It takes a village of superheroes (and their previous storylines) to make a Marvel movie

marvel movies

Benedict Cumberbatch in “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.”

Well, give “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” points for honesty, at least. It is definitely strange, and there is madness in it.

And the method to that madness has already made the people behind it very rich.

Because these days, you can’t just be a casual Marvel fan. You have to be a true believer. You have to be committed. You have to see everything.

The film is, like most Marvel films, fun, at least for short stretches. Benedict Cumberbatch clearly enjoys swirling his cloak around as our mystical medico, and Elizabeth Olsen gives an actual, lived-in performance as Scarlet Witch. Director Sam Raimi adds more individuality than these corporate products usually get. And while the story has its problems — is this censorious era really the time to applaud the destruction of a dangerous book? — the giant one-eyed octopus monster is pretty cool.

But unless you’re a diehard fan, watching these movies is beginning to feel like taking an AP test. I actually studied before I went to this one, and I’m still not sure I passed.

It’s weird because once upon a time, superhero films were the definition of popcorn movies, mostly mindless — but hardly worthless — entertainments that took you out of yourself for two hours. Think about the first ones you saw: DC ones like the Christopher Reeve “Superman” or the Michael Keaton “Batman.” They had the flash and fun of the original comic books, but while they could get dark — remember the protests that “Batman Returns” was too scary for little kids? — they weren’t hard to enjoy.

Then Marvel got involved.

Their movies — and by “their” I mean the ones made under the company’s careful supervision, not early, disastrous one-offs like “Daredevil” — got simultaneously simpler and more complicated.

“Simpler” because they began to follow an obvious template. Each major character would get their own origin story and then a sequel, in which new supporting characters were introduced. The superheroes would squabble, or even battle, before realizing that there was a bigger threat around the corner — some impossibly powerful villain who wanted to destroy the world. Our heroes would band together and — after a lot of collateral damage — avert the apocalypse.

“More complicated” because, even as the movies stayed the same, the company used them to construct a connected “cinematic universe.” Characters would show up who didn’t seem to have any bearing on the current plot at all (because they didn’t — they were there to set up something that would happen several movies later). Extra scenes slipped into the credits would tease to other characters, suggesting other developments that might or — like “Guardians of the Galaxy” re-introducing Howard the Duck — might not pay off

Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange with Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man and Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/The Hulk in “Avengers: Endgame.”

But what these movies seem designed to do now is simply move multiple product.

Think you can really enjoy “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” without being up-to-date on all things Marvel? Think again. Do a quick internet search and you’ll find plenty of serious “Strange” primers with titles like “What to Know Before You Go.” At minimum, it seems, you should have already seen not only the first “Doctor Strange” and “Avengers: Endgame,” but also “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and the streaming series “WandaVision.” Oh, and a familiarity with “What If …?” and “Loki” wouldn’t hurt.

Obviously, hardcore fans, whose appetite for these characters seems insatiable, don’t mind meeting these prerequisites — they’re probably consuming all this stuff already.

Besides, this kind of continuous storytelling — with “multiverses,” parallel times and different versions of the same character — mirror the original comic books. It’s a beautiful business model as far as Marvel is concerned — unless you want to feel left out, you’re going to have to keep watching just about everything they shove at you.

But I don’t have the time. And the more films and shows and cartoons they put out, the less interest I seem to have.

My feelings about Marvel have always been mixed — I’ve enjoyed the origin stories, less so the over-stuffed sequels. “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” reminded me why. Although it was good to have Raimi directing (and adding his own touches such as hallucinogenic images, body horror gross-outs and a slapstick Bruce Campbell cameo) the film still felt overly calculated, more graphed than written. (Hey, let’s throw in a useless scene with the Illuminati here, just to keep the fans happy!)

Some critics have generously compared the modern Marvel films to the old Saturday-matinee serials, the sort of cliffhanger adventures that helped inspire “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” The difference, though, is that you waited a week between serial chapters, not a couple of years. Also, if you missed the second film in the Indiana Jones series, you didn’t have any problem picking up things when you saw the third. You could watch one, or two, without obligating yourself to see everything.

Actually, in the beginning, blockbuster franchises like Indiana Jones — or going back further, the James Bond series — weren’t serials but stand-alone films that kept wiping the slate clean. Even when there was a recurring character, it would often be a different actor, and there would be little reference to anything that had happened in the previous movie. The villain in the first Indy film wasn’t in the second; however much Bond liked Pussy Galore in “Goldfinger,” no one was surprised when she didn’t return for “Thunderball.”

Marvel changed that — for everybody.

Daniel Craig in “No Time to Die.”

Now, big action franchises like James Bond — and “The Fast and the Furious,” and “Mission: Impossible” — are crammed with continuing characters and story arcs that may take several films, or even the entire series, to pay off. Once upon a time, a casual 007 fan could wander into, say, “GoldenEye,” and be immediately up-to-speed. Coming to last year’s “No Time to Die” without having seen the previous Daniel Craig outings would only have left them puzzled about the plot (wait, who is Mr. White?) and without any emotional attachment to the film’s love story.

Obviously, fans love the Marvel approach; few films are more profitable and other studios are slavishly copying it. (Remember Universal’s sad attempt to start a “Dark Universe” for their monsters?) But what is this going to mean to moviegoers 10 or 15 years from now? Are these linked movies going to exist as separate works of art, the way that, say, you can enjoy “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” without seeing Treks III or V? Or will “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” be useless unless you’ve watched “Captain America” first?

Certainly, from a monetary standpoint, this kind of storytelling works, encouraging people to see everything they can or risk feeling left out (you want to be the guy who cheered during the “Multiverse” screening when Black Bolt showed up, not the one who mumbled, “Who’s this jerk?”). And the truly committed fan base — the diehards who live on Wiki pages, cosplay at conventions and argue about things like the weight of Thor’s hammer — clearly have no complaints. Marvel has figured out how to make real money off them.

How to make simple, straightforward movies, though — that’s something else. And, not surprisingly, for Marvel, far less important.


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