatacist Podcast, I find them all largely unavailing. For one thing, even the studio’s first set of films, released prior to the game-changing Avengers team up (Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger) have vastly different vibes and tell markedly different types of stories. From a Shakespearean-influenced high fantasy romp, to a 1940s throwback adventure, to a military-heavy fugitive narrative, to a more traditional hero’s origin story, the Marvel movies have come in different flavors from the very beginning.
What’s more, while there are common themes of redemption and certain recurring motifs common to many superhero films in the MCU, there’s also a focus on character that has served to distinguish Marvel’s films from one another independently of the antagonists or plot obstacles in a given film. As others have pointed out, Marvel Studios has found great success by focusing on the development of its heroes (and those close to them) making their personal journeys the driving force behind these films, rather than the newest set of villains or big plot development that have driven other franchises. And, over the course of fourteen movies, plenty of entries in the MCU series of films have subverted the tropes that the series’s critics accuse it of slavishly adhering to.
Doctor Strange acts as both a confirmation and a rebuke to these arguments. It features some of the MCU’s most dazzling visuals and breaks with some of the franchise’s biggest conventions. And yet, at the same time, it feels like a recapitulation of many of the same types of stories and beats that other Marvel Studios films have employed in the past.
Before Anthony and Joe Russo were directing superhero movies, they worked on a little show called Community about a group of misfits at a community college. The series, oddly enough, had a surprising amount in common with The Avengers. Both were about seven people from different backgrounds who bounced off one another in interesting ways, carried their own unique psychological baggage, and who would still, now and then, come together and do amazing things.
One of the most remarkable things about Community was its mastery of tone. The series was pitched as a comedy, and true to that billing, it was a funny, creative, and occasionally off-the-wall show. And yet it could just as easily shift into something quiet and personal, something unremittingly dark, or even something difficult and complex that lacked the sorts of easy answers seemingly required of all network sitcoms. The Russo brothers brought the same incredible ability to mesh different tones and characters to Captain America: Civil War and translated it onto a much bigger stage without missing a beat.
Because Civil War is hilarious, action-packed, and all kinds of fun. It’s has tons of inventive sequences and fights big and small that are filled with humor and imagination. But at the same time, Civil War is, in its own way, a very dark film about fear, regret, anger, a deep divide and a personal loss. It touches on big ideas like moral responsibility, individual guilt for broader actions, and the dangers of power without boundaries. The film, however, grounds these ideas in its well-developed characters, intimate individual moments, and personal relationships. It’s a smorgasbord of different scenes and settings and moods that can make you laugh, gasp, and feel the tragedy of a given moment, without letting these varying tones clash. And that is one hell of an achievement.